The more Clayton changes, the more it stays the same.
Johnston County’s largest town has almost tripled in size since the turn of the century, but high school football is still the Friday meeting spot and talk of the town in seasons like this one.
The Comets are undefeated (13-0) entering Friday’s fourth round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3AA football playoffs. Clayton, the 1-seed, hosts No. 4 Eastern Guilford (11-2).
Like a familiar spot on a church pew, longtime Clayton citizens have a place on the Comets’ football stadium bleachers they’ve been coming to year after year, win or lose. For those who move into town, there’s no easier way to assimilate than supporting the Comets.
“Clayton’s a special community and they’re behind us,” head coach Hunter Jenks said. “Anywhere where we go out in town people come up to us and congratulate us.”
The growth of Clayton has also meant an influx of talent. In Gary Fowler’s 28 years of as head coach (1985-2012), he had two players who played Division I football.
This year’s team alone has at least two – junior defensive tackle Savion Jackson holds offers from nearly every ACC and SEC team, and senior wideout Devin Carter is committed to N.C. State next year.
“It’s about time we get our share I reckon,” Fowler said. “And this surrounding cast that they have, they play hard.”
The heart of town
Built in an era when schools were constructed in the heart of town rather than wide swaths of open land, the field at Fowler-Nixon Stadium overlooks Business U.S. Highway 70 to the south and is a few blocks from downtown to the north.
“It’s still right where people see it. It’s a part of their lives, I feel like, no matter where they are around Clayton,” said Andy Pleasant, a Clayton alumnus and former longtime baseball coach and assistant.
Alumni who aren’t at the game honk their horns as they drive by and see the lights on at Fowler-Nixon Stadium, which is named after football coaches who were as involved in the community as they were with their program. The stadium sits so close to the school building that visiting coaches call the game from a classroom that overlooks the 50-yard line.
“In a small town, when you have a season like this it’s more meaningful,” Fowler said. “Even though we’ve grown a lot in Clayton over the years, for a lot of them old timers’ that ‘C’ (logo) is still special.”
This year’s run has reinforced the strong ties between town and school that started in 1951, when the principal dismissed classes early so students could work nearby cotton fields and raise money for the school’s first football uniforms.
Clayton won the six-man football title the next year.
In 1989, before NCHSAA state championships were held at ACC venues, Clayton hosted the 2A title.
Snowfall delayed the game, and the townspeople pulled together and cleared the field and parking lots on Sunday to get it ready.
The Comets won the championship the next day.
“Everyone pitched in and help, the whole community was behind us,” Pleasant said. “And I feel like that’s what it’s like (this year). That’s the way it’s always been at Clayton High School. The kids who are there now are seeing the same kind of things our kids saw back in ‘89. ... Whether we’re winning or losing, (the town is) going to support us.”
Shades of ‘89
That 1989 team compares favorably to this year’s undefeated Comets.
They are the only two Clayton teams to be undefeated this late in the year, and both relied on a rushing attack and tough-nosed defense.
But the unselfish play of putting the goals of the collective ahead of the individual is the most striking resemblance.
Carter, the senior wideout, entered this season coming off a record year – 1,157 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns – that helped him catch the Wolfpack coaches’ eyes.
But this year, the offense had to change for the Comets to be successful.
Jenks told Carter (822 yards, 14 touchdowns) he was going to do more blocking than catching this year. Though Carter has played in two more games than last year, he’s caught 34 fewer passes.
But it’s paid dividends for Carter, the Comets, and the town.
“The first step was to take leadership and guide players in the right direction,” Carter said. “My touches don’t matter. If we’re winning, that’s all I care about.”