Clayton, Johnson Eager to Return

Posted Oct 20, 2011

Thinking back on the past year, Rams receiver Mark Clayton and cornerback Marquis Johnson can’t help but reflect on their respective football mortalities.

Both have been through enough surgeries, rehabilitation and mental stress to last them a lifetime as they found themselves wondering if they’d ever get back on a football field or if their livelihoods would be stripped away.

But when they returned to the Rams practice field Wednesday and did it again Thursday, they were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief that they can again do what they love most.

“Man, it’s been like a year and a couple months,” Johnson said. “It’s been a lot, just going through injuries is hard but at the same time you have got to keep your head on straight and thank God and stay in the game mentally and hope when you are out there you can have some of those instincts and some of those feelings that lead you to be more successful in this league.”

Clayton knows those exact feelings well.

“It’s like ‘Wow, 365 days,’” Clayton said. “Just remembering the injury, remembering the first week after it and how bad it hurt and remembering how four or five months into it I thought it just wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to be able to run or I wasn’t going to be able to get to the level that I needed to be to play and be productive in the league. And as it started to progress and go pretty fast with the support and everybody saying it was going to be all right and it’s a long process but it’s possible. I just kind of held on to that and am grateful for God’s grace that I get this opportunity to come out here again and hopefully try to help this team win some ballgames.”

While it remains to be seen how soon Clayton and Johnson will get that chance to help the Rams win some games, they have taken a huge step in the right direction this week.

Johnson had three surgeries (rotator cuff, microfracture and OATS) to rehab and recover from and Clayton had a torn patellar tendon in the front of his right knee.

Those ailments happened roughly a year ago in both cases and landed Clayton and Johnson on the Physically Unable to Perform list at the start of this season, extending their wait to return to the game by six weeks.

This week, they are finally eligible to return to practice and the Rams have three weeks to make a decision on whether to activate them to the 53-man roster.

In their first foray back to the field, the duo impressed coach Steve Spagnuolo.

“When you get those fresh legs (you look good)…now again, I always kind of tread lightly, because we are talking about Marquis and Mark Clayton, we are talking about knee injuries, not surgeries,” Spagnuolo said. “Hopefully they have no setbacks.”
For Clayton, the return to the field comes at a good time as the Rams have a suddenly revamped receiver corps with newly-acquired Brandon Lloyd also joining the fray.

When Clayton arrived in St. Louis last year, he picked up the system, started his first game and caught 10 passes after just a trio of practices. He followed by becoming quarterback Sam Bradford’s favorite target until suffering the knee injury against Detroit.

The expectations Clayton created for the fans by his performance were great but not ones he shies away from even now.

“I do understand that,” Clayton said. “I expect the same thing and more. There’s always room for improvement. I love the challenge. As an athlete, you love challenges, so this is a great challenge and I am excited about it.”

Clayton is pinning his hopes on being activated and ready to go when the Rams travel to Dallas this weekend. Clayton grew up in the shadow of where Cowboys Stadium now sits and is hoping to get the chance to play in front of a large crowd of family and friends.

Perhaps the biggest thing for Clayton is showing that he understands the new offense that’s been installed in his absence. Although Clayton has been in meetings with the team, this week has been his first chance to prove he can take those lessons and display them on the field.

If the practices Wednesday and Thursday were any indication, Clayton believes he’s on track to get the call.

“It translated well,” Clayton said. “I mean they would call the play and as I was going out to line up, I have to run it my head or whatnot. Then look at the coverage and take a snapshot of that. Get the route according to the coverage. Right now is a progress and its’ a process. It’s good to come out here and practice and if mess up, mess up in practice. That way that’ll stick and when we get to the game I won’t really have to worry about it.”

Johnson has gone through a similar recovery period and now returns to the mix at another position of need for the Rams.

His three surgeries were all fairly serious, particularly the microfracture and OATS operations. Microfracture has become fairly common in sports, particularly for basketball players such as Blake Griffin and Amare Stoudemire, both of whom have returned strong from those surgeries.

The OATS surgery is a bit different. OATS surgery is essentially the concept of taking ligament from non weight-bearing place and replacing it in a place wear damage occurred.

In Johnson’s case, he had a quarter-sized hole in his knee and was on six weeks of bed rest following the operation.

During that time, Johnson says he ballooned to 216 pounds and began wondering where his future in the league was headed, especially after never getting much of a chance to show what he can do.

“Oh yeah, anybody that knows me, I like to be the hardest worker on the field,” Johnson said. : I always do the extra, just with injuries through college and such I could never lift like I wanted to. I always had a big lower body. So finally this offseason, I finally had time while I was on PUP to really get my body where I wanted to. They used to call me Fat Corner for no reason, everybody. They all made fun of me.

Johnson trained in Orlando and trimmed down to a shade under 200 pounds while adding more muscle and strength to his frame.

“He’s really changed his body and has got himself in good shape and whatnot,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s played limited football in this league now. We’re virtually talking about a rookie, so let’s not put too much pressure on him right now.”

That the Rams thought enough of Johnson to keep him on the PUP list and put in the time to get him back to health speaks to what they think about his potential as a player.

Like Clayton, Johnson attended meetings and stayed sharp on the mental aspects of the game. Coming from a family with NFL lineage and a program such as Alabama, Johnson isn’t concerned with understanding the scheme.

Also like Clayton, Johnson’s status won’t be determined right away. The Rams do have a need for more help at corner and it’s possible Johnson could get the call as soon as this weekend.

For the time being, though, Johnson is just happy to be back on a football field.

“I feel better than I’ve felt ever,” Johnson said. “I wish I could play right now. I hope I can bring that energy right now even if it’s just being a sideline cheerleader, just being another cheerleader on the squad, whatever it takes.”