Why Chase Claypool’s record-breaking rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers comes as no surprise to the coaches who watched him grow up

With just over three minutes left in a Week 5 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a chance to get to 4–0 for the first time since 1979. They were clinging to a meagre two-point lead in “The Battle of Pennsylvania”. Taking over on their own 47-yard line after the Eagles missed a 57-yard field goal attempt, all Pittsburgh needed to do was keep possession and run the clock out.

A face mask penalty moved the Steelers up to the Philly 35-yard line. On second-and-eight, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw over the middle to Eric Ebron, who appeared to control the ball only to fumble it when he fell to the ground. The Eagles recovered, the momentum swung, and it seemed the Steelers had tossed their undefeated record out the window.

But on review, the play was ruled an incomplete pass, allowing the Steelers to retain possession and set up for a third-down opportunity. Having narrowly avoided potential disaster, they needed this conversion, and needed someone to step up to make it happen.

As Pittsburgh’s offence lined up for the third-and-eight, Roethlisberger was greeted with a Cover 2 zone defence by Philadelphia. The quarterback quickly changed plans on the fly, sending wide receivers Ray-Ray McCloud and Chase Claypool, the rookie from Abbotsford, B.C., to different positions. It was a gamble, neither had ever run the play Roethlisberger had called from these new locations. But the 22-year-old Claypool had proven his ability to thrive in unfamiliar circumstances: He had already caught three touchdowns in what was just his fourth NFL game — bringing his total for the season to four.

The ball was snapped, and Claypool approached linebacker Nate Gerry slowly before darting up field to get wide open. Roethlisberger connected with him at the 12-yard line and Claypool ran into the end zone with ease. The Steelers went on to beat the Eagles 38–29.

That 35-yard score put Claypool in the history books as the first Canadian-born player to have four touchdowns in a game; the total also set a new single-game mark for a Steelers rookie. But that breakout against the Eagles was not the first time Claypool set an NFL record — and it wouldn’t be the last. His 84-yard touchdown reception in Week 2 is the longest scrimmage TD by a Canadian-born player in NFL history. In Week 11, he became just the fourth player in league history to score 10 combined touchdowns in his first 10 games. And with 50 catches for 664 yards through 13 games so far, Claypool could own a few more Steelers rookie records by the end of the season — and make an excellent case for himself as a rookie of the year candidate and the best Canadian player in the game.

For many NFL fans, Claypool’s rise to establish himself as one of the league’s top offensive rookies came out of nowhere. Taken 49th overall in April’s draft, he was not exactly viewed as a No. 1 option — a point underlined by the fact he was the 11th of a record-breaking 13 receivers chosen in the first two rounds. But for the coaches and supporters who’ve known him since his days at Abbotsford Senior Secondary School, it all made perfect sense — even the four-touchdown game. After all, they’d seen him do the amazing and unheard of before. They knew what kind of player and person he was, the character and work ethic he possessed. And they knew it was only a matter of time until his athletic potential was realized on a worldwide stage.

In addition to regularly playing at wideout and safety, Claypool stepped in at QB, held field goals, and even logged time as Abby's punter — anything to help his team

Before Claypool was even a high-school student, there was buzz about him as an up-and-coming athlete with real talent at one of Abbotsford Senior’s feeder schools. Prentice Lenz, Claypool’s high-school basketball coach, remembers meeting him when he was in about Grade 5. “He used to ride his BMX bike around the school,” Lenz recalls. “When you see a kid [who’s] that big and looks that athletic, when his knees are just about hitting his chin, you always wonder if he should come in and play.”

Soon afterwards, Claypool started wandering into the high-school gym and scrimmaging with Abby students. “We were fortunate enough to see him at the middle school,” Lenz says. “[He was] a great athlete with tons of energy and great enthusiasm for life. It was fun to watch him.”

By the time Claypool started high school, he was already bigger than most of the school’s Grade 12 students. “Because of his size and how big he was, it was difficult,” Lenz says of Claypool’s transition to Abby Senior. “Because some people assumed that he should be more mature than he was, but he was still a 14-year-old kid.”

On top of those presumptions, Claypool faced pressures away from school. In an appearance on the 4th and Forever podcast over the summer, Claypool discussed his humble beginnings and opened up about some of the financial strains his family experienced when he was growing up. “We weren’t, like, poor, but there was definitely times where my mom struggled,” Claypool told host and former NFL quarterback Mark Sanchez. “There was a time we went to the food bank. We had food stamps, all that, for a short period of time there.”

“By Grade 12 he could do things that sometimes you just held your breath over.”

The youngest in his family, he added that they moved around “to find a good spot.” His mother, Jasmine, who raised Claypool and his siblings by herself, worked as a concessions operator on a carnival circuit and often needed to travel for work. “For a good portion, we weren’t struggling too bad,” Claypool told Sanchez, “but there was definitely some times where I could see my mom was trying to make ends meet and, you know, it’s very stressful in that situation and I saw that.”

The stresses weren’t just financial. Today, Claypool has a poem tattooed on his right arm, a tribute to his beloved sister, Ashley, who died by suicide when she was 17 and he was 13: A thousand words won’t bring you back. I know, because I tried. Neither will a thousand tears. I know, because I’ve cried. Until we meet again.

It’s never easy to lose a loved one, especially at such a young age. As Claypool grieved, Lenz says, he seemed to find motivation in the belief that Ashley was looking down on him. “You always knew that it was something that compelled him to continue to be better than he thought he could be,” the coach explains, “whether that was on an athletic field or as a person.”

As he got older, Claypool learned to accept help from others and looked to them as resources to help him reach his goals, but his strength, resiliency and independence also shone through. “I think he understood that he needed help to do the things that he wanted, but in the same vein, he was able to do a lot of things on his own and overcame a lot of things by himself,” Lenz says. “You can only do so much as a school and as a community, and then the other half is on the individual … I think he took advantage of every opportunity that was there to make himself better and to do the things that he wanted to do.”

In addition to varsity football, Claypool also played varsity basketball throughout high school. “I mean, in his senior year, he averaged [more than 40] points a game for us,” Lenz says. “He saw the floor well, obviously an incredible athlete, so his ability to take it at people and take it to the rim was fantastic as well.”

Claypool was easily as talented on the football field, where he played both ways, as a wide receiver and a safety. But he didn’t stop at just those two positions. Driven to do whatever it took to win, he played all over the field during his four years as a Panther. He even stepped in at quarterback, at holder for field goals and as Abby’s punter.

That fire wasn’t limited to games, he was just as competitive in practice. “He was always just running around and trying to make plays,” says Abbotsford Senior football coach Jay Fujimura. “He’s always trying to make that catch over you … If he was going one-on-one with you, he was going really hard every time.”

With every passing year, Claypool got more athletic — jumping higher and running faster — and, most importantly, he wasn’t afraid to push his body to new limits. “As he continued to get better athletically, he continued to allow himself to use that athleticism better and better,” Lenz explains. “By Grade 12 … he could just do things, and was okay doing those things on the floor, that sometimes you just held your breath over.”

“He took advantage of every opportunity to make himself better and to do the things that he wanted to do.”

It didn’t take long for word of Claypool to spread through the Abbotsford community. Curiosity about such a talented athlete brought more and more fans out — and not just at Panthers home games. Lenz recalls arriving at a school that typically had low attendance for games and instead seeing the stands filled. “It took me until about Game 2 to realize that they were there to watch Chase play and be able to get their picture taken with him at the end,” Lenz says. “It was kind of surreal in that sense, that even at that stage, he had a big enough persona that people wanted to come out and watch him play.”

“That was a big thing,” Fujimura says, “there were people driving [in] from outside of town to come and watch.”

Taken 49th overall in the 2020 draft, Claypool has far exceeded expectations, and made a case for himself as a rookie of the year candidate

After years of playing both basketball and football, Claypool realized as he started Grade 11 that he had a chance to be recruited by a Division I school. But which sport would it be: football or basketball?

“He really enjoyed both,” Fujimura says. “I think that he definitely was garnering more interest as a wide receiver than he was as a point guard, especially internationally from Division I schools. That might have swayed him a little bit towards football. But I think he always liked football a little bit more.”

Claypool had to work a little harder at basketball, Fujimura explains. With his competitive drive, he wanted to excel at everything. For basketball, sometimes that meant staying for hours after school in the gym working on his shooting — anything he could do to improve his game.

In the end, he decided to follow his first passion. He continued to play basketball with the Panthers, but outside of school his sole focus was football. That and sheer dedication allowed him to refine his craft with each game. By the end of his Grade 11 season, he had collected more than 1,200 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns — numbers certainly worthy of attention from scouts. In order to be a D1 athlete, though, there are certain academic standards that must be met, and Claypool was falling short of those. But, as Paul Peters, a counsellor at Abby Senior, explains, once Claypool had his post-secondary goal set, his academic turnaround was amazing. “He started to focus and catch up and make sure that he was NCAA eligible,” Peters says. “He worked very hard and we were quite proud of him here.”

The academic barrier was one Claypool could work his way over, but there was another factor impacting his ability to get attention from D1 schools that he couldn’t do much about: the fact he was Canadian. While there are obviously a lot of talented in athletes in Canada, American scouts tend not to look north of the border while recruiting. To increase his exposure, Claypool attended several prospect camps. He also posted a highlight reel on Facebook.

At first, it was west coast schools like Nevada, Oregon and Washington that reached out. But soon eastern powerhouses, like Michigan and Notre Dame, took interest and began contacting Claypool, too. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said his program got a tip about Claypool from one of their recruiting contacts. “They were in Canada with a camp. We got some film, and we were pleasantly surprised that he was a young man that, when we did some research on him, was a really good student,” Kelly said in April, after Claypool was drafted by the Steelers.

While Notre Dame’s recruiting team was in Washington and Oregon, they took the short flight to Abbotsford to see Claypool. “The way he really impressed us was with his competitiveness,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of guys that can run and catch, but we loved the way he competed. We felt for us it was a wide receiver with great size and great potential.”

One thing that sold Claypool on Notre Dame, Fujimura says, was that it was a smaller school with smaller class sizes and a high graduation rate for student-athletes. “He was smart enough to know what system he would be the most successful in — not just in football, but academically as well.”

Claypool officially signed with the Fighting Irish in February of 2016 — less than a week after putting up a stunning 51 points for the Panthers in basketball. “I was really happy with the decision because it was well thought out from every angle,” Fujimura says. “The fact that I knew that he was going to be able to show what he could do on such a big stage in front of so many more people than what he was doing here in B.C., I was excited for him.”

Claypool was a fan favourite at Notre Dame, and earned team MVP honours for the 2019 season

Those who’ve known Claypool since his first days at Abby Senior almost always note how loyal he is when talking about him. And Claypool’s loyalty to the Panthers was on display when he decided to fly home from Notre Dame during his sophomore year to cheer them on in the 2017 provincial championship at B.C. Place. He helped to pump up the players before they took the field and stood on the sidelines giving high-fives during the game. When the Panthers lost, he was there in the locker room to help console them and to tell them how much the program helped him — though he hadn’t won a championship either.

Claypool doesn’t seem to forget or stop caring for the people and places that have made him who he is today, even inviting Fujimura, Lenz, Peters and several other Abby Senior staff members to Notre Dame to see him play on two different occasions. “We’re with all the parents and they were so excited to have these coaches from Canada sitting all together,” Peters remembers. “The parents all seem to love Chase, too.”

For some players, the jump from a crowd of about 800 in Abbotsford to more than 80,000 screaming at Notre Dame Stadium would be intimidating. “You watch them play and you always wonder, ‘Are they good enough to play at the next level?’” Fujimura says of the athletes who pass through his program. “But it seems with Chase that nothing is ever too big for him.”

The first game the group saw was Notre Dame’s 2018 home opener against long-standing rival Michigan. Claypool had three receptions for 47 yards in a 24–17 victory over the Wolverines. The second came during his senior year, with the No. 12-ranked Fighting Irish taking on the Virginia Tech Hokies. Notre Dame was expected to win, but the game turned out to be a real nail-biter.

With just over three minutes left and the Hokies leading 20–14, the Irish got the ball back on their own 13-yard line — a mere 87-yards from victory. Notre Dame’s quarterback, Ian Book, consistently tried to get the ball to Claypool as they drove up the field, targeting him on six of the drive’s 18 plays.

With less than 90 seconds on the clock, Claypool managed to keep his right toe inbounds on a 13-yard sideline catch for a first down, moving the chains to the Hokies’ 33. Thirty seconds later, with Notre Dame on a fourth-and-10, Book took his time in the pocket to find an open Claypool for a 26-yard reception. The crowd erupted as soon as the ball was in his hands. He quickly bounced up from the tackle and pointed down field, having earned the Irish a first down only seven yards from the end zone.

Book ended up scoring the final touchdown on a designed quarterback run, but as Peters recalls, the fans clearly did not forget what Claypool did to help the Irish win 21–20. “All of a sudden you could hear the stands. Everyone going ‘Clay-pool! Clay-pool!’ And we all looked at each other. It felt like a Rudy moment,” the counsellor says.

Claypool eventually earned MVP honours for Notre Dame’s 2019 season.

Even as he's achieved success at the highest levels, Claypool has worked to maintain his connections to the Panthers and the Abbotsford community

Peters figured that Claypool would be a little busy after such a big game and the group would catch up with him later. But shortly after that dramatic finish, he got a text from Claypool: Where are you guys? Meet me at the back corner and I’ll take you on a tour.

“The fact that he is thinking about us right after all that — it just shows his character and how he thinks of other people. He knows that whatever he’s doing is special for not just him, it’s special for all of us, too,” Peters says.

“We’re talking about a university-level athlete now who’s still willing to take time out of his day after the game is over to show us around the locker room, to take us down to the field, to walk us through all the things that he does, to have lunch with us the next day,” Lenz says. “In terms of a [21-year-old] kid, that’s pretty incredible.”

It may not have been quite the same as having 80,000 fans chant his name, but the attention Claypool attracted on Notre Dame’s campus shocked his former coaches. “It took us like an hour to walk what should have taken five minutes because he was stopping with every kid that wanted an autograph and all these people were stopping to talk to him,” Peters says.

Adds Fujimura: “Without hesitation he would always stop, take a picture, smile, sign autographs and all that kind of thing. He’s just become a well-rounded and well-spoken young man, which I’m really happy about.”

It’s been four years since Claypool was a student at Abbotsford Senior, but the tools he picked up there are still serving him well today. “I think the sort of mindset that he has created went right into the NFL to where he really doesn’t think anyone or anything is going to stop him,” Fujimura says. “He just keeps grinding at it.”

All that work is paying off, too. In fact, after he signed his first Steelers contract, Claypool bought a new vehicle for both his mother and father — a dream of his since Kindergarten. With his four-year, $6.6 million rookie contract signed, his family will never have to struggle again. “I joke with him that someday we’ll have Claypool Stadium here when he signs his next contract,” Peters says.

When a place and its people impact your life so profoundly, you never forget. And whenever Claypool gets a chance to come back to town, he always makes time to visit his high school and even work out with current students. “He’s so much more than just an athlete,” Lenz says. “It’s incredibly cool that you have this sort of larger-than-life persona that was playing at Notre Dame and now is playing in the NFL, but still has the mindset that he was going to continue to give back to where he came from. And our kids are a real beneficiary of that.”

“He could have left us behind,” Peters says. “But he didn’t. He cares about this place.”

Photo Credits

Joe Sargent/Getty Images; Courtesy Abbotsford Senior Secondary School; Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Courtesy Abbotsford Senior Secondary School.