They say every NFL player has a ‘Welcome to the NFL’ moment, an experience early in their rookie season that lets them know that they have entered a different level of competition.
For most, being welcomed to the NFL is a slightly embarrassing affair, getting knocked on their behind by a veteran player or getting caught by the speed of the game.
Others find themselves starstruck in the face of one of the game’s legends, a player they’ve idolized since childhood. For an elite few, however, the moment of realization that they’ve reached the pinnacle of their sport comes with a resounding statement that not only have they made the NFL, but they have the skills to excel.
Abbotsford’s Chase Claypool counts himself among the lucky ones. When he extended for a jaw-dropping contested catch while going out of bounds during the first Monday night game of the 2020 NFL season, he knew he had arrived.
“Being able to make the same plays you made in college and bring that over to the NFL, I think that’s reassuring because the transition is a little easier once you can do that,” Claypool says.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rookie sensation may have taken a unique path to the bright lights of the NFL, it was his unusual launching point, Abbotsford Secondary School, that helped give him the skills to announce his presence in pro football. The situation he found himself in to make that catch was one he had already been a part of dozens of times playing B.C. High School Football.
“That was my number one route in high school, just a go ball, so I got a lot of exposure then,” Claypool explains.
”Then in college, we worked on it every day. At some point it just becomes natural and you’ve got to go make a play on the ball.”
Making plays has always been Claypool’s specialty, sending him down the path less traveled from a little known Canadian public school in the AA division of provincial football to stardom at Division I powerhouse Notre Dame and a second round NFL draft selection. The transition to the NFL may be a challenge, but it doesn’t compare to the quantum leap Claypool experienced trying to prove himself as a wide-eyed freshman for the Fighting Irish.
“That first year as freshman in college, if I was able to go in a couple plays and make some plays that would be cool, but as a freshman I wasn’t able to fully start,” he admits.
”Now, I think I’m ready to fully start [in the NFL]. I’m very comfortable with the playbook and able to make plays.”
That’s a testament to Claypool’s work ethic and understanding of the game. He’s quickly adjusting to the speed of the NFL, working on the little details like adjusting to the ball and being aware of what his teammates are responsible for at all times. That was a challenge for most rookies without the benefit of organized team activities, but Claypool adjusted on the fly.
“We virtually installed each day and then I would go out with my trainer and walk through [the plays] to understand why we were doing certain things,” the rookie explains. “I did that for however many installs we had. That really helped me getting the playbook.”
That solid base of understanding has helped Claypool explode onto the scene in his first two NFL games. The Canadian has caught five passes for 127 yards and a score, including an 84-yard deep ball that went down in the record books as the longest play from scrimmage by a Canadian in NFL history. He’s also racked up three special teams tackles, a part of the game in which Claypool also excelled at Notre Dame.
“It’s a really good opportunity for me to make some plays when I’m not on offence and get my name out there even further,” he says. “My goal through that is to make the Pro Bowl through special teams, hopefully through offence but special teams would be nice.”
Pro Bowl or not, Claypool has already captured the imaginations of football fans north of the border. The highlight reel-generating ‘Mapletron’ is showing that a path to pro football stardom is possible for any Canadian kid with talent, without the need to shell out thousands of dollars to attend U.S. prep schools. Still, he hasn’t fully come to grips with his early impact at home.
“I see some stuff on social media, but I feel like until I go home and see some of the kids or some of the people there, it won’t fully sink in,” Claypool says. “I look forward to going back to Canada and working out with some of the local high school kids. Maybe when I do that, I’ll be able to see the impact I had back home.”
While long term impacts on Canadian football will be measured down the road, there is one Canadian kid that Claypool wishes could watch him play. When he welcomed himself to the NFL with his spectacular Monday Night Football grab, on his wrist was the name of former Abbotsford Secondary School teammate Samwel Uko, a U Sports and Canadian Junior Football League player who tragically took his own life this summer after being turned away from a hospital during a mental health crisis.
“He was one of the best players I’ve ever seen play. We were just super close. We’d train together, we’d hang out together and we worked together at a job that we had. We got really close my last couple years there, especially because we were on the same team for the first time,” Claypool says.
”When I heard about [his death], it was a really tough situation because I wasn’t able to go home and go to his funeral with everything going on. I just wanted a way to dedicate the season to him. I’m trying to get his name on the back of my helmet, so I have to talk to the NFL about that.”
So far, his fallen friend would be pretty pleased with Claypool’s dedication. The physical receiver is making an impact that few north of the border ever have in the NFL and he realizes how special the experience is.
“It’s definitely very cool. There are moments in the day where I just look around and enjoy it,” Claypool says. “I hear about some of the things other people are going through and it makes me more grateful for my experience.”
Still, Claypool won’t be satisfied until he’s achieved his true potential. While he’s proved that he belongs in the NFL, establishing himself as one of the league’s best is another matter entirely.
“The fast start was great, but you want to keep that going throughout the season,” he admits. “If I can do that, I think I can do some really big things for the team.”