Aug 30, 2013
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Most times in athletics, nothing could be truer than the phrase: To the victors belong the spoils. When your team wins, the star student-athlete is recognized. No win, no honors.
An exception is football player Craig Clemons, who excelled for the University of Iowa from 1969-71. During the three seasons Clemons was eligible, the Hawkeyes compiled a record of 9-21-1, with no winning seasons and a 1-10 campaign when the defensive back was a senior.
Following his final collegiate season — when Iowa’s lone victory was a 20-16 decision over Wisconsin — Clemons was named First Team All-Big Ten, All-American, and he was the 12th overall selection in the 1972 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.
“I never quit, regardless of what the score was,” Clemons said. “Those were the kind of leadership skills instilled in me as a child by my parents and later through the coaches and people that were in my life. You could be down 38-6, but if a guy is running through the hole, you hit him and you hit him hard.”
Clemons grew up in Piqua, Ohio, and found his way to the UI because of the recruiting efforts of Hawkeye assistant coach Wayne Fontes and the hospitality of running back Dennis Green. Both Fontes and Green would later serve as head coaches in the NFL.
“Denny Green showed me around campus for the weekend, and I had a fantastic time,” Clemons said.
One stop on the official visit was to a concert by The Supremes, who had a famous hit song appropriately titled, “Someday, We’ll Be Together.”
When Clemons got together with the UI football program, sweet music was made, even though it wasn’t always validated on the scoreboard.
Freshmen were not eligible to compete on college varsity teams in 1968, but Clemons and his teammate Levi Mitchell attended all the home games at Iowa Stadium (renamed Kinnick Stadium in 1972).
“I never quit, regardless of what the score was. Those were the kind of leadership skills instilled in me as a child by my parents and later through the coaches and people that were in my life. You could be down 38-6, but if a guy is running through the hole, you hit him and you hit him hard.”
UI Hall of Famer
“Levi and I couldn’t believe it,'” Clemons recalls. “We had never been to a place where there were 60 to 70,000 people and they were all wearing black and gold. We talked about when we were eligible (in 1969), we wanted to make our mark right away on the kickoff team.”
The second game of their careers, Clemons and Mitchell were back deep, waiting for a kickoff against Washington State on Sept. 27, 1969. The opening boot came to Mitchell, who returned it 92 yards for a touchdown during a 61-35 Hawkeye win.
“I was screaming for him to run and I was crying like a baby,” Clemons said. “That was perhaps the greatest thrill I ever had, watching a teammate of mine realize his dream and run that kickoff back for a touchdown. We laughed and cried and had a great time.”
Clemons, who came to Iowa as a running back, returned 17 punts that season for 205 yards (12.1 yards per return), returned five kicks for 112 yards (22.4), made 102 tackles and had two interceptions.
As a junior, Clemons was in on 81 tackles, with a team-high three interceptions. He returned punts and kicks.
During his final season in 1971, Clemons made 78 tackles and intercepted four passes. He returned 24 kicks for an average of 24.3 yards per return, as well as six punts (2.7).
The final game of Clemons’ career was a 31-0 loss at Illinois. In attendance were scouts for the Chicago Bears, who watched as the typically physical Clemons knocked three Illini players out of the game.
“The Bears were the Monsters of the Midway and they had (linebackers) Dick Butkus and Doug Buffone and all those physical players,” Clemons said. “They wanted to complement their secondary with a defensive back that was considered a hitter, who was a violent headhunter.”
Clemons played all 82 of his professional games with the Bears, collecting nine interceptions for 251 yards and a 76-yard touchdown return against Green Bay on Nov. 9, 1975, in Soldier Field. The score by Clemons gave the Bears a 27-7 lead in a game they won, 27-14.
Team success as a professional was hard for Clemons to find as well: the Bears were 31-52-1 from 1972-77 with one winning season (9-5 in 1977).
The interception return for a touchdown against the rival Packers stands out to Clemons, who urges everyone to look at the tape of the score.
“I Tebowed first,” he says with a laugh, referring to the trend of kneeling on one knee in prayer, popularized by NFL quarterback Tim Tebow. “Tebow ripped me off. You look that up on YouTube, you’re going to see me run an interception back for a touchdown and kneel down at the goal line. You be the judge. I am the OT — the original Tebow.”
Clemons married his high school sweetheart Theresa, a football cheerleader at Piqua (Ohio) Central High School. They have three children: Stephanie, Jonathan, and Jennifer.
Clemons, 64, is retired and living in Cedar Rapids.
“After I got the call that I was going in the Hall of Fame, I told my wife it could be a prank,” Clemons said. “The ultimate emotion is that you feel you aren’t worthy. We are super critical of ourselves and you’re going to tell me I’m going to be walking the halls with a guy by the name of Dan Gable? Really? Really? I am not worthy.”
The University of Iowa thinks otherwise.