Opportunity Paves the Way for Clayborn to Find Success Beyond the Football Field

Jamaal Clayborn

“I can’t guarantee you that you’ll succeed, but at least you can say you tried.”

That theme has echoed throughout Jamaal Clayborn’s life. Growing up in inner city Jackson, Jamaal’s first love was always football, and it was that love that led him to an educational opportunity that would change his life forever.

In the sixth grade at Jackson Public Schools, students were not allowed to play football – the only thing Jamaal wanted to do. His school principal made the announcement that a new little league football team was coming to Jackson, and he went home and told his mom about the new team and that he wanted to play. Jamaal’s mother was working two jobs trying to make ends meet for the family of 10 that was crowded into a tiny, low-income apartment off Forest Avenue.

“There were seven of us kids plus my aunt and grandmother living in that apartment so you can imagine the type of strain it was to feed that many people off of one income,” Jamaal said.

Recreational football was not high on the priority list for Jamaal’s mother.

“I don’t have money for you to play on that team,” Jamaal’s mother told him.

“Just drop me off over there and see what happens,” Jamaal pleaded with her.

The next day he showed up and met Kelley Williams, Jr., one of the coaches of the Jackson Colts little league team. Kelley along with several other dads organized the team and they quickly recognized Jamaal’s ability.

“Kelley told me he’d give me a ride to and from practice,” said Jamaal.

It was those trips to and from football where Kelley and his son Zach bonded with Jamaal.

“Zach would ride with Kelley to drop me off. He was always so kind to me, and Kelley would help us with Thanksgiving,” Jamaal said.

As the bond grew, Kelley began to ask about school.

“That was interesting to me because most coaches never ask you about school,” he laughed.

Jamaal’s education experience until that point had been difficult.

“School was not a priority in that environment,” he explained. “We were struggling to keep water and lights on, but I had a teacher, Ms. Gail Lewis, who followed me from third grade through fifth grade. She saw our struggles and bought me my school uniforms and shoes. During the time when we didn’t have running water, she bought me cleaning supplies and would let me go into the boys’ bathroom during class where there was a bag of things I needed.”

Jamaal recalled one such time when he was headed back to school. His mother was working at the AT&T call center, and she didn’t have the extra money to buy school supplies.

“Well, at AT&T you’d get a backpack and a briefcase,” he said, “so I got the briefcase to take to school and my sister got the backpack.”

The kids in Jamaal’s class were teasing him about carrying his briefcase to school, and the teacher stepped in, “’While y’all are making fun of Alvin,’ that’s my first name,” Jamaal smiled, “’he’s going to be the most successful person in the class.’”

That statement stunned Jamaal.

“I was blown away by what she said,” he said. “We come from an environment where the only person in the classroom who could be smart was a girl. It was kind of cool not to be able to read, and when she said that it was the first time I ever heard someone say I could be successful.”

Kelley recognized the same potential that Ms. Lewis had seen in Jamaal and began to work with him.

“Kelley would come to McDonald’s on McDowell Road in Jackson, and we sat down and he would have me read books and write him a report,” Jamaal said. “We would ride in the car together, and we would read the street signs. He had two sentences that he would make me repeat, ‘The school bus driver on Skyline Drive asked for a mask,’ and ‘The Nebraska Cornhuskers asked for a husk of corn,’ all to help me work on pronunciation.”

Their friendship continued to grow. Kelley invited Jamaal to his home for the summer where he worked alongside Kelley’s son Zach at the local YMCA.

“Kelley asked me during that time working that summer job if I would like to stay at his home that summer while we worked.”

Jamaal slowly became a part of the Williams family where a bond formed with Kelley and his wife M’Lee and their children Jake, Zach, Anna Kate and Luke. Jamaal learned to look for the small things in life to be thankful for.

“Every day Kelley had me write five things I was thankful for. It could be something as small as clean water to drink or having lights, but it was designed to make you pay attention to the small things,” Jamaal said.

As the summer ended, Kelley again approached Jamaal with an opportunity, this time it was the chance to attend school with Jake and Zach who were students at Jackson Prep – a private, college preparatory school.

“My mom thought that would be great,” Jamaal said, “and we went for a visit. It was a huge deal because I was invited to the Jackson Academy (JA)/Prep game.”

Afterward, Jamaal decided he would like to attend school at Prep, so he took the entrance exam. But, reading on a third-grade level, Jamaal was not able to get in. He took the exam again before his eighth-grade year with the same result.

Determined to help Jamaal have an education opportunity where he would have positive reinforcement along with quality instruction, Kelley approached Jackson Academy about Jamaal.

“Kelley was persistent, Jamaal said. “He told me that JA might be another opportunity for me, so we went to JA and met the Head of School, the football coach, and several others.”

Jamaal decided to take the entrance exam at JA. Kelley’s words echoed in Jamaal’s head. “Jamaal, I can’t guarantee you that you’ll succeed, but at least you can say you tried.”

Jamaal came up short.

“The JA team came up with a plan for me,” he said. “They told me, ‘Jamaal, you are on the 20-yard-line now, and we are trying to get you to the goal line to start your 10th grade year.”

As a ninth grader, Jamaal withdrew from Jackson Public Schools and had a team of tutors and teachers who invested in homeschooling him to catch him up academically. Entering the 10th grade, Jamaal was able to pass the entrance exam and get into Jackson Academy. He even made the honor roll as an 11th grader.

“Of all the things I was able to do with football at JA and then at Mississippi State, the thing I was most proud of was making honor roll my junior year in high school at JA. It was a direct correlation between my work on the football field and how it paid off when I applied that same kind of work in the classroom,” he said.

Jamaal went on to have a stellar football career at Jackson Academy and attended Mississippi State University on a football scholarship. He became the Bulldogs’ starting center during his time in Starkville. In 2017, he graduated from Mississippi State with a degree in environmental science.

Today, Jamaal runs an asphalt paving business, Clayborn Construction, which has been in business since 2018. He and his wife Victoria live in Flowood where they are raising their three children.

“The one thing I tell kids when I talk to them today is that you don’t have to be a product of your environment. Where your feet lie is not the only place you can go,” he said. “You never know who you may encounter who can propel your life, but there are also those who can destroy your life. You must decipher what’s best for you even when you don’t have an example. People say I went to this school, and my grandmother went to this school, and so I’m just a product of my environment. It’s like a cycle, but you can break the cycle. You don’t have to do the status quo.”