Damone Clark does not get to hide after a bad day as LSU's local linebacker. There is no quiet place of refuge when he pulls the pads off, steps out of the football operations building and yet remains in his hometown.
Not that there needs to be. There is easy comfort in Baton Rouge, too. Familiarity and family. Sundays in the same church. Holidays spent with old friends and mentors. But everyone also knows all the newspapers and websites, all the radio stations and TV channels, all the social media platforms that chronicle the ups and downs of the 20-year-old football player they know so well.
Take James McCray.
He was Clark's defensive coordinator at Southern Lab. Every Thursday before LSU home games, Clark has a standing appointment to visit McCray's house for a haircut. He's paid McCray the same $10 rate since the 11th grade. The style's been a recent constant, too: taper fade on the sides, let it go wild on top. Let it be clean and tight so he can be "looking right" when those familiar eyes watch him walk down Victory Hill on a Saturday night.
McCray says Clark is "like another son," another big brother to his youngest kid, another family member who comes over for birthdays and barbecues and is always welcome to take a plate home of whatever McCray's girlfriend cooks on a given night. So when Clark sat down for a haircut in the middle of last year's disappointing season — when they talked about the losses, the blown plays, the frustrations — McCray could see how much the failures weighed upon his former player.
The record lows in points and yards? The disarray on the field? The dejection on the sideline? Those were all plain to see. Those results were why LSU coach Ed Orgeron parted ways with defensive coordinator Bo Pelini after just one season. But, caught in the middle, there was a loyal linebacker who never pointed fingers, who readily absorbed blame, who held onto the belief that things would eventually turn around.
"He went through hell," Damone's father, Damon, says.
Just more than a week ago, a moving truck towed away the national award LSU's offensive line won during the 2019 season.
The year 2020 was supposed to be Clark's moment. He spent his freshman year backing up Devin White, his sophomore year behind Patrick Queen — two NFL first-round picks who both lavished praise on the young gun tasked with carrying on their legacy. Orgeron had voiced similar expectations and awarded Clark the honorary No. 18 jersey before the season began.
But 2020, as Clark told reporters Thursday, was "a year that nobody will ever forget." The global pandemic stopped almost everything, including spring football. A new scheme under Pelini was initially learned on Zoom calls and implemented hurriedly in fall camp. When it failed again and again on the field, Clark would return to McCray's house and just repeat phrases — It's just alignment and assignment! Alignment, assignment! — over and over and over, wondering why he couldn't get it right.
McCray would hold his tongue. What was he going to do? Ruin his mentee's humility? Unburden his former player by shifting the blame to Clark's teammates and coaches? Clark wouldn't even let him talk like that, McCray says.
So, McCray encouraged and cut hair. A snip. A snap. A hand on a tense shoulder.
“It’s hard to watch somebody that you really love in a kid go through something difficult like that," McCray says. "All you can do is tell him to just keep plugging away, man."
• • •
Damone says he second-guessed himself too often last season. He knows that now. He spent hours on the phone with Pelini, hours poring through film, yet he never played with the quick-twitch, killer confidence that made him such a dangerous player in his first two seasons.
This isn't the first time the thoughtful linebacker found himself overthinking, says former LSU quarterback Marcus Randall, the head coach when Damone helped Southern Lab win two state championships. Damone played hesitant in 10th grade, just before he fully understood the defense and became the hard-hitting four-star recruit who earned a spot in the Army All-American Bowl.
Overthinking is often the unfortunate byproduct of intelligence. Damone graduated high school with a 4.2 GPA. Damon says his son initially wanted to attend Stanford. McCray remembers laughing when Damone told him this. McCray was born and raised in the Fillmore District in San Francisco. He grew up going to Stanford football camps.
"So I'm like, 'Stanford doesn't go south, man,'" McCray says, "Not to Louisiana. That's not where they go to recruit their kids. They don't think those are their type of kids.' And he told me his sophomore year, 'They're going to come down here to get me, Coach.' "
Sure enough, Stanford recruiters visited Southern Lab in the spring before Damone's senior year. When the scholarship letter arrived in the mail, Damon said he and Damone's mother, Katice, were almost confused.
"Me and his mom were like, 'OK, you did something right somewhere!' " Damon said.
Ed Orgeron chose his words carefully.
McCray says Damone is "one of the most focused kids I've ever seen in my life," and if Stanford weren't 2,100 miles away from home, Damone probably would've been playing football on the west coast.
In football offseasons, McCray, who taught and tutored at another school, says he'd return to Southern Lab to open up the weight room at about 6 p.m. every day. Each time, he'd find Damone sitting alone on the auditorium stage waiting for him, studying and doing his homework. School let out at 3 p.m., and the janitors had seen Damone sitting there often enough that they'd let him stick around.
On other days, McCray and Damone would watch film together for hours. It wasn't hard to tell when the young linebacker had a grip on Southern Lab's defense.
"It was so funny," McCray says, "because he'd sit there and tell me, 'Well, Coach, say if they lined up in a Deuce Right with a Wing Back and a Sniffer, why don't we just run a Thunder Blitz and just knock him out? And then we'll just go ahead...' And I'm just sitting there like, 'What?' "
The four-man quarterback battle has entered its second week, and Orgeron said that Max Johnson is still taking the first snaps. Orgeron has re…
Damone called most of the defensive plays his senior year. Oftentimes, he wasn't supposed to, and it'd still end up being the right call.
Southern Lab ran a split-six defense (six linemen, two linebackers), and McCray prepared different plays each week that he'd signal by shouting "Check!" based on what offense showed on a given play.
But McCray says when he'd yell "Check!", Damone would just "run what he wanted to run." He'd tap a defensive lineman toward a different gap. He'd call out a blitz for himself. Then there'd be a sack, a blown-up play or a turnover.
"When he'd come back to the sideline," McCray says, "I'd be like, 'Hey bro, didn't I tell you we were going to run...' And he'd be like, 'Yeah, you said that. But I kept seeing how the center was blocking the nose. So I just put the tackle in a shade, and I could run a loop blitz around him.' "
"What can you say to a kid that can come to the sideline and tell you why he did it? That's the biggest thing in football. Why. Why did you do that? And he always had the why."
• • •
So what can you tell the guy who always had the answer, when he doesn't have any solutions anymore?
In those barber sessions last season — when McCray and Damone used to geek out over film studies and work out problems — the evening ended with a dismayed Damone hugging McCray, telling him he loved him, then returning home.
And not to any normal college home. Not a one-bedroom apartment with a door and a lock and four walls to block out the world. No, when practice ended on a particularly miserable October day, Clark drove home to the three-level apartment shared by his mother, his father, his brother, his nephew and his 1-year-old daughter.
This is a close family, the Clarks. Their homes and possessions have been destroyed twice. Once by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Again by the Baton Rouge floods in 2016. Last year, the family moved from Glen Oaks closer to LSU's campus so they can be closer to Damone, to support him.
"We've been through it," Damon says simply.
When you first start working in a given business, you might look around at how everything is structured and assume that's the way things are.
The family grew extremely close through those hard times, Damon says, so when he saw Damone come home that October evening, four games into the 2020 season, and head immediately upstairs without a word, Damon knew something was wrong.
"What's up?" Damon said.
Damone walked back down the stairs.
"How was practice?" Damon said.
"They put me with the Twos," Damone answered.
"Well," Damon said. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
Damone paused. Tears welled.
"I don't know," he said.
Damon remembers how lost his son looked in that moment. Standing there, 6-foot-3, 245 pounds. A force at linebacker for several years. The kid who'd always held a purposeful direction suddenly had no answers at all.
"He brought tears to my eyes," Damon says. "I swear, that was one of the most hurtful things I've felt. When you see your children hurt, you're hurting."
Imagine a day, years from now, in which an athlete suffers an injury that tears abdominal muscles and ligaments and requires surgery.
Damone met with Orgeron later that week, Damon says, and the head coach shot straight with him. Damone needed to get better at shedding blockers, use his hands more and not get caught in traffic. In summation: Damone needed to play to the mantra — "LSU Standard of Performance" — that's engraved on the inside of each 2019 national championship ring.
"I'm not saying anybody's better than you," Orgeron said. "But you're not playing LSU standard football."
Micah Baskerville started at linebacker in five of LSU's remaining six games. Damon and Katice watched their son on the sideline follow Pelini up and down the field, never taking his helmet off, hurting badly to get back out there.
Damone's play improved. He started in LSU's dramatic upset of No. 6 Florida in Gainesville, when Baskerville didn't travel with the team, and led the team with nine tackles.
Still, after the season, after Pelini's departure, after Orgeron hired new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones, Damone finds himself in the middle of one of the biggest position battles in spring practice.
Two high-profile transfers have entered the picture. Coaches and players have raved about junior-college transfer Navonteque "Bugg" Strong since he enrolled this spring, and Clemson's Mike Jones Jr. is a former four-star recruit who'll also push for a starting job when he arrives this summer.
It's a battle Damone has accepted. That was apparent by his impassioned response Thursday to a reporter's question about whether he feels the team is moving in the right direction. He found himself in a rhythm talking about the same standard Orgeron told him about during their meeting in the season.
"Our head man, Coach O, that’s the standard of LSU," Damone said. "He sets the standard, and he holds the leaders on the team to set the standard to the younger guys. Each holds everyone accountable. You can be a walk-on, scholarship player — it doesn’t matter. The LSU standard is the LSU standard. We know. If you ain’t performing to the LSU standard, you’re not going to play. Straight up. Or you’re not going to be here."
A head coach who's just over a year removed from a national championship parade would normally be considered to avoid questions about his job …
There's a newspaper clipping hanging in the Clarks' living room. Damon laminated it and thumbtacked it to the wall just before LSU's season finale against Ole Miss. It's a 2019 article with a giant picture of Clark wearing his old No. 35, spreading his arms out in triumph.
Below is a headline that reads: "As Orgeron warned, Clark is 'a guy you've got to watch.' "
Damon gathered the family in the living room that day.
"This is the Damone they're going to see," he told his son.
The laminated article is still there. A reminder of the standard to meet.
"He knows that all eyes are on him right now," Damon says.
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