Former Steelers' draft pick, Valley grad Toney Clemons reflects on rookie season
When NFL wide receiver Toney Clemons drops a pass in practice, he immediately thinks about his high school track and field coach and football assistant, George Webb.
He pictures the veteran coach — with his trademark, hand-carved wooden walking stick — looking him in the eye and shelling out life advice.
When Webb speaks to Valley athletes, most listen.
“It was during my sophomore year,” Clemons said. “Coach Webb said if you want to be the best player you can be, you have to step back and realize what you struggle at and work on your weaknesses.
“I'll never forget that.”
That advice has helped Clemons build the foundation of an NFL career, while also allowing him to move on from setbacks and operate on a short memory — essential tools in the pros.
Clemons, 24, just finished his rookie season, much of which was spent on the Steelers' practice squad before he signed and played four games with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Clemons, who was drafted by the Steelers in April, played almost immediately in Jacksonville. He caught his first pass — a fourth-down comebacker against the New England Patriots in his third game — and hauled in two receptions in the season finale against Tennessee.
He made his first start against Tennessee as the Jaguars' “X” receiver, playing more than 70 snaps.
He gave his mom his jersey and gloves from his first catch.
Clemons, who signed a two-year contract, finished with three catches for 41 yards for Jacksonville (2-14). He's still in search of his first pro touchdown.
“I'll have something special ready for when that happens,” he said.
Jacksonville is a fresh start for the charismatic and detail-oriented Clemons, who drew criticism, particularly across social media, over some dropped passes in Steelers' training camp. Some believe that ultimately led to his somewhat-limited playing time in the preseason and demotion to the practice squad.
“They gave me an ample opportunity,” he said. “I had a rough first week of camp; that's the reality of it. I didn't know what I was in for. I have been climbing up the hill ever since.”
Jacksonville plucked Clemons from the practice squad in late November and immediately signed and added him to their 53-man roster.
“There are no redshirts in the NFL,” Clemons said. “I was playing on a team where it's Super Bowl or bust. You're expected to make great plays look routine.”
Asked if he's finally found a comfort zone with the Jaguars, Clemons said, “No week in the NFL is the same; that's what makes it a good league. Nobody ever has the sense of comfort. That always drives you to be alert. You never feel like you're in a position where you're completely settled or comfortable.”
Which is nothing new to Clemons, who played two years at Michigan before transferring to Colorado, where he finished his college career.
He has learned something new everywhere he's been.
“The opportunity I had with the Steelers taught me to take advantage of chances,” Clemons said. “It taught me to seize the moment. You need to come to work on a high note and leave on a high note. And you can't take things personally.”
Clemons has remained noticeably humble through his ascent to the NFL. He said he hasn't made a major purchase since signing his first contract.
“Unless you count buying out my lease to my apartment in Fox Chapel,” Clemons said with a laugh. “I want to give back slowly.”
Clemons did, however, buy his niece a new car — his 3-year-old niece, Maiyanna.
“It's a nice, cherry red, power-wheel Ferrari,” Clemons said. “Me and my older sister never had one growing up. It was a nice little Christmas gift.”
When he came to Jacksonville, Clemons reunited with quarterback Chad Henne, who was a senior at Michigan when Clemons was a freshman.
Clemons has heard the rumors about quarterback Tim Tebow possibly coming to Jacksonville. Clemons met the former Florida star at the 2008 Capitol One Bowl and would support him.
“I have great respect for what he does,” Clemons said. “He's a great player and competitor. To me, it doesn't matter who comes in. I will be the same guy. I won't change who I am.”
The offseason means more in-depth workouts for Clemons with and against other pros in Phoenix. Clemons will be joined by a number of NFL players, including Darrelle Revis, DeSean Jackson, Marvin Jones and Steve Breaston, Clemons' cousin.
Clemons has remained close with several Steelers players, including Antonio Brown, Ryan Clark, Keenan Lewis and Emmanuel Sanders.
“Those guys taught me how to work,” Clemons said. “They pushed me to get to where I am now.”