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HE'S LIVING ANOTHER DREAM Former Minor Leaguer Stepping Up For Bears

Nov. 27, 2013

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

Before most of his Baylor football teammates had even started high school, Clay Fuller already owned a house and was playing pro baseball in the Los Angeles Angels' organization.

A fourth-round draft pick by the Angels in 2006, the 26-year-old Fuller spent six seasons in the minor leagues, hitting .252 with 41 home runs with 216 RBI and 131 stolen bases in stops at Mesa, Ariz., Orem, Utah, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and Little Rock, Ark.

But two years ago, he gave up on one dream to pursue another, walking on at Baylor as a non-scholarship receiver for sport that he had not played in six years.

"It was an extremely tough decision," said Fuller, who played his last game with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers on July 28, 2011. "If I was a Mike Trout type player, I would probably still be playing baseball, just because I love the game. . . . But with that uncertainty and just seeing the lifestyle that it creates for people in that situation, I cut it short and chose a different route that turned out to be a great one."

Right up until the day he left baseball and took that different route, it was a decision that tortured Fuller.

The clarity came in the ninth inning of his last game, when Fuller stepped to the plate for the last time as a pinch-hitter with his team trailing, 12-5, on the road at Springfield, Mo.

"I was on the bench, just enjoying the game and taking everything in," he said. "(The Arkansas manager) was like, 'Do you want one last at-bat?' It crossed my mind just to say no, I'm just enjoying the game. But I was like, 'No, I want one. I'd love one.' And he said, 'Well, hit it over. Knock it out of the park.'''

And that's exactly what Fuller did in his final at-bat as a professional baseball player. After taking the first pitch, he blasted a 1-0 fastball over the wall in left-center field.

"I knew it was gone," he said. "I just put my head down and ran around the bases. I was like, 'This is special.' We're down 12-6, and my teammates are going crazy."

Like something out of The Natural or Bull Durham, this was Fuller's crystal-clear sign that it was time to move on.

"It was the home run, for sure," he said. "It was the closing that I needed to pursue this."

Adding to the movie-like drama, a young Cardinals fan walked up to him after the game and said, "Hey, this is the ball for whoever hit the home run." Fuller showered him with gifts in exchange for the ball and has kept in touch with that young fan, receiving an email from him after Saturday's 49-17 loss at Oklahoma State to "keep your head up."

Still, Fuller calls it a leap of faith that began with him running routes and catching passes from Gabe Jacobo, the Travelers' starting first baseman and a former high school quarterback from California.

"The thing that we looked at was a big, strong athlete, that's mature," said receivers coach Kendall Briles, who's only five years older than Fuller. "He wanted to come play football here, and he agreed to come walk on, because we didn't have a scholarship available. And we were not going to turn that down."

Since he had originally signed a baseball letter of intent with Baylor, Fuller knew exactly where he wanted to go. And when his high school coach, Smithson Valley's Larry Hill, contacted Baylor head coach Art Briles, the message came back: "We're waiting on you."

"From that point on, I played the best baseball of my career," he said, "because there was no pressure and I was just letting it go. . . . I signed all my retirement forms right after I hit my last home run."

Back in school and football for the first time in almost six years, Fuller had a rude awakening . . . literally.

"I was having to work out at 6 in the morning as a freshman, then go to class and then go to football practice and focus at practice when you've been going since 6," he said. "And then after practice, you're going to study. I had zero social time. I'm thinking college is a good time to meet a bunch of people. But I'm thinking, 'How am I going to do this?' I just get up and go till 10 o'clock at night, and then go back and go to sleep."

As with anything else, though, "eventually it slows down, and you get used to it."

"Coming back, you look at it with a completely different perspective," said Fuller, a junior academically who's majoring in real estate. "You know exactly what you want to do. And that's really worked out well, because if I would have come before, I would not have known what I wanted to do. (Baseball) gave me more time to understand who I am and what I want do when I grow up."

That sounds funny coming from a 26-year-old who's already been earning pro baseball money for six years.

"He's an older guy, but you can't tell sometimes, because he fits in so well with the rest of us," said fellow junior receiver Levi Norwood. "He's not just this random old guy in the locker room."

Those first few days of the 2011 training camp in August, Fuller was stuck with nicknames like "Old School" and "RBI." But now he's that fast old guy, clocking a head-turning 4.34-second time in the 40-yard dash last spring.

"I knew I was fast. The strength coaches here make you faster," said Fuller, who was clocked in 4.35 as a senior at Smithson Valley, when the elder Briles tried to recruit him to play football at the University of Houston. "I was surprised at this age that I could still do that. But that is 100 percent testament to our strength coaches. They are amazing."

Playing mostly on special teams his first two seasons, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Fuller made 14 tackles, recovered a fumble to clinch a 45-38 win over No. 5 Oklahoma and also had four catches for 43 yards.

"I don't think it would have been real smart for me to play (receiver) my freshman year," he said. "It was enough to ask me to be on kickoff (coverage) against TCU, opening night, the first game. That was enough for me just to be out there. And that's a credit to the coaches for believing in me coming in. Maybe my age had something to do with it, but just that they could trust me."

Kendall Briles says Fuller, who was put on scholarship prior to this season, doesn't give him enough credit for what he did to help the Bears in back-to-back bowl seasons.

"He had been out of the game for a while, but the thing that he's not going to tell you, or he doesn't realize, is how valuable he was to us," Kendall said. "A lot of times, you've got guys that you don't really want to put out there on special teams, because you're afraid they might get hurt. And then you've got freshmen that are ready to get out there and do it, but may not always do what they're supposed to do. With Clay, you kind of got the best of both worlds. You got a guy who's a freshman that's mature, who understands what the coaches are trying to get done, and he went out there and executed. And he's a big, strong, fast guy who's tough."

This season, with Terrance Williams and Lanear Sampson both gone and Tevin Reese now out with a dislocated wrist, Fuller's been asked to take on a much larger role. He's fourth on the team with 23 catches for 369 yards (16.0-yard average) and one touchdown and has also averaged 20.9 yards on eight kickoff returns for the ninth-ranked Bears (9-1, 6-1).

"Other than little hiccup last week, I don't think you could have written it any better," Fuller said. "It's why you play football. I don't know how you describe this team, our coaches, our strength coaches. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. And that's the truth. I can't think of anywhere else I would rather be."

Quarterback Bryce Petty, who hit Fuller for a big 53-yard gainer in the second quarter of the OSU game, describes him as a "tough kid who will go up and get the ball and make things happen. He's very deceptive, as far as how good he is. He's special."

When Reese went down during the first half of a 41-12 win over 10th-ranked Oklahoma, Fuller said the message was implied: Everyone has to step up and take a bigger role. Over the last three games, he's hauled in eight passes for 154 yards, making two starts at Reese's inside receiver spot.

"When it comes down to it, we have to be able to beat man coverage," he said. "And it's a learning process, because Tevin has been in so many games and seen so many looks that his is reactionary. And it's up to us to learn quickly."

Two years ago, when Fuller came back to school, he said one of his ultimate goals was to "meet my wife." Now that he's dating Makenzie Robertson, a senior guard on the ninth-ranked Lady Bears' basketball team and the daughter of coach Kim Mulkey, Clay has a chance to be a part of athletic royalty.

"We talk about our future pretty regularly," said Fuller, who gave Makenzie a ring with two linked hearts for her birthday. "Just to show you want kind of girl she is, (Sunday night) I told her I was going to have a break from studying between 9 and 10. She goes and buys a Christmas tree, a little miniature Christmas tree with lights, and we decorate a tree together, because it's our first Christmas. It was just special, because you know she loves me like you want to be loved."

As far as his own future, Fuller said he hasn't even considered playing in the NFL, "because I know how I pursued baseball, and I don't want to put that pressure on me. . . . And I don't really want to be a hypocrite and go against what I just left baseball for. . . I'm just out here to enjoy as much as I can."

Fuller plans to use his real estate degree to "develop neighborhoods, develop multi-purpose housing in downtown areas, and inter-mix houses with shops, so everything is right there."