FEATURE: Former Utah Tight End Brad Clifford Speaks On Mental Health, Finding New Purpose
SALT LAKE CITY- College has always been about growth and bridging who you were as a child versus who you are becoming as an adult. Some paths are harder than others. If you happen to be a student athlete, there may be times you find yourself rapidly growing at the same time your program is. That was certainly the case for Utah tight end Brad Clifford whose battle with mental health coincided with the Utes’ new-found dominance.
Setting The Stage
Clifford played for the Utes from 2004-2010 with an LDS church mission in the middle. During that time Utah sky-rocketed into the world of college football. In Clifford’s freshmen year, the Utes “busted” the “unbustable” Bowl Championship Series (BCS) for the first time under head coach Urban Meyer, playing Pittsburg and demolishing them 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl. Clifford then took a hiatus from football to serve his mission from 2005-2007. Upon Clifford’s return, the Utes were set to “bust” the BCS for a second time (once again the first school to do so) in 2008. Utah would eventually go on to play Alabama and convincingly win, 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl. Shortly after the 2009 Sugar Bowl, in 2010, Clifford’s senior year, Utah would be invited to join the Pac-12 Conference.
What most fans probably don’t know is Clifford was going through some massive life changes of his own in the middle of all the euphoria surrounding Utah’s football successes. The walk-on turned scholarship athlete from Olympus High School was set several times to have a massive season for the Utes, only to have it torn away in gut-wrenching fashion. One instant, in 2008, could have potentially cost Clifford his life.
Now, at 36 years old, Clifford is using those experiences to try and help other men, athletes or not to identify possible mental health crises before they get out of hand like they did for him.
“I would love if my story would impact someone to take action to show themselves a level of love that they deserve that won’t come from anything external that they think exists,” Clifford said. “The game of football is the greatest teacher of life. That game has evolved and the generations of men going through it from earlier generations to now is evolving as well. I hope my story along with hundreds of others like mine helps someone who is dragging their feet like I was in 2008 to get ahead of it.”
How Clifford Became A Ute
Back in the early 2000’s young men playing high school football in the state of Utah were not as hot of a commodity as they are now. Clifford, like most athletes at that time, had to really compete and put everything they had into football just to get noticed by someone, anyone. Olympus High historically has not been a football juggernaut in the state of Utah, though they have had their moments. Along with Clifford, Casey Evans and RJ Rice have been some of the more notable alum to come through the Ute’s program via the Titans. Much later Cam Latu would make a splash as a five-star recruit who would become Alabama’s starting tight end.
Clifford’s story starts with Utah’s current head coach Kyle Whittingham, and his belief that Clifford had something special in him. At the time Whittingham was just the defensive coordinator and special teams coach under coach Meyer, but Clifford says it was that genuine nature that convinced him to come to Utah and work hard to earn a scholarship on offense.
“Coach Whitt recruited me out of high school and there wasn’t a scholarship available for me at the time,” Clifford recalled. “Whittingham had so much belief in me, convinced me to take that preferred walk-on spot, and to ultimately earn a job. I went to Utah because of John Madsen and Paris Warren. I could see those guys fitting into this brand-new offense that Urban Meyer had figured out and created for bigger receivers not having to play their hand on the ground. It was so funny because that was a heavy part of my decision was to go and be this John Madsen-like guy and then I left on my mission and came back- that offense was gone.”
New Offense, New Hope
In 2008 Clifford returned to Utah from his mission to Whittingham being the head coach. Meyer had left for the Florida job shortly after the Utes’ Fiesta Bowl victory. While the offense he originally imagined himself dominating in was gone, Clifford worked hard through spring ball to where Whittingham, Aaron Roderick and Andy Ludwig sat him down to discuss his future. They felt it was at tight end and Clifford was willing.
“I had gone through with the wide receivers through spring,” Clifford said. “I sat down with Whitt and I sat down with Rod and had some conversations and was asked, ‘Do you want to be competing to rotate in the wide receiver group, or do you want the tight end job?’ It was a no-brainer. I’ll go be tight end. I gained a bunch of weight to do that, but it changed my concept. I was originally a receiver. That’s what I wanted to do is catch passes and run around. In the new offense I became more of a blocker and then it evolved into a bit of a slot ability.”
Where It Unravels
Clifford was crushing it, and there was excitement around what he could do for Utah’s offense in what many in the building felt could be a big season for them. Unfortunately during fall camp, Clifford started to experience excruciating pain in his hips that wasn’t going away. Eventually Clifford relayed his concerns to team doctor Dave Petron who assured Clifford they would figure it out. Soon Clifford says he was finding himself throwing up bile in the middle of the night and that is when Petron took him in for MRIs.
“I had hip-flexor issues constantly while I was playing tight end because I had to play in a squatted position,” Clifford explained. “I’d wrap them a ton. In fall camp, about four days in, I had earned the tight end spot. I was so excited preparing to go out to the Big House, but my hip got so painful over the days. Every day it would get stuck in a flexed position more and more. It got so bad that I started throwing up in the middle of the night. Petron rushed me to the hospital. We took an MRI and when I came out, there was every orthopedic resident, some of the trauma surgeons- a full room. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, do I have cancer? What is going on?’”
What was going on with Clifford was a very large abscess in his hip and if caught just a little later, could have killed him. In just a moment, Clifford went from being on top of the world knowing he would be a big part of Utah’s offense to wondering if he would ever be able to play football again? Enter identity crisis number one.
“When they do an MRI, they inject you with dye to expand the space,” Clifford said. “They had found a giant abscess which is essentially like mersa. It was encapsulated. It was huge in my hip and they didn’t know what they were going to do other than admit me right that second.”
“They admitted me to the ER and a trauma surgeon saved my musculature to an extent to where I would be able to run again,” Clifford explained. “They got it out, they put in a pic line and I lost 20-30 pounds. There goes my starting spot in this awesome offense. It was hard, but I eventually came back.”
Clifford’s Unhealthy Fight Back
Clifford admittedly was shook but determined to come back to the Utes. He made it just in time to help close out another historic season for Utah, but at a cost. Clifford had to put weight back on, but it wasn’t good weight, and in the process, he admits his mental health began festering the way the infection in his hip had.
“I gained pretty crappy weight, but I had to come back and get on the field,” Clifford said. “I did some special teams stuff in the Sugar Bowl and that BYU game, but that’s when a lot of my mental health stuff hit. I was so determined to make a name for myself- came as a walk-on, earned my scholarship, got the starting job in an offense where all the stars were aligning and then this big thing happened and put me in this dark hole that I had to figure out how to dig out from.”
The Second Rise And Fall
The following year Utah’s offense changed again due to coach Ludwig taking the offensive coordinator/quarterback coach job at Cal Berkley. In 2009, Clifford was co-starting at tight end, but lingering health issues continued to keep Clifford from his true potential.
Clifford looked poised for a big senior year in 2010, once again looking at what many felt would be a breakout season. It wasn’t meant to be. A dislocated shoulder during the spring game that just would not heal slowed Clifford down. Add in a divorce lingering over his head and Clifford was in for another tough blow.
“The offense had evolved to where I could basically play slot receiver again, and I caught a bunch of passes,” Clifford recalled. “I had Dave Schramm as an offensive coordinator who let me play at 240 pounds versus 250 and I felt great. I felt like this was kind of my college opportunity. I then dislocated my shoulder in a skirmish with the linebackers at the end of spring ball- I love those guys. I had rehabbed through that fall and I felt like I would be fine. I ended up going through that year battling my shoulder every game to the point it became such a mess.”
The Wyoming game in 2010 was a breakout game of sorts for Clifford, though it was short-lived. Clifford wouldn’t play in another game until the BYU finale at the end of the year due to his continued shoulder problems.
“I had a decent run at times, got myself super healthy for a moment and had a breakout game against Wyoming,” Clifford said. “The game was going so well and I’m running this guy off the field and slamming him into his sideline. While I did this, I dislocated my shoulder again, but now it was kind of stuck above my head. It caused some nerve issues to the point I couldn’t play the next week. I had these constant battles while at the same time getting a divorce.”
The Breaking Point
The final straw for Clifford came in the last game of his career against Boise State. Clifford had worked hard to rehab his shoulder between the BYU game and Utah’s trip to the Las Vegas Bowl to take on the Broncos. Initially it looked like his shoulder would hold up, but Clifford got a nasty surprise in the locker room. The following Tuesday from the bowl game, Clifford had one of several corrective surgeries to get his shoulder right again.
“I had gotten my shoulder well enough to get out and start again for my last game,” Clifford said. “Warm-ups happen, everything is great. Go inside, put on my pads. As I was putting on my pads, I dislocated my shoulder again and couldn’t feel anything for 45 minutes. Couldn’t fake all of the protocols I need to do and I couldn’t feel my arm at all. That was my career. It was done like that. I’m going to be nothing if the NFL is not a part of my future and obviously, I was going through this divorce as well. I was at the bottom of the barrel.”
I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends
It was at this point everything really came to a head for Clifford. He readily admits now that he let things pile up starting with his health scare in 2008. Clifford says he never properly dealt with the mental health aspect of that trauma. Thankfully, Clifford had amazing people around him at Utah who allowed him to “figure it out” and were shoulders to lean on. At a time when mental health still wasn’t fully recognized as a “thing” athletes needed to deal with, Clifford had a solid support system.
Whittingham, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, safety coach Morgan Scalley, offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, and teammate/best friend in John Peele among others all made themselves available to Clifford as he battled to get in a better spot mentally.
“Luckily after that Wyoming game Whitt was very good to me while I was going through certain personal issues to help get me to a place where I would feel confident,” Clifford recalls. “Kalani Sitake and Morgan Scalley really took me aside and made it personal that I was doing alright. Both of them on the defensive side had no reason to do it. That’s why I’m so vocal about Kalani. He made such an impact on my life. Dave Schramm would check on me daily and became like a second father to me during that time.”
With a little inspiration from the Utes, Clifford finally started to seek some help and relief from all the internal conflicts he had been fighting alone, but never truly dealt with.
“Through some encouragement I reached out for some help through the service department to go see a counselor through the university,” Clifford said. “It was the first time I had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder. I had suppressed it for so long that I had never dealt with it until that time. Thank goodness I had good people around me. People who got me to that place and allowed me the time I needed to get right. I got on some medication to get control of where I was and it started a journey of mental health.”
A Peak Behind The Iron Curtain
It’s hard for Clifford to put into words just how big of an impact Whittingham and his staff had on the outcome of his life after football. Utah was ahead of the curve according to Clifford when it came to kindness and understanding outside life sometimes takes precedence.
“It was Saturday, I was about to get divorced and I had Sunday to process before Monday’s intense, mandatory running for the team,” Clifford said. “I was not in a place physically because of my mental state to even show up. Whitt knew that and covered my butt for that Monday to allow me to get myself together. How he shaped it to the rest of the team, like, I’ll never be able to repay him. There are times when you are waking up for a 6 a.m. lift and you are late- the whole team is getting punished. That is important. That discipline is important. Whitt is so human driven that he knew me- there was never a discipline issue, Brad will show up, Brad will go the extra mile. Whitt knew me enough to know what was best for me, and would also be best for the team, is to cover my butt for a day of running and lifting and then make sure I was good to come back and perform.”
“My example is probably one of a thousand,” Clifford continued. “Whitt has an ability to connect with people. He is a people leader. My freshmen year I remember there was a punt return and I came back and just killed this guy. I was so excited to see my coaches get pumped and Whitt ripped me because I got flagged. Later he purposely pulled me aside and made sure I was alright. Then, he reinforced it in one of our special teams meetings and he pulled me aside again to just build me. That is the differentiation for me at least between Meyer and Whitt. Whitt got all of those great pieces of Urban, but his ability to connect with his players is literally so authentic and it cannot be faked.”
Clifford is even more convinced Whittingham and Utah have it right in light of what the Utes faced/accomplished in 2021 after the tragic deaths of two teammates in less than a year. The fact Utah won their first Pac-12 Championship and took Ohio State head on in the Rose Bowl is unsurprising to Clifford. According to him there was no one more qualified than Whittingham to handle that situation.
“I think that is why he has had so much success all these years,” Clifford continued. “It’s why these young men, generation after generation are the way they are when they leave. Leading into last year with everything that happened with the team, I can’t imagine any other head coach being able to pull off guiding the team, guiding the ship. He’s the only one I can think of that could have pulled off what happened both in their performance, but also as human beings and rallying around each other. It’s Whitt. He leads that ship, and it trickles down into every other facet. It’s because of who he is.”
There Is Always Hope
These days Clifford is in a much better place, though it is still a day-by-day process. Clifford is remarried with three children that are his world. The thing about falling down, is you can always get back up, and have the life you want. Clifford did it and he wants others to know they can too.
“Don’t let your talent and performance dictate your worth,” Clifford said. “Those lessons and this mental health journey has allowed me to better the rest of my life when faced with challenges. It has helped me be a better husband (remarried to the same amazing woman almost 2 1/2 years after our divorce). It also helped me be a better father to our three beautiful, young kids. I’m a better friend, leader, and mentor. Finding a better mindset helped me through countless surgeries post-football while still focusing on physical health, my career, and those I’m entrusted to lead.”
Finding The Light, Being The Light
Clifford has learned through his journey toward better mental health that it’s all about letting the light in. Now that he’s in a better spot, Clifford hopes he can be the one to guide others lost in darkness to better days.
“It’s like you are looking down a hallway where you know there are doors in that hallway, but all the lights are off,” Clifford described of being in a bad mental state. “You don’t know where any light is. You can’t even see it underneath the door. When people around you can offer lifelines, it’s like turning on those lights underneath the door. It’s still up to you to go up and open that door to access the light, but you are at least seeing something there. I was in that pitch dark and when I had the support of Kalani and Morgan and a lot of my teammates- those guys allowed me to see that light and start the process of this journey I have been on.”
Clifford wants men, particularly young men to understand taking time for their mental health does not make them “less” of a man. Needing help doesn’t make a man weak, in fact, it makes them stronger.
“For these young men, it’s not a matter of working less hard,” Clifford said. “It does not make you weak. It’s not about having any less discipline or being less competitive. In fact, its the opposite. It’s shifting your mindset from ‘tough it out’ and ‘suffering through it’, to self awareness, self acceptance, and self love. These moments provide feedback for growth and teach you to never give up. You’re not less of a man if you seek help in moments of despair. You don’t need to wear a mask. You need the courage to be vulnerable, seek change, and take action. Ask someone for help. If I can help you, please reach out. I would love to help.”
Utah Utes Scoreboard
Utah Utes Team Leaders
Utah Utes Standings