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Invincible No More : Nigel Clay Planned to Be in the NFL, but Now He Is Playing for a Correctional Center

February 02, 1992|DANNY ROBBINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOLEY, Okla. — Sometimes Nigel Clay sees himself as he used to be, as a football player.

He sees himself as he was at Fontana High, where he was an all-Southern Section offensive lineman and one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation.

He sees himself as he was at the University of Oklahoma, where he was treated like royalty.

He sees himself in those terms, and he feels the stirring of an old dream.

"I had a goal when I was in high school to make $1 million playing football somewhere," he said. "I'm going to play football somewhere."

Then he veers back to reality--the rolling pasture land and drab institutional buildings of the John Lilley Correctional Center, where he is inmate No. 184913.

Reality offers slightly less earning power.

In November of 1989, Clay and an Oklahoma teammate, Bernard Hall, were convicted of raping a 20-year-old Oklahoma City woman in the Sooner athletic dormitory, Bud Wilkinson House. Both players received 10-year prison sentences.

A third Oklahoma player charged in the case, Glen Bell, was acquitted.

One of several criminal matters involving Sooner players that came to light in early 1989, the gang rape accusation helped shape the image of Oklahoma as a college football program that spun out of control and added to the pressure that forced the resignation of Sooner Coach Barry Switzer.

That Clay, who had just completed his sophomore season as a reserve offensive tackle, was involved in the incident caused shock and bewilderment for many who followed his career.

Switzer said Clay "never caused a problem in any way" in his three years at Oklahoma.

Others, however, were not stunned. To them, what happened in Suite 302 of the Bud Wilkinson House was just another crime born from the feeling of invincibility that comes with being part of a big-time college athletic program--the feeling that somehow, someway, things will be taken care of.

"To see the faces (of Clay and Hall) at the time the verdict was announced would prove it to you," said Teresa Bingman, an assistant district attorney in Cleveland County and one of the prosecutors who tried the case. "They were put above the normal campus population. That would lead most 19-year-olds to feel omnipotent."

As one who has seen his Sooner days go full circle, Clay can find a ring of truth in that sentiment.

"I don't know how to say it, but, bottom line, I just felt that sometimes, walking around . . . Well, speaking for myself and a lot of other people, we felt like we were above the law," he said, "like OU would protect us from anything."

The feeling, Clay said, was one of being almost bulletproof, and it was a product of years of special treatment, starting with the hustle of recruiting.

"I was pretty much used to (the notion of) 'If you want something, you need to work for it,' " he said. "Then I got into recruiting, and I got spoiled. Everything was handed to you on a silver platter."

One benefactor in particular stands out in his mind--a Los Angeles real estate broker and investor named Jay Thomas whose school loyalty is apparent from the vanity plate on his Mercedes 450 SL: "GO OU."

Recalling his dealings with Thomas, Clay said: "He wanted to take care of all your needs."

How Thomas, a UCLA graduate, became part of Oklahoma's recruiting effort in Southern California is a story in itself--one that the NCAA spent several years investigating.

According to Thomas, he was contemplating retirement in 1984 when he hit on the idea of becoming part of the college football recruiting scene.

"I wanted something to do besides playing golf, tennis," he said. "So I called UCLA. I said, 'If you need somebody to work with the coaches, I'm your

man.' They said, 'Pass.' "

His next call was to Oklahoma, his father's alma mater. This time, he found a receptive audience in Switzer.

Soon Thomas was working closely with Scott Hill, the Sooner assistant coach recruiting in Southern California at the time.

The relationship would prove to be beneficial for both parties.

With Thomas' help, the Sooners were able to land Clay and several other highly regarded prospects, including quarterback Jamelle Holieway from Banning High in Wilmington.

As an Oklahoma insider, Thomas achieved a kind of status that no country club golf outing could bring.

"I was part of the inner circle," he said. "It was enjoyable. I got prime tickets to bowl games, to big games like UCLA, Nebraska. I was allowed to go into the locker room, be part of the environment."

But Thomas' involvement would also create some problems, at least in the eyes of the NCAA.

As part of the NCAA report that placed Oklahoma on three years' probation in December of 1988, the NCAA cited Thomas for making improper contact with several recruits in Southern California, including Clay. The report also cited Thomas for improperly arranging for Clay and other recruits to be transported in a chauffeur-driven limousine.

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