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February 27, 2011It played out just like they dreamed it would. Ever since junior Dylan Clay and his twin Garrett Clay first stood at the base of Greenway Avenue Stadium in Cumberland, awestruck as 40-plus broad-shouldered Fort Hill football players roared down the famed 52 steps, they visualized themselves donning the red and white, basking in the glory that is the Homecoming celebration.
It is in this annual grudge match between Fort Hill High and Allegany High -- which to the folks in Cumberland is akin to Ohio State-Michigan -- that legends are born. Seventy-nine years this game had consumed the locals, stories passed down from generation to generation.
And now, more than a decade after they witnessed their first Homecoming, it was time for the Brothers Clay to cement their name in Sentinels lore:
Dylan, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound slotback-turned-Wildcat-quarterback, stood in the shotgun. He took the snap, pivoted left and handed off to Garrett, a 5-11, 180-pound fullback-turned-halfback. Garrett secured the ball, shot through a hole and sprinted to the outside.
The Allegany linebackers barely laid a finger on him; Garrett Clay was gone. Sixty-four yards later he stood alone in the end zone, and the Homecoming rout was on.
"It was everything we dreamed of as little kids," Garrett said, "and more."
Brother to brother, Clay to Clay, twin to twin. It was a microcosm of their entire lives -- played out in one 48-minute segment.
"When people talk about us, they don't say, 'Oh, that's Garrett Clay' or, 'Oh that's Dylan Clay,'" Dylan explained. "It's always, 'The Clay Brothers.' We're always together."
They need to be. Without each other, Garrett and Dylan Clay might not be in this position. Without each other, the two young Sentinels stars might not be on track to become one of the most heralded pair of twin running backs in state high school history. Without each other, they might not be able to defy conventional wisdom - one stereotype at a time.
Stereotype 1: Not strong enough
The Clay brothers, like any respectable Cumberland male, started their gridiron rearing at six years old. The boys could run like gazelles, but they were undersized, lacked muscle tone and were telephone-pole thin. That didn't change as they moved into middle school. Thus, neither played a leading role on their youth league teams.
Their Fort Hill futures looked bleak, to say the least.
"For football players," Dylan said, "we looked horrible."
"It's safe to say we were the smallest, puniest kids out there," Garrett added.
But in eighth grade the Clays realized they had to start building up their bodies to have any shot at seeing the field at Greenway. With each others' support they began lifting like fiends, pushing themselves to limits they never thought possible.
When they weren't lifting free weights at the gym, they'd pull the drawers out of their dresser and start bench pressing the cabinet. When they weren't running track, they were outside sprinting up a monstrous hill in their backyard.
The workouts certainly helped . . . but not enough to impress Fort Hill's varsity coach, Todd Appel.
"They came in as eighth graders and they were 105 pounds and running 5.1-second 40 [yard dashes]," he said. "But to their credit they just kept working and working. They work out like it's their job."
The Clays weren't yet ready for varsity, but they did make the jayvee. Still, neither had much impact their freshman year. Their speed was off the charts -- both hold Fort Hill track records -- but track stars don't necessarily become great football players, especially at a school where rugged, tough runners are championed.
Undeterred, the two youngsters continued to train, lifting and running more then ever before. By the start of their sophomore seasons Garrett was up to 160 pounds and Dylan wasn't far behind.
Then, when Dylan showed off his hands and newfound quickness during offseason 7-on-7 drills, he earned that coveted varsity spot. Garrett, meanwhile, tore up in a scrimmage against Westminster; he was brought up to play scout-team running back and outside linebacker.
The two saw limited action as sophomores, but they gained valuable experience learning from the veterans. By their junior years, the Clay brothers were ready to bust out. Those 105-pound bodies were long gone. In their place were 170-plus pound specimens who clocked in with sub-4.5 40s, benched 300 pounds and squatted 400.
"Those two worked their butts off," said Fort Hill offensive coordinator Jeff Brode. "It wasn't not a lot of talking - they just went out and got it done. Drills, lifting, whatever - they were right up front. They wanted it bad."
Stereotype: Not tough enough
At first blush, the two lithe, smiling and polite Clay boys look like anything but football players. More than a few opponents outside of Cumberland took one look at them and figured they'd snap in two.
But their looks belie an inner toughness, the same toughness that drove them to lift dresser drawers and run hills in middle school.
"You don't mess with the Clay brothers," Brode said. "If someone takes a cheap shot during practice on one of them - bang! - the other one's right there ready to rumble. They don't back down for anyone."
Of course, Appel never questioned their toughness. After all, these were South End kids. And kids from South End always have a bit more mettle.
Take the time Dylan suffered a bad ankle injury during a playoff game his sophomore year. He dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. Appel wasn't in a sympathetic mood, however. He took one look at the kid and gave him the old Bear Bryant: "If you're not hurt, get up."
"And he got right up and walked back on the field," Appel said. "Later, we found out he had a broken ankle. That's one tough kid."
Garrett can boast similar feats of durability and sturdiness. During his freshman year on jayvee he broke his ankle midseason. The prognosis wasn't especially encouraging; he'd likely miss the rest of the season.
Evidently the doctors didn't know they were talking about a South End kid. Garrett rehabbed hard and came back for the Little Homecoming game against Allegany.
"He was still hurt and he came back for his teammates," Appel said. "That's grit right there."
Stereotype: Not fast enough
Ridiculous right? Anyone who's seen the Clay brothers burn up the track knows these guys are the Usain Bolts of Fort Hill. But to outsiders, it's easy to underestimate their speed.
"It's rare to find the speed the Clays have around here; we're not exactly known for that," said Mountain Ridge speedster Jarrod Harper. "If you don't take the right angle on those two, they'll make you miss all day."
Harper's right about the speed stereotype. This is the land of the big, muscular grinder, the blue-collar fullback who'd rather run through you then around you. And, seriously, how fast can a pair of Caucasian kids really run?
Well, take it from Fort Hill's senior linebacker Garrett Dolly, who had to catch the Clays every day in practice.
"Their speed is unreal - and it's not just track speed," Dolly said. "They have the agility and ability to move side to side very fast. They have terrific lateral movement to make guys miss. And then when they do [make them miss], they have this quick burst of speed and can just turn it on."
Dylan, especially, has that extra pair of jets. He has been timed at 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash. As a slotback for half the season he routinely outran defensive backs, averaging almost 19 yards per reception. When he shifted over to running back and quarterback -- he ran the Wildcat -- he averaged an eye-popping 7.7 yards per carry, piling up almost 600 yards in six games.
Garrett is known as more of a punishing runner, but that doesn't mean he can't accelerate. His 4.47 40 time is just a step slower then Dylan's. Garrett racked up almost 1,500 yards and averaged the exact same yards per carry as his brother. (He was named the area's offensive player of the year by the Cumberland Times-News).
"Basically, I'm Chris Johnson and he's Adrian Peterson," Dylan said. "We're both pretty fast. We just get it done in different ways."
"Their speed is special," Appel said. "I'll put these two against any [runner] out there. Together, those two of us give us a threat we've never had before."
And together, Dylan and Garrett Clay have the potential to run right out of Cumberland. With their speed, attitude and work ethic, the Brothers Clay are bound to attract upper-tier college attention.
For their part, the Clays aren't concentrating on college football just yet. But it is the ultimate goal.
"We want to show everyone that the little white running backs from Fort Hill can play big-time college football," Dylan said. "We can be the Danny Woodhead and Peyton Hillis."
The Twin Life
That's not a bad comparison, but Woodhead and Hillis aren't exactly twins. What makes Dylan and Garrett's situation special is that they're practically clones.
They both have the same slender build, they're both baby-faced blondes, and they both talk with the same country twang. They both dress the same way, have the same group of friends, like the same movies, have the same GPAs and even run basically the same 40-yard-dash times. Garrett may be an inch taller and a few pounds heavier, but who's counting? (Fortunately or unfortunately, they also share the same room).
"Everything but the same girlfriends," Garrett said, laughing.
Ironically, Garrett and Dylan Clay might not even be identical twins. Not even their parents or the doctors know for sure.
"When we were born one of the doctors said we were identical and the other said fraternal," Dylan said. "So we don't know - Mom needs to get us a DNA test or something (laughs). Barring that, we look pretty similar, so we just tell people we're identical."
Their similar enough that even their friends mistake them from time to time. Heck, even their teachers couldn't really tell any difference. When Garrett and Dylan were in elementary school they used to switch classes just to see how long it would take before the teachers noticed.
"They never did," Garrett said. "It was hilarious."
Beyond the jokes and gags, the Clays found a much more helpful use for their "twinship." Turns out they developed that uncanny "sixth sense" twins tend to have.
When the two played basketball their sophomore years at Fort Hill they used to throw no-look passes to one another like a younger version of Stockton-to-Malone.
"Without even practicing, I just knew exactly where Dylan would be on the court," Garrett said.
More recently, they've developed a feel for one another on the football field. Just last year, during the Fort Hill-Surrattsville game, Dylan was playing cornerback and Garrett was at linebacker.
The Surrattsivlle quarterback threw up a pass towards Dylan's side, but it hung like a long pop fly. That gave Garrett enough time to race over and angle under it. But just before he was about to leap up, he stopped short. Dylan snagged the interception instead.
"Garrett could have definitely picked the pass off, but he knew that in those situations I always go for the big play," Dylan said. "If he went up for it, the pass would probably have been incomplete because we would have both collided. Instead, he let me intercept it and he started to set up the block. I returned it 50 yards running behind him."
Their ESP isn't limited to sports, either. When a song pops into Dylan's head, Garrett will inevitably start singing the same tune. When Dylan starts to tell a joke, Garrett will have already had the same gag in mind.
"You know, when you live with each other so long, that sort of stuff just happens," he said. "You just know the other person so well you become pretty much the same."
Well, not completely the same. Friends and family can immediately pick up differences in their personalities.
"They're the same internally - same blood, same heart, same drive -- but externally they're a little different," Appel said. "Dylan is a little more lighthearted; he jokes a little more. Garrett has more of an edge to him; he's a rough-and-tumble-type kid who's just a bit more serious."
Sometimes that disparity can lead to a skirmish or two. No matter how strong the twins' bond is, there's no blood thick enough to overcome that intrinsic brotherly rivalry.
Garrett, who's the more agitated of the two, often complains about Dylan's penchant for long showers and leaving his clothes strewn across their bedroom floor.
"Yeah, I'm the laid back one - Garrett's the only one that gets mad," chuckled Dylan.
"It's true sometimes," Garrett admitted. "But we'll fight a little bit and then 10 minutes later it's over. We couldn't live with each other 16 years if we held a grudge."
The Clays will be living with each other for at least one more year - their final at Fort Hill.
But if all goes according to plan, they'll be spending the next four years together as well. They've made it no secret they want to attend the same college, live in the same dorm and play for the same team -- preferably at the Division-I level.
"I can't imaging playing college football without Dylan," Garrett said. "We're each other's best friends. I want him there to share that with me."
Brother to brother. Clay to Clay. Twin to twin. Together.