Former running back reaches NFL dream

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Even before he arrived at K-State as a transfer student in 2003, Thomas Clayton, whose strong build and bulging biceps earned him the nickname “T-Gun,” always knew he’d end up in the National Football League.

It was his dream, his destiny, and nothing, he said, was going to deny him.

Not a highly publicized run-in with a parking services employee in September 2005, which ultimately led to a pair of suspensions and a misdemeanor battery conviction.

Not a midseason benching during his senior year in 2006, one that saw him go from starting running back to third on the depth chart in a one-week span.

And certainly not his ensuing knee injury, which required arthroscopic surgery.

Sure, there were plenty of questions leading up to last April’s NFL Draft. Would Clayton’s off-field indiscretions overshadow his on-field talents? Was his junior season (637 yards, four touchdowns) good enough to cover up a disappointing senior campaign? Could he stay healthy?

Yet through it all, Clayton said he knew he’d get his chance. That’s why he wasn’t surprised when he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the sixth round. In fact, he couldn’t believe it took so long.

“I was kind of upset that I didn’t get drafted earlier,” said Clayton, an Alexandria, Va., native. “But to get selected period is an honor and a blessing.”

Clayton, who originally attended Florida State after being named a SuperPrep All-American out of Mount Vernon (Va.) High School, already has raised some eyebrows in his short stint with the 49ers.

In his second preseason game, Clayton scored a game-winning fourth quarter touchdown against the Oakland Raiders, a one-yard plunge that gave the 49ers a 26-21 win. He finished with 42 yards rushing on 10 carries, raising his preseason total to 97 yards.

“Scoring the game-winning touchdown, that was exciting not only for myself but for our team,” Clayton said. “It’s something to help us build on.”

But it remains to be seen whether the 49ers will keep Clayton on their 53-man regular-season roster.

Matt Barrows, a 49ers beat writer for the Sacramento Bee, said Clayton has a ways to go.

“Early on, there was some feeling that he could challenge for the No. 3 job at running back,” Barrows said. “However, at this point he is still very much No. 4.”

Clayton said he doesn’t pay attention to roster moves, adding that he’s not sure when those decisions will be made. Instead, he’s simply trying to make progress and improve his play in practice.

“I’m getting better and better each week,” Clayton said. “I’m still learning, but at the same time I’m able to make plays.”

As for his time at K-State, Clayton said he doesn’t hold a grudge toward coach Ron Prince, whose decision to bench some of the team’s seniors in favor of underclassmen received some criticism last season.

“A lot of people around the program didn’t agree with it,” Clayton said. “But again, he was a first-year head coach at the time, he made a decision, and that’s how things went.”

Clayton said he discussed the situation with Prince several times but never received a clear-cut answer as to why things went the way they did.

Still, he said he didn’t want to make a scene about it, and knew better days were ahead. Now, he says, he’s pleased with the way it all turned out.

“You know, I’m in the NFL now, and I’m happy with the position I’m in,” Clayton said. “It’s a dream come true.”

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