For the past three basketball seasons, Tate Clayton has run thousands of wind sprints with his Mississippi State teammates. He has sweated through all the drills and lifted all the weights. He has tried to rebound against heavily muscled giants such as Reggie Perry and Abdul Ado and tried to guard sharpshooters the likes of Quinndary Weatherspoon and Tyson Carter.
One big difference between Clayton and those other guys: Tate is a walk-on, a volunteer, who rarely has played in the real games. The other guys are on scholarship and will be pros, either in the NBA or overseas. Clayton plans to enter law school.
Another difference: Clayton, a Tupelo native, will graduate early with a degree in business administration and with a grade point average – several times higher than his scoring average – that has landed him several times on the SEC Honor Roll.
Now then, here’s the kicker: After three years without a scholarship, Clayton has earned a huge one. After winning a nationwide competition, Clayton is the first-ever recipient of the Club Trillion Foundation’s $15,000 scholarship for walk-ons. Clayton says he will use the scholarship to help pay law school tuition. He was supposed to be awarded the scholarship at the Final Four in April. That could happen next year.
And I know what you are thinking: What the hell is Club Trillion and who pays for this scholarship? And, boy, is there a story behind that. In college basketball, a “trillion” refers to a line in a box score that starts with a player’s number of minutes played, followed with other statistics such as field goals made and attempted, three-pointers made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists, personal fouls, turnovers and total points. A trillion is a one (for minutes played), followed by a whole bunch of zeros.
Walk-ons, if they play at all, quite often get a “trillion.”
Club Trillion is the brainchild of former Ohio State walk-on Mark Titus, a sports writer, podcaster and author (“Don’t Put Me In, Coach: My Incredible NCAA Journey from the End of the Bench to the End of the Bench”). You can read about Titus’ foundation at clubtrillionfoundation.org, and I suggest you do. My favorite part of the website is a quote from none other than Napoleon Bonaparte: “A throne is only a bench covered with velvet.”
In short, Titus wants to provide extraordinary opportunities for extraordinary walk-on athletes. He wants to create a huge national fraternity of former walk-ons to create networking, internships and job opportunities for walk-ons who are graduating. Tate Clayton’s scholarship is a start.
“It just so happens a large percentage of those guys sitting at the end of the bench are intelligent, high-character people with a tremendous work ethic who become highly successful in life,” Titus said. “Because of the demands of being a student-athlete, walk-ons often don’t have the time to do internships or gain job experience during college. Many graduate with student debt. Our foundation’s aim is to help them get started.”
Certainly, the foundation started with a most deserving first scholarship recipient. Titus could write another book about Clayton, a former Tupelo High basketball player, who made 32 on the ACT, and turned down scholarships at many lower division schools so he could volunteer to play at State. That’s where his mother, father and his two older brothers all graduated. That’s where one older brother, Reed, was a walk-on for one season under Rick Stansbury at State.
“I saw what Reed experienced and I wanted it to do it myself,” Tate said. “Yeah, I knew I could have played a bigger basketball role, played a lot more minutes at Division II or III, but I grew up going to State games and cheering for State. I wanted to be part of that. It’s been a lot of hard work, but, for me, the reward is helping my team get better, and just being a part of it.”
At State, Reed Clayton, now a Tupelo CPA, played nine minutes in a total of nine games and scored one career point. He had a lot of trillions. A year ago, he was listening to one of Titus’ basketball podcasts and heard about Club Trillion and the new, national scholarship opportunity based on character, work ethic, academics and community involvement.
“It sounded like something made for Tate,” said Reed Clayton, who suggested his younger brother apply. Tate did.
Part of the criteria for the scholarship was a 1,000-word essay on what the walk-on experience has meant to the applicant. Tate wrote about his high school career, about his dream of playing at State, about his decision to walk-on at State and all the work involved. He wrote that his reward for all that work was the knowledge that, in his own small way, he had helped the team win. During his three seasons, State has won 68 games, lost 34. Tate played in just nine of those games and scored just one basket.
That basket came in the 2019 SEC Tournament when State routed Texas A&M and Tate scored a tip-in late. His teammates celebrated as if he had hit the basket that won the tournament.
“It was a tip-in but it was the only shot I ever took,” Tate said, and then laughed. “So my career stats will show that I shot a thousand percent.”
Said State coach Ben Howland, “Anyone who saw his teammates celebrate that one bucket saw how much his teammates love him. He’s a great kid, a great teammate, from a terrific family. He’s bright, studious, works hard, understands the game. He’s just what I thought he was when I met with him and his father to tell them we were going to offer him a preferred walk-on role.”
You should know about Tate’s father, Drew Clayton, a former trucking company executive, now disabled by brain injuries suffered in a horrific automobile accident in July of 2018. Clayton has been treated by doctors in Atlanta, Birmingham, Oxford and now Tupelo where he stays in a nursing facility.
Said Howland, “That family – they are so close – and they have really been through so much since the wreck. I think, I hope, our basketball program has helped them.”
Said Lori Clayton, Tate’s mother, “The basketball games have been a bright spot through all of this. The relationships Tate has made, our family have made with players, coaches and other families have helped us through.”
Yes, Lori Clayton, answered, her husband has been told of Tate’s scholarship news.
“We hope he knows,” she said. “We really don’t know. We do know he would be proud. We all are.”