By Thomas Sellers Jr.
By the dozens they filed into the Millington Performing Arts Center to witness the dream of Tommy Clifton come true.
The little boy who once roamed the sidelines of Mooney Boswell Field as a ball boy grew up to make headlines as a middle school Metro Trojan. Then Clifton was thrust into the leadership role as the varsity starting quarterback in the ninth grade.
He endured those growing pains to become a championship level signal caller, break records and earn various honors including signing a national letter of intent on National Signing Day 2020.
In front of more than 100 witnesses, Clifton made it official his intentions to attend Harding University in Searcy, Ark., to join Head Coach Paul Simmons’ Bisons.
“To have the whole community backing me up watching me every Friday night and coming out here today to support me is unbelievable,” Clifton said. “Thanks to my family for raising me the right way.”
Among all of the family there in attendance were his parents Tommy II and Debby along with his older sister Hannah. The elder Tommy played for the Trojan in the early 1990s helping Millington go unbeaten for one regular season.
He followed in the footsteps of his father Tommy who coached Tommy III during his high school career. Grandfather Tommy was an All-Shelby player running the ball for the Trojans.
“It started with my great-grandpa,” the youngest Clifton noted. “They all instilled everything I have in me, the fight, the drive and everything I have in me. I wouldn’t be here today. It’s my roots.”
Mother and sister are Millington graduates as well. They made sure Tommy hit the ACT requirements, made the grades and was active in Trojan life during the past four years.
“Every night pushing me in the classroom, for them it was more on the classroom side,” Tommy recalled. “Every day it was something else and I was inspired by their hard work and drive.”
Debby said it wasn’t hard to keep her son on the right path. His signing to Harding was validation of the right decisions he made during his football life.
“To me it shows he made it,” she said. “It means he succeed at creating an environment not only he could succeed but show others they could succeed.
“It was overwhelming because I knew it wasn’t the end but just the beginning of so many things and a different chapter,” Debby added. “It meant you could do anything because I knew what he had been through. I think his sophomore year showed a lot when he got injured. It probably was the best thing that happened to him because he got to grow into a different type of leader. He grew into a leader who led spiritually and with is heart with genuine intentions.”
Tommy suffered a season-ending shoulder injury his 10th grade season. During rehab he stayed close to his teammates, Head Coach Chris Michael and Offensive Coordinator Darren Garcia.
Debby said away from the field during that time her son learned how to handle disappointment.
“He stopped beating himself up,” she recalled. “He learned from his mistakes. Not only did he own his mistakes but he grew from them. He would just deflate and let his mistakes define him. It no longer defines him.”
Clifton started to be defined as a winner with a pair of Region 8-4A championships his junior and senior seasons.
“The freshman year coming in on the varsity level as a quarterback is tough,” Tommy II recalled. “That breaks a lot of kids. He just battled on through it. Just looking back at Bolton his freshman year when he threw four interceptions up till now, him coming home after the games and people asking how many picks you’re going to throw this week?
“But you’ve got to thank all those people because it made him better week to week,” he added. “All those dudes who never will play sports again, he’s going to be one of the 6 percent of high school players to play college football. That’s pretty impressive.”
Tommy III had a senior season for the record books at Millington. He rushed for 1,672 yards and 25 touchdowns. Meanwhile he threw for 13 touchdowns with 1,238 yards in the air.
“He’s one of the best I’ve ever coached,” Michael said. “I’ve been the head coach for 10 years and had a lot of good ones in different positions. So when it comes to that, it’s hard to compare them side to side. He put good numbers up like Eldon (Tyms).
“But he was like a combination,” he continued. “We’ve had guys who rushed for more than him. But they were running back. We’ve had quarterbacks who passed for more than him. But as the combination, runner, passer, player to do everything and leader he’s been one of the best who has come through here. Excited to have the privilege to coach him for four years and watch him develop into player and person he is now.”
Michael said he knew the first few games for Tommy would be tough but he matured into one of the best Trojans of all time.
“Anytime you get a kid and he’s gone through his whole life of watching a program then playing in that program to have the opportunity to achieve like he has achieved,” he said, “and now extend his career you can’t be more excited for a kid. It’s a dream he has had. He has worked hard to fulfill it. He has had a lot of stumbling blocks, lot of road blocks through the course of four years that’ he’s been there.
“It’s just a testament to his perseverance and family support and community support during everything,” Michael added. “He was put through a lot of tough situations the moment he walked onto campus. He was a ninth grader who had to play quarterback. Loss a bunch of ball games, won some ball games and just had fun doing it. He never looked at the negative side of it. He always stayed positive looking forward to the next opportunity.”
Clifton’s next opportunity on the gridiron will be with the Bisons in the Great American Conference in NCAA Division III.
“Any time Coach Simmons or any of the coaching staff talk about the kind of players they wanted, I felt like they were describing my kid,” Debby said. “Tommy is humble. He’s a spiritual leader. He knows right from wrong. I feel like the players they’ve already developed, they’re getting that in Tommy.
“It’s just a good feeling to know that this small town of Millington is sending him home,” she added. “I feel like that’s where he’s going. He’s found a home. They care about him and it’s just a good feeling knowing that you’re handing you kid off to somebody who loves him.”
Tommy said he felt a natural bond with those who wear the black and gold of Harding in Searcy. He felt a connection he is familiar with from his years of wearing the black and gold of Millington.
“I just want to say thank you,” Tommy III said. “I don’t think any of those guys know how much they mean to me. Just growing up, the bond we have as teammates is unbreakable. If it wasn’t for those guys working with me every single day, I don’t know where I would be today.”
The day belonged to Tommy sparking a discussion of him being one of the best Trojans of all time.
“It’s a great feeling but I always try to keep a level head,” Tommy III said. “I don’t think there is a best Trojan ever. We’re all Trojans. We all come out and do the same thing – play football. Everybody is great in my eyes. I don’t think I am higher than anybody else who wore the black and gold.”
Tommy II said his son is among the best to ever play for Millington and defines what it means to be a Trojan.
“There have been guys in the past who have been the most athletic, bigger names,” he concluded. “But there is nobody who took the Trojan Path like him. I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as him and be a true example of a teammate. He always puts his team first. He is the example of what it is to be a Trojan.”