SEATTLE — Brian Clay was on scholarship at Hawaii, where he spent the first two seasons of his collegiate career before transferring to Washington in September, choosing here to pay his own way as a walk-on.
And that was a sacrifice he made not only in pursuit of greater competition and the chance to play in the Pacific-12 conference, but for his mother, Mary Jane, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Clay was in high school.
Clay grew up in Vacaville, Calif., about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco, which made for long trips back and forth from Honolulu. But more importantly, he said, is UW’s nationally-renowned Multiple Sclerosis Center, where his mother receives treatment twice per month when she comes to visit.
He likes to be there.
“Washington has one of the premier MS centers, so I wanted to be closer to home so I could be with her coming up here and getting treatment,” Clay said after a recent practice. Washington completes its spring practice slate with its “spring preview” scrimmage today at 1 p.m.
It is the plight of Clay’s mother that most motivates him in his pursuit of a spot on Washington’s two-deeps, in pursuit of that coveted scholarship, which previous coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff had promised to deliver this spring. That was before they left for USC.
The 6-foot-1, 193-pound defensive back developed a relationship with former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and former defensive backs coach Keith Heyward, traveling to Seattle for a couple of recruiting camps as a high-schooler. That, too, was a factor in his decision to transfer.
But the coaching turnover doesn’t bother Clay. It’s pretty much all he knows. Chris Petersen is Clay’s fourth coach in four seasons, a list that begins with Greg McMackin (whom Hawaii fired after the 2011 season), then Norm Chow (2012), then Sarkisian (2013), then Petersen.
“He’s been a fun guy to coach,” Petersen said. “He’s got a great demeanor about him, really good attitude, and he’s getting better every day out here. He’s one of those guys that shows up focused, ready to get better and he’s a pleasure to be around.”
“You’ve just got to adapt, play ball and play through it,” Clay said.
He seems to be adapting fine. UW’s secondary has been thinned by graduation and spring injuries, which have helped thrust Clay into the mix with the first and second defensive units during spring practices.
He’s worked mostly at safety, but has also shown up at cornerback and says he feels comfortable playing nickel, too. He did all three at Hawaii, though he played in just eight games as a freshman and redshirted during his second season.
“Every single day, day in and day out, he’s working his tail off,” defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “And sure enough, it’s starting to show up. He’s making plays on special teams, he’s making plays on defense. He knows corner, he knows safety, so he’s making himself a role right now.”
Clay is majoring in sociology, and wants to either minor in economics or attempt a double-major. A master’s degree might be in his future, too.
For now, he’s playing for a scholarship. And for his mother, who is in a wheelchair, who would love to see her son play in a Pac-12 football game.
“That would mean the world to me, honestly,” Clay said. “That’s everything I want. She’s the reason, honestly, why I work so hard, and why I have the motivation to work hard and run all the time and have all this energy, because she physically can’t do it herself. She used to be active, and now she’s not. But she lives her dreams through me.”