This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Before Kaelin Clay could begin to redeem himself — before coaches could shout, or teammates could offer words of encouragement, or an unruly fan could hurl a brownie at him while he waited to return a kickoff — the machine began to churn.

It was on the first play of the second quarter against Oregon that Clay dropped the ball a yard early in his haste to celebrate what would have been a 78-yard touchdown reception.

By halftime, it was viral.

It became the lead item on Reddit, the so-called "Front Page of the Internet." Yahoo, Deadspin, Britain's Daily Mail — you name it.

Among the more far-flung examples are a comparison to the dangers of overconfident investment advising and a zany parody from Taiwanese animators that depicts Clay imbibing and then urinating fire on an Oregon player.

The guy who came to Utah hoping to make a name for himself did so with people who know nothing about the Utes and, indeed, nothing about football.

Clay said Tuesday that he's made peace with that.

"The people who know me and care about me, those are the people who I'm worried about, and this team," said Clay, clutching a stack of encouraging notes from local schoolchildren. "That's about it."

When Utah later reviewed the play in film session, he got up and left. He still hasn't watched it, although he said would take the advice of wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield and sit through the replay a few times Tuesday night.

He knows he has to face it sometime.

Sunday he received a visit from junior running back Devontae Booker, who lives in the same apartment complex. They talked about The Drop for about five or 10 minutes. And then ­— to repeat a joke that has been made now on multiple continents — they dropped it. They watched the NFL and played "Madden" and "NBA 2K" — "basically got my mind off it, something that I needed at the time," Clay said.

It's been quite a needle-moving season for Clay, who in seconds went from "Pinch me, I'm dreaming," to "No, really, pinch me."

In the junior college transfer's first game, against Idaho State, he earned SportsCenter's Top Play. He leads the nation in punt return average (22.4 yards), is 18th in kickoff return average (26.9 yards), and has three punt return touchdowns, one kickoff return touchdown and a game-winning touchdown reception.

"He's a playmaker for us," said head coach Kyle Whittingham on Monday. "He did a lot of good things on Saturday night. He's done a lot of great things all season long. He made a mistake, we'll move on, and hopefully it never shows up again."

He also did not invent the blunder. Hardly. Oregon's Byron Marshall did the same thing in Oregon's opener against South Dakota, although, "Luckily, mine went out of bounds," he told The Daily Emerald.

SportsCenter drew attention to the fact that Clay's fellow Poly High alum, DeSean Jackson, has been a serial early releaser — and wouldn't you know it, Jackson called Clay's father after the game to pass along that is probably best not to do that.

Clay said with a smile Tuesday that next time, he's going to hand the ball to the ref. The Utes are even doing so now in practice.

Senior strong safety Brian Blechen said Monday that he's impressed Clay owned up to his error, and also by the spirit he showed afterward.

"He realized he just made a huge mistake on national television, and I know all he wanted to do was start changing people's mind the rest of that game," Blechen said. "He'll continue to do that the rest of the season. He's not a weak-minded kind of guy who's going to let one really silly slip-up haunt him forever."

Clay remains, on the whole, thankful. He may have just one season of eligibility at Utah — an appeal for another will have to wait until after the season — and he plans to seize what remains of this opportunity.

A 10-3 record is still within reach.

"I can't complain," he said. "From where I was at a couple of months ago, to where I'm at now, it's a blessing to be here with this football team and just be on the journey that we're on. I wouldn't trade it for anything right now."

Twitter: @matthew_piper

comments powered by Disqus