Invincible No More : Nigel Clay Planned to Be in the NFL, but Now He Is Playing for a Correctional Center
Sometimes Nigel Clay sees himself as he used to be, as a football player.
He sees himself as he was at Fontana High, where he was an all-Southern Section offensive lineman and one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation.
He sees himself as he was at the University of Oklahoma, where he was treated like royalty.
He sees himself in those terms, and he feels the stirring of an old dream.
“I had a goal when I was in high school to make $1 million playing football somewhere,” he said. “I’m going to play football somewhere.”
Then he veers back to reality--the rolling pasture land and drab institutional buildings of the John Lilley Correctional Center, where he is inmate No. 184913.
Reality offers slightly less earning power.
In November of 1989, Clay and an Oklahoma teammate, Bernard Hall, were convicted of raping a 20-year-old Oklahoma City woman in the Sooner athletic dormitory, Bud Wilkinson House. Both players received 10-year prison sentences.
A third Oklahoma player charged in the case, Glen Bell, was acquitted.
One of several criminal matters involving Sooner players that came to light in early 1989, the gang rape accusation helped shape the image of Oklahoma as a college football program that spun out of control and added to the pressure that forced the resignation of Sooner Coach Barry Switzer.
That Clay, who had just completed his sophomore season as a reserve offensive tackle, was involved in the incident caused shock and bewilderment for many who followed his career.
Switzer said Clay “never caused a problem in any way” in his three years at Oklahoma.
Others, however, were not stunned. To them, what happened in Suite 302 of the Bud Wilkinson House was just another crime born from the feeling of invincibility that comes with being part of a big-time college athletic program--the feeling that somehow, someway, things will be taken care of.
“To see the faces (of Clay and Hall) at the time the verdict was announced would prove it to you,” said Teresa Bingman, an assistant district attorney in Cleveland County and one of the prosecutors who tried the case. “They were put above the normal campus population. That would lead most 19-year-olds to feel omnipotent.”
As one who has seen his Sooner days go full circle, Clay can find a ring of truth in that sentiment.
“I don’t know how to say it, but, bottom line, I just felt that sometimes, walking around . . . Well, speaking for myself and a lot of other people, we felt like we were above the law,” he said, “like OU would protect us from anything.”
The feeling, Clay said, was one of being almost bulletproof, and it was a product of years of special treatment, starting with the hustle of recruiting.
“I was pretty much used to (the notion of) ‘If you want something, you need to work for it,’ ” he said. “Then I got into recruiting, and I got spoiled. Everything was handed to you on a silver platter.”
One benefactor in particular stands out in his mind--a Los Angeles real estate broker and investor named Jay Thomas whose school loyalty is apparent from the vanity plate on his Mercedes 450 SL: “GO OU.”
Recalling his dealings with Thomas, Clay said: “He wanted to take care of all your needs.”
How Thomas, a UCLA graduate, became part of Oklahoma’s recruiting effort in Southern California is a story in itself--one that the NCAA spent several years investigating.
According to Thomas, he was contemplating retirement in 1984 when he hit on the idea of becoming part of the college football recruiting scene.
“I wanted something to do besides playing golf, tennis,” he said. “So I called UCLA. I said, ‘If you need somebody to work with the coaches, I’m your
man.’ They said, ‘Pass.’ ”
His next call was to Oklahoma, his father’s alma mater. This time, he found a receptive audience in Switzer.
Soon Thomas was working closely with Scott Hill, the Sooner assistant coach recruiting in Southern California at the time.
The relationship would prove to be beneficial for both parties.
With Thomas’ help, the Sooners were able to land Clay and several other highly regarded prospects, including quarterback Jamelle Holieway from Banning High in Wilmington.
As an Oklahoma insider, Thomas achieved a kind of status that no country club golf outing could bring.
“I was part of the inner circle,” he said. “It was enjoyable. I got prime tickets to bowl games, to big games like UCLA, Nebraska. I was allowed to go into the locker room, be part of the environment.”
But Thomas’ involvement would also create some problems, at least in the eyes of the NCAA.
As part of the NCAA report that placed Oklahoma on three years’ probation in December of 1988, the NCAA cited Thomas for making improper contact with several recruits in Southern California, including Clay. The report also cited Thomas for improperly arranging for Clay and other recruits to be transported in a chauffeur-driven limousine.
Although the NCAA findings in which he was cited were relatively minor, Thomas was directed by Oklahoma officials to sever his relationship with the school’s athletic program.
“I caused some infractions,” he said. “But they were a result of ignorance (of the rules) rather than anything else.”
According to Clay, however, Thomas’ benevolence occasionally went beyond the activities cited by the NCAA--a fact that Clay kept from the NCAA during its investigation, he said, because he had to “play the role of protecting the university.”
When he needed a car to go to his high school senior prom, Clay said, he contacted Thomas.
“I just said, ‘I need a car,’ ” he recalled. "(Thomas) said, ‘Well, do you want to use my Mercedes?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ ”
And when he needed money or an airline ticket during his time at Oklahoma, he said, he went to Thomas, too. By Clay’s account, Thomas responded to those requests with thousands of dollars in cash and prepaid plane tickets.
As to why Thomas would provide such expensive favors, Clay said: “I never understood it. Maybe he was giving us the money (with the understanding that) if we went pro, we’d pay him back.”
According to Thomas, Clay might have used the Mercedes on prom night. “I think one of my daughters took him to a prom in a Mercedes,” he said. “At one time, I had at least three Mercedes.”
He denied supplying Clay with cash or airline tickets, however.
“The only money I provided him was when he would work for me in the summer or at Christmas,” he said.
Whatever perks there were at Oklahoma, they dried up for Clay on Feb. 10, 1989, the day the rape charges were filed against him and the two others. There would definitely be no more limo rides.
Switzer reacted by immediately dismissing the three players from the team.
“I’ve made my decision,” Sports Illustrated quoted him as saying at the time. “They won’t play here again. And if they’re found guilty in the courts, I want them behind bars; I want them caged. I have a 19-year-old daughter, and if somebody harmed her, I’d kill the bastard.”
As for Thomas, he looked into the matter, thinking perhaps he could help Clay deal with it in some way. In the end, however, he determined that the case was a lost cause and chose to stay out of it.
“I couldn’t see getting involved when I had no way in the world to win,” he said. “Not that (winning Clay’s acquittal) was important to me personally. But the evidence was so overwhelming (against Clay).”
In addition to the victim’s testimony, the case against Clay and Hall included corroborative testimony from other Oklahoma players who witnessed portions of the incident.
Through it all, Clay has maintained his innocence. He does not deny having sex with the victim, who came to the dorm with a girlfriend to be set up on a blind date, but claims it was consensual.
In an article in USA Today last August, Clay was quoted as saying: “I hate to say it, but a lot of the women at Oklahoma were sluts. They’d have sex with the players just to have sex with a football player.”
Citing that comment, members of the Oklahoma state Pardon and Parole Board in November unanimously turned down a request by Clay for pre-parole conditional supervision. Had the board granted Clay’s request, he would have been allowed to leave prison with the stipulation that he remain in Oklahoma and in the custody of the state Department of Corrections.
“I resent someone from California coming out here and putting a label on our women,” one member of the board, Carl Hamm of Perry, Okla., said at the time of the decision.
Said Bingman: “The major reason Nigel Clay did not get pre-parole (release) is he has never admitted to the crime. He shows no remorse. And since he has not capitulated, he is not rehabilitated. The board felt that if he were released, he’d do the same thing again, because he thinks his activities were lawful.”
According to Bingman, Clay has “the general attitude of someone who becomes involved in date rape--the attitude that the victim got what she deserved.”
Clay has attempted to distance himself from the remark quoted in USA Today, saying that the term “sluts” was the reporter’s, not his.
In any event, he realizes that the damage has been done.
“It hit the University of Oklahoma paper: ‘Nigel Clay says women at OU are sluts,’ ” he said. “I mean, you’ve got people on the parole board whose daughters go there. It was just a no-win situation.”
His case will be before the board again in December of this year when he becomes eligible for parole on conventional terms for the first time.
Clay is appealing his conviction, but his appeal is stalled because it is being prepared by the Oklahoma state Appellate Indigent Defender Division, which has only nine attorneys to handle 700 cases.
Although Clay’s appeal was filed in May of 1990, a supporting brief has yet to be filed on his behalf because of the backlog of cases. Such a brief probably won’t be filed until this summer, according to Gloyd McCoy, the attorney assigned to the case.
Meantime, Clay goes through the routine of life at the Lilley Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility in which inmates live in dormitory-style rooms. He works in the kitchen and fills much of his free time by participating in prison sports, including football.
Lilley fielded a team in a league for Oklahoma prisons for the first time last fall, and Clay, nearly 40 pounds over his playing weight at Oklahoma, played both offensive and defensive tackle.
In October, in a game tinged with a grim reminder for Sooner fans, Clay and his Lilley teammates were 24-14 losers to a team from the Jess Dunn Correctional Center that featured Bernard Hall at quarterback.
Playing again, even on the rocky fields of Oklahoma’s prisons, has Clay thinking he still has a future in football, dreaming the $1-million dream.
“I’m 22 years old. No surgeries. I come off the ball hard,” he said. “I think I’ll get a chance.”
Where? When? His chances would seem to be remote at best.
Clay has found a glimmer of hope, however, in the case of a former Oklahoma teammate, quarterback Charles Thompson.
Having completed a two-year federal prison sentence for cocaine distribution, Thompson is currently enrolled at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, an NAIA school. He is expected to play for Central State this year if he qualifies academically.
Clay has already contacted Central State coaches to see if they might offer him a similar opportunity someday.
“I’m going to try one time--just one more time,” he said. “I’m going to be in 100% shape, give it the best I can. And if they say, ‘No, you can’t play, forget it,’ I’ll give it up.
“They can stop me from playing football, but they can’t stop me from going to school. I can go to school pretty much anywhere, I guess, except Oklahoma.”