Just five months ago, Wylie grad Clay Johnston thought his NFL career was over.
Three months later, he was playing in the Super Bowl.
Johnston, a 2015 Wylie grad, is a linebacker and special teams player with the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals claimed him off waivers in November after the Carolina Panthers waived him.
Even Johnston can’t believe the amazing turn of events.
“It’s been beyond a blessing,” he said. “I got to play in a freaking Super Bowl. It was amazing to see how the Lord delegated all these steps. I was so thankful. It’s been so fun. ”
Johnston was a star at Wylie and then at Baylor before being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 2020. He gained a bit of notoriety when he was featured on the HBO show Hard Knocks, which just happened to be covering the Rams’ training camp.
“It was a unique experience,” he said. “There were just cameras everywhere, and you were miked up, so guys were very cautious about what they would say.”
Unfortunately Johnston did not make the Rams 53-man squad. The team wanted to put him on their practice squad, but the Carolina Panthers also wanted him for their practice squad.
His coach at Baylor is now the head coach at Carolina, and his dad is on the Carolina staff.
“I chose to go to Carolina, not necessarily because my coach is there,” he said. “I went there because of my dad and mom. They live there, and I wanted to be with them.”
He finished out that first season on the practice squad, and then made the 53-man roster to start the 2021 season. He played nine games with Carolina, and then his fortunes changed.
“They called me in and said they were going to waive me,” he said. “They wanted to put me on the practice squad. I was honestly about to drive home. I was pretty much done in my mind. It is what it is.”
But 24 hours later his agent texted to say that Cincinnati had claimed him off waivers and three or four other teams had also wanted him.
Overnight, Johnston went from the struggling Carolina Panthers to playing on an up-and-coming team with one of the hottest young quarterbacks in the NFL. Johnston contributed mostly on special teams until the last game of the season. He got his first start at linebacker against the Cleveland Browns and had 12 tackles.
The quarterback in that game was none other than Wylie grad Case Keenum.
“I went up to him before the game, and I was like what’s up my man,” Johnston said. “He said isn’t this wild bro, look at us, both Abilene Wylie boys about to play each other. I ended up having a chance to hit him on the sideline, but I was afraid I would get a fine. I probably should have leveled him. But I didn’t want to pay $30,000.”
The pair snapped a picture together that appeared on the Wylie ISD Facebook page. They also did a jersey swap.
The Bengals went on to win three straight playoff games and earn a spot in the Super Bowl. Johnston said the Super Bowl experience was amazing.
“It was just such a fun experience,” he said. “It was a once in a lifetime thing. You have to soak up every moment because you never know when you will get that opportunity again.”
He said the atmosphere at kick off was just electric.
“You look up, and it was sold out and it was loud as all get out,” he said. “It was just so surreal. The adrenaline was flowing. It felt like I was going skydiving. It was one of a kind.”
Of course, the Bengals lost, ironically to the Rams, who had drafted Johnston in 2020.
“It was very disappointing,” he said. “I had never been in a locker room that was that quiet when it was over. I was beyond sad. You never know if you are going to get another shot at it.”
Johnston has already signed a contract to play with the Bengals again next year. He said expectations are sky high for the team.
“Our expectation is to keep this chip on our shoulder the entire season and let it fuel us and go to the show one more time and capitalize and win it,” he said.
Johnston is now working out every day and hanging out with his family. He still has a personal goal of being a starting linebacker in the NFL.
“I want to show that I can play linebacker,” he said. “It’s by the grace of God that I believe I can play linebacker.”