TAMPA — The awful news came as Michael Clayton and his family gathered for a reunion over the Fourth of July weekend in McComb, Miss.
When he was a boy, Clayton and his cousin spent so many sun-kissed Saturdays like that one 90 minutes away at Alcorn State.
They would sneak down to the sideline with Clayton's uncle, O.C. Brown, who was an offensive coordinator at one time for the Braves football team.
Because they were too small to see over the players on the sideline, Clayton and his cousin would watch the big quarterback drop back, then have to imagine him scrambling out of the pocket for about five or six seconds before spotting the spiral launched toward the end zone.
"He would throw the ball up, and not being able to see, we would look into the stands and look at the band," Clayton said. "Pretty soon, you'd hear, 'Dah, dah, duh-ta-duh,' and that's how we knew it was a touchdown."
At halftime, Clayton collected the rolls of tape scattered on the locker room floor the quarterback used to spat his shoes, shoving them into his pockets for the ride back to McComb.
"We'd walk back home to my aunt's house, grab one of those little footballs that the cheerleaders throw into the stands at the football game, take that leftover spat rolls of tape, put it on our shoes, get some extra pads and strap it up and me and him would play football until nightfall," Clayton said.
"That was my everything. It's why I play football. I was that emotional. I cried every Sunday because I had to leave Mississippi."
The tears returned to Clayton that Saturday in McComb when he heard the news that Steve McNair had been found dead, shot four times by his girlfriend, Sahel Kazemi, who turned the gun on herself in a murder-suicide.
Clayton, 26, sat on a leather chair at One Buc Place the other day trying to make sense of it all.
He never got to know McNair that well. The Titans quarterback sent Clayton an autographed football when he was drafted by the Bucs. But he credits McNair, and Alcorn State, for putting those dreams in a young boy's head that he followed to the NFL.
"That environment, the energy," Clayton said. "It left an impression."
By now, everyone in Tampa Bay can recite Clayton's story, how the Bucs' first-round pick in 2004 led all rookies with 80 catches for 1,193 yards. How injuries conspired to land him in Jon Gruden's doghouse over the next four seasons when he combined for 125 receptions, finding the end zone twice during that stretch.
"From the bottom of my heart, I knew, spiritually, I was going to have to deal with something at some point," Clayton said. "Everything has always been so perfect my whole life. I've always been on top. … I had a feeling like I was going to get cut or that I wasn't going to be in the league."
The firing of Gruden brought an unexpected new start for Clayton, who spurned offers from the Seahawks and Vikings to sign a five-year, $26 million deal with the Bucs.
"It feels better than when I first got drafted," Clayton said. "I've been through so much here. Words can't explain how I feel coming back to the Bucs, just knowing the atmosphere. Getting balls in practice. Talking to (offensive coordinator) Jeff (Jagodzinski), asking what I like. Implementing the things I do well and giving me an opportunity to just be utilized down the field, short game, everything that I can do. Having an opportunity like that, I couldn't ask for anything better."
Clayton rededicated himself in the offseason, running the levee in Baton Rouge. He spent three days in Minnesota running routes with the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald and retired receiver Jerry Rice.
"In talking to Jerry, when he first got into the NFL, he said he dropped everything," Clayton said. "It was just a situation with him where he had to get comfortable. If you're blessed to have a coach who's willing to be patient or has the ability to see your talent and has the confidence in himself to utilize that talent, it can be a good thing."
Clayton believes he has that now in Raheem Morris. "There's no need for head games," he said.
The sparkle has returned to his eyes and he is playing with the excitement he felt in that field near his aunt's home in Mississippi.
"What happened to Steve is a wakeup call to all married NFL players," Clayton said. "The way you live your life, it's out there. People are watching. It's important how you carry yourself, not just on the field.
"It's sad. He meant a lot to our whole family. He meant the world to me."