Niece's illness spurs Clemons' quest to excel in NFL
Wide receiver Toney Clemons won't be playing to help the Jacksonville Jaguars win games this season or to earn a big contract.
What Clemons is playing for is priceless: his deep adoration for his 3-year-old niece, Maiyanna Clemons-McCarthy, who in May was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a rare and inoperable type of brain tumor.
“I have dedicated the last two or three years to her, actually,” said Clemons, a Valley graduate who is in training camp with the Jaguars and getting ready to start his second NFL season.
“Since she was born, and for decades to come, she'll continue to impress and inspire me. I wake up for her every day.”
Clemons has a star tattoo on his shoulder with an “M” inside of it to honor Maiyanna, his knee-high sidekick and the daughter of his sister, former Valley track star Mycah Clemons.
“We're not going to mourn her while she is still with us,” Toney said.
Clemons, 24, said his niece finished radiation treatments last week with results that brought some upbeat news: the tumor has shrunk.
The toddler continues to combat the illness, with her smile still lighting up a room as if nothing's changed.
“She is such a happy little girl,” Clemons said. “I wake up every day thinking about watching her fight. She has reunited our family and the community.”
Local fundraising efforts, as well as awareness-raising endeavors via social media, have been successful.
Maiy's Miracle Foundation has been the engine.
Clemons said the football program at Colorado, where he played two years of his college career after leaving Michigan, made a monetary donation.
The Jaguars also gave items for the family to auction.
Clemons would like nothing more than to stay by Maiyanna's side, but it's time for uncle Toney to go to work.
And he hopes a full season of experience — albeit one with more twists and turns than the routes in his playbook — will help propel him to a breakthrough season.
“I am a lot more calm, poised and focused because I know what to expect,” Clemons said. “I have some personal goals to hit. First, I want to know my assignments. Second, I want to take every opportunity and maximize it. I want to show I can consistently do it. It wasn't just a one-time thing. And I want to make the clutch play look very routine.”
Clemons began his pro career with the Steelers, who drafted him last year, released him after the preseason and then added him to the practice squad.
Jacksonville signed the 6-foot-2, 218-pound reserve wideout, and he played in four games, catching three passes for 41 yards.
Many believed the Steelers released Clemons because he dropped several passes during camp at St. Vincent. He rarely was targeted in the preseason, though, grabbing just one reception for 14 yards.
Clemons has come to grips with the uncharacteristic showing.
“I wasn't there mentally 100 percent the way I should have been,” he said.
“You live, and you learn. The biggest problem I had was that (the drops) carried over to the next day. Sometimes, you just have to get over things. I started to find myself as a player. You're going to make mistakes, but you have to be a pro about it.”
Clemons spent a portion of his offseason in Florida, working out on the Miami (Fla.) campus.
Mostly, though, he's been in the area, working out in New Kensington with the Valley team.
“I feel comfortable working out at home,” he said. “It's beneficial to me. It's good for the local kids to see me home. I like teaching them how to work.”
Being home also prolonged his stay with Maiyanna, whom he wants to have as a guest as a Jaguars practice in the near future.
“That would be great for her,” he said. “She enjoys football. She's always been around it.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.