-In just 6 years playing football, he has become a Big Ten starter
Defensive end Clay Nurse hauls down Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor by his facemask at Ohio Stadium. (Jamie Sabau, Getty Images / September 26, 2009)
Just five years ago, all Clay Nurse knew about playing football was to run as fast as he could and try to flatten the guy with the ball. Six years ago, he didn't even know that.
A native of Georgetown, Guyana -- a coastal town in northern South America -- Nurse traded in cricket and soccer for football once he arrived in Maryland. He made a quick ascent from football novice to being on scholarship at Illinois.
"He had no idea about the game," Nurse's mother, Marcia Leitch, said. "But Clay fell in love with it so much."
Nurse, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound senior, will be a key part of the defensive line Saturday trying to contain Penn State and quarterback Daryll Clark when the Illini play their Big Ten home opener.
Both teams will try to re-establish themselves in the conference -- Illinois from a 30-0 blowout at Ohio State and Penn State from a 21-10 upset loss to Iowa.
After playing primarily on special teams the last two seasons and taking a medical redshirt after a shoulder injury as a freshman, the defensive end had two tackles for a loss against Ohio State and a forced fumble against Illinois State.
"Clay probably played his best game (against Ohio State)," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "I'm really proud of him. He has done a remarkable job. Clay sometimes tried to play his own game and he has gotten more and more disciplined from that standpoint."
Watching football was a once-a-year experience in Guyana, when the Super Bowl was on TV.
When Nurse was 15, he moved to America with his mother, brother and sister. He started playing football when he was 16 after the High Point High School football coach noticed the new student was pretty big.
Nurse's size helped make up for his limited knowledge.
"I'd look to people on the sidelines and they'd yell to me what to do," he said, laughing.
He had attended a private secondary school in Guyana that he describes as the best in the country. But a teacher there told him he would fail in America because he came from a poor area.
"Most people in my neighborhood are not expected to do much with their life," Nurse said. "I was not expected to go anywhere. (The teacher said) she expected me to come back in a casket. My mom was (angry) when she heard this and said, 'From this day forward you have to prove every single person wrong.' "
His mother pushed Nurse academically more than athletically.
"I didn't want to raise an ordinary child," said Leitch, who raised Nurse as a single mother. "I wanted him to have the opportunity that life and the land of opportunity has to offer. There is a gift from God in Clay and I think football will help that come out of him."
Nurse remembers her sacrifices and advice.
"Every time I step on the field it's a personal vendetta against all the people who told me I couldn't make it," said Nurse, who's majoring in kinesiology.
Nurse said he doesn't think he's on the NFL's radar yet, but he's not worried about that. He's eager to keep learning.
"I learned on the fly," he said. "Coach Zook reminds me all the time, 'You haven't played that much. I have forgotten more about football than you have learned.' At the same time, he's proud of the progression I've made."
Source: Chicago Tribune