PROGRESS 2020 Third Down: Three generations of Cliftons look back on black & gold legacies

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By Thomas Sellers Jr.

One of the best single-season performances of a Millington Trojan Football player wrapped up in 2019.
With 2,910 yards of total offense and being responsible for 38 touchdowns, No. 10 Tommy Clifton racked up those numbers leading to a 9-3 record, Second Round appearance in the playoffs and the 2019 Region 8-4A championship.
But those familiar with Trojan Football since the last 1960s are no stranger to the name Tommy Clifton being connected with gridiron success.
“Let’s get something straight off the bat, my daddy played here too,” the eldest Tommy Clifton said. “His name was Tom Warner Clifton. All three of us are Thomas Wayne Clifton. I’m going to say he played ’41, ’42, ’43, somewhere in there. Because when he got out of high school he went straight into the Navy and the war.”
Warner Clifton gave birth to the Clifton legacy nearly 80 years ago. His son Tommy Clifton Sr. put on the black and gold from 1965-68 as a fullback. Wearing the No. 43, the eldest Clifton was an All-County player with various 200-yard games.
After Clifton walked across the stage graduating in 1969, it wouldn’t be until 1991 when another Clifton hit the gridiron for the Trojans. Tommy Clifton II was also a fullback for Millington but his role being a led blocker for multiple tailbacks out of the Stacked-I formation.
Clifton II, also No. 43, is the only man in the family legacy to be a part of a undefeated regular season.
“I just want the team to win,” he said. “When Coach (Tommy) Harrison was here, that’s what he instilled. It’s not just about one guy. It was about every man doing his part every play. Whoever scored, the team scored. Oh yeah, he might have gotten the accolades. They really didn’t act like it was just him getting the award. It was for the guy right next to him too.”
From 1991-94, Clifton and the Trojans did a lot of winning going 8-2 in his senior season. After his graduation in 1995 from Millington Central High School, it wouldn’t be until 2016 before the next Clifton suited up for the black and gold.
“I was thinking just like my dad,” Tommy III said,  “I was ready to go out there and play with my team. It wasn’t as much the legacy. It was more I ready to play football with all my new high school teammates coming in as a freshman.
“That continued as I developed through the four years of high school ball,” he continued. “The same thing, get ready every game to play with my team. And when we’re out there on the field, he’s not grandpa. He’s Coach Clifton. He’s just as much as a coach to me than anybody else or maybe even harder.”
The unique bond the three Clifton share was on display the past four years at Mooney Boswell Field. The middle Clifton wore a pair of hats as coach and grandfather.
For Tommy II, he balanced the roles of father and son making sure things stayed smooth across the board. And for the youngest Clifton, his job was to soak in the wisdom while making the most of his time as the quarterback of the Trojans.
“Every single day, both of them had to keep my head on straight,” the youngest Clifton recalled. “I never got off the straight path because of those two. From my first day in here of the summer going into my freshman year, he would immediately jump on me to keep me on the straight path.
“Then I would go home and he’ll ask me about it and do the exact same thing,” he added. “The past four years they’ve both led me to become the young man I am today and the person I am right now.”
It was 55 years ago a young man arrived on the campus of MCHS looking to play the game he loved.
“I loved football for the time I got going,” Coach Clifton recalled. “My first two coaches were James Hayslip and Jerry Ellis. Jerry Ellis still coaches at MUS. He’s the defensive line coach down there.”
Then other coaches came into the life of Clifton impacting his future like Earl Harrold and Jack Turner. Clifton earned a scholarship to Murray State playing one season of college football.
Recently his grandson reached that achievement signing to Harding University on Feb. 5.
“Just get out there and earn your way,” Coach Clifton told his grandson. “This stage now you’re not going to be the only quarterback. It’s going to be 5 or 6 over there. He’s got to compete for his spot on the field. And I have every confidence in the world he’s going to play as freshman on the football field.
“You’re not going to find anybody who works harder than him,” he added. “I’ve been coaching around here for a long time. It’s very few kids who have actually bought in to do the work like he has. Alan Cross was one, he worked hard to get where he was. Not a lot of athletic ability but I want to play. That’s what he did and that’s what he’ll do.”
The youngest Clifton watched former Trojan greats like Cross reach the NFL and received lessons of discipline from his grandfather. But he said his strongest influence on preparing the mind and body for the gridiron came from his dad.
“The 43 he could have worn but I wanted Tommy to be his own Tommy,” Tommy II said. “I choose it but we didn’t push that on him. Tommy got his own legacy too.
“The original plan was I wasn’t even going to let him play football until he got into middle school,” he added. “But as soon as he could start speaking it was ‘When can I play football?’ So I had to let him start a little younger. He just loved football.”
Tommy II kept his son on a balanced path making sure he stayed in love with the game. Grandpa Clifton would share stories of his son’s toughest on the gridiron with is grandson.
“(Tommy II) was hard-nose,” Coach Clifton recalled. “He did whatever it takes in the weight room and he wound up starting his sophomore year by the middle of the season. He beat out a guy who was in front of him. He started playing as hard-nose as possible.
“We had a little thing when I was in the press box then, he’ll go through there to hit somebody,” he continued. “He’ll get a shoulder on them instead of facing them up. I would do that right there (pointing his index finger on the tip of his nose) which meant do put that face right there in between those numbers.”
The middle Tommy was in the middle of the action taking on future NFL players like Al Wilson of Jackson Central Merry.
“I just played football, I love football,” Tommy II said. “He was my coach all the way until I got up to high school. When I played football, we played a one team. I didn’t the rushing awards and all those things. I just did what I could to help my team win. I just love to hit people also.
“I was never the biggest,’ he added. “But I made my living in the weight room there. I worked my way on the field as a sophomore. It didn’t matter to me who scored the touchdown as long as we were winning. I just put it on the line for the guy next to me. Back then you could hit folks with your helmet. I tore my nose open against Covington.”
The youngest Clifton received a busted up shoulder that ended his sophomore campaign. That was the turning point for his career on the field.
Once he returned to the Trojans, Millington went won back-to-back Region 8-4A championships. Tommy III was named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, a Liberty Bowl High School All-Star and to various other awards.
“What made (Tommy III) special was his work ethic,” Coach Clifton said. “I would go out there when he was playing youth ball and all the way through, he’s not about my stats, what I do.
“I can think of one or two time this year there were plays called,” he added. “It was a read play and he would go ahead and hand off the ball instead of scoring himself to pad his stats up. It’s just his work ethic as far as in the gym and what it takes to get there. He’s got the intelligence. He can play anywhere and at any level.”
The youngest Clifton is ready for his shot at the next level and is grateful for the staff at Harding University providing him with a chance.
“It’s like my dad said, ‘It doesn’t matter as long as we’re winning, it doesn’t matter who scored,'” he said. “‘It’s all about the guys around me.’ It has never been about me.”
Clifton’s teammates voted him one of the captains this past season and were right there to celebrate each award he received. When Clifton would take to a knee in prayer before each game, he slowly started to have teammates join him in the meditation.
He said that bond and happiness were the best part of his final campaign as a player.
“It meant the world to me,” he said. “I would come into the locker room and it was a whole different environment. I could see that everybody was upbeat. Practices we were upbeat. Everybody just had a more positive and energetic spirit to them. Just seeing my guys happy with how the way the season was going, that’s what meant the most to me.”
For Tommy II being able to watch his son mature from the wide-eyed freshman to the poised leader of a championship team made him most proud.
One consistent thing over the four seasons, the elder Clifton would be nearby with his long beard resting over a piece of black and gold paraphernalia watching his son’s progress. The broad-chested man was there to provide a shoulder or a listening ear for his son. It was a common sight over that time to see father and son embrace and chat.
By Tommy’s senior season, the elder Clifton’s appearance remained the same, but it was the younger Clifton racing over to his father to share a moment of reflection.
“Just keeping his head up, that was the main thing I told him,” Tommy II recalled. “He had a rough going his freshman year. He started out the first game with four interceptions. That’s pretty hard to swallow for your first ever outing you have in high school.
“He just needed to know it was OK,” he added. “It took all of that to get to his senior year. To overcome all of that, for him to have the success his senior year was all worth it. But some conversations we had are just for me and him. They didn’t change much over the years. Some things are just for me and him forever.”
The three men will be Trojans forever. The youngest Clifton said before he even suited up for his grandfather’s and father’s alma mater he understood what it meant to be a Trojan.
“It’s my roots, where I come from and how I grew up,” he said. “I’ll be a Millington Trojan for the rest of my life. I’ve been one my whole life. It’s who I am.”
The eldest Clifton said his grandson summarized the Clifton legacy perfectly by defining it as being a Trojan.
“I love the game and I love everything about it,” he concluded. “I coached 10 years in SYS. Then we started the seventh grade/eighth grade program here. Then we moved up to the ninth grade. I worked my way up here. I love Millington. You know what I do on the sideline. I don’t like things halfway done. I like things done nice and neat.”