VIENNA, Ga. — Football has not always been Antonneous Clayton’s first love.
For several years, it was another game.
“I’m a huge Call of Duty fan,” Clayton said.
But Clayton is not your typical athlete who likes to play video games as a hobby. His history with his Xbox is much deeper — and darker.
“I got my first Xbox in 2010,” Clayton said. “Ever since then, no one could stop me from playing. I never came out the door at all.”
Clayton, who enrolled at Florida this week, hasn’t always been the popular 5-star recruit he is today. Early on in high school, he was an outcast. Clayton had few friends and no aspirations, especially in football.
“I’ll be honest, I really didn’t take sports or school seriously,” Clayton said. “I wasn’t dumb at all. I was a major nerd, but I was a nerd who loved video games. That was the only thing I really ever cared about. I just figured I’d get my diploma, go work at Burger King and play Call of Duty every day.”
Clayton’s obsession with the game set in during his first year with an Xbox. The inaugural edition of ‘Black Ops’ came out in November of 2010.
During Thanksgiving break, Clayton and five of his friends agreed to do a week-long tournament. Clayton took it a step further.
“I stayed up for five days straight. No sleep at all,” Clayton said. “I dimmed the blinds, shut my curtains and turned the game on.”
Clayton bought five cases of red bull and several bags of Doritos to keep in his room. His mother didn’t approve of his escapade, but brought him meals nonetheless.
“She opened the door one time and my eyes were bloodshot red,” Clayton said. “It sounds crazy, but I know guys who’ve stayed up longer than that. The gaming community is very serious.”
There are seasonal tournaments every year for professional video gamers called the Major League Gaming (MLG) Championships. Clayton has competed in three of them (Dallas in 2012 and 2013, Anaheim in 2013).
“I did terrible,” Clayton said with a laugh. “I was still in high school, and you’ve got grown guys there who just game 24/7. So being young really limited me, but it was fun experience meeting other people who have the same passion as you.”
Those trips were a breath of fresh air for Clayton. Other than his group of friends, he had trouble relating to most kids his age.
“At first, I really used video games to escape from reality,” Clayton said. “I had a lot of problems socially. People would judge me and say I had no life. But I was around friends who loved me for who I am and what I did.
“I’m still cool with those people to this day. They’re really proud of me, too. They didn’t see football in future at all, and neither did I.”
Clayton didn’t join a team until eighth grade, and that year he cried in the locker room after a game because he didn’t get any playing time.
“I was actually nervous because so many guys were bigger than me,” Clayton said. “I wasn’t good enough to play. I always think back to that, because out of all those guys, I was the one.”
Clayton would blossom into a 6-foot-4, 230-pound defensive end with elite pass rushing skills. However, his talent didn’t get noticed by college coaches until the spring of his junior year.
Ole Miss offered him his first scholarship on March 26, 2015. Clayton would land 27 more offers in the next three months from a who’s who of big-time programs.
Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and the Gators won him over in the recruiting process.
“Coach Rumph thought somebody had modified my film,” Clayton said. “He told me there’s no way I could come out of my stance that fast. He actually thought somebody sped it up and put it on Hudl. Then he watched me in person and goes, ‘OK, you’re the guy.’ He told me I was a million dollars walking.”
That specific comment changed Clayton’s entire outlook on football — and life. He never viewed the game as a means to an end. Football, not Call of Duty, had just been a hobby to him until he became a coveted prospect.
“I realized I can have my family set for generations to come,” Clayton said. “Money isn’t everything, but it does eliminate most issues and most worries. The NFL is paying players millions of dollars to go tackle somebody. It’s completely insane, but why not? I’m blessed with the physical abilities.”
As a senior, Clayton shifted his focus from Call of Duty to the game of football. He hasn’t stopped being awake at crazy hours of the morning, but it’s not to play Xbox.
“I’m used to staying up late and now I do it to study,” Clayton said. “I get up between 3:00 and 4:00 every morning to work out. It’s a habit for me. I can’t help it. But I’ve made a major 180 degree turn, and I had to make a change.
“You owe football, football doesn’t owe you. You have to dedicate yourself to the game and to your team. It helped form me as a person. It helped me take things more seriously. It helped me make wiser decisions. I found something that I can truly cherish, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Clayton still plays Call of Duty regularly and said he’ll be a gamer for life. He also hopes EA Sports can bring back NCAA Football before he’s done at Florida.
As for the potential millions awaiting him in the NFL, Clayton plans to take the Marshawn Lynch approach with his money.
“I’m not really a big spender,” Clayton said. “If I were to get rich, I’d mostly save it and just eat food. I don’t get a lot of shoes and clothes. I might buy some video games.”
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow @ZachAbolverdi
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