The main man: Lifelong Pelham native Clayton Mains hopes to represent his community with a stellar final season
Published 5:23 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023
By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor
Just a few weeks before the start of his senior season, Clayton Mains is feeling contemplative.
That’s normal for most seniors contemplating their future after high school, but most high schoolers aren’t the starting quarterback for their hometown team.
Mains is contemplating his legacy, and as Pelham’s quarterback, that comes with a lot, as it naturally makes him one of the city’s most well-known names and biggest representatives.
He doesn’t shy away from that honor, and his quest this season is to put the best possible ending he can on his career in Pelham to leave his mark on the community.
“I feel like I’m so blessed to grow up in a community that is Pelham that I get to represent on a higher level, and I’m really looking forward to figuring out how I can leave my legacy and etch my name in Pelham history as best as possible,” Mains said.
For the love of the game
Around when Mains was in second grade, he noticed that all of his friends were playing football. That started getting him interested in wanting to play for himself, and it was love at first sight.
One of the things that drew him to football wasn’t the game itself, but the bond that his friends had formed through playing together.
“I just remember seeing all this group of guys in my grade that were just so close with each other, even second grade, and just become friends,” Mains said. “And I just loved that brotherhood that they had then.”
Some of those friends he mentioned were offensive linemen Tyler Mason, Cash Tatum, Vance Barker and defensive backs Markel Bell and Will Felton, all of whom have played with Mains since he started and will be out on the field with him this fall as seniors.
Linebacker Bishop Rellah joined the group around middle school, and the seven of them have become as close as brothers. They do everything on the field together and support each other with the tough love you can expect from your family, and have helped each other improve since their freshman year.
“When we hang out, we’re always supportive of each other, we’re always in the weight room, always pushing each other to get better,” Mains said. “And that’s the main thing. Like we are brothers in a sense of, we’re going to get on each other sometimes, but at the same time, we’re brothers in the sense of, when it’s all said and done, we might be at each other in practice, but as soon as practice is over, we’re back to being brothers. And that’s really cool to me.”
That drive extends into Mains’ personal training, and he relentlessly strives towards the goals that he sets himself towards.
His ultimate goal is to play college football, and he doesn’t just want to do this for himself, but to represent the entire Pelham community on the biggest stages possible
“I really had a dream of not only representing my community, but playing football at a higher level whenever I’m done, so really that’s been like a game in itself for me to go accomplish my dreams, and it’s just a work in progress every day,” Mains said.
His love for Pelham is only matched by his love of football, and he hopes to combine those two passions by playing football at the next level.
“It just keeps drawing me back because I’m so competitive within myself that it just becomes a game of, ‘can you accomplish this?’” Mains said. “Obviously, I love the game, and that’s the main reason that I get drawn back to it over and over again because of how much love I have for the game of football.”
In his corner
Much of that work ethic comes from his parents and how he was raised. Mains’ parents preach the value of hard work and working for what you earn.
They have always been supportive of him and his dreams and will motivate him to chase after those dreams, but only if he still wants it.
“I think that was instilled in me from my parents at a young age because my parents don’t just hand out stuff to me, and they’re not going to sit here and just give me stuff,” Mains said. “If I want something, I’m going to have to go work for it. And at the same time, they’re going to push me, but they’re not going to push me over the edge to where if I don’t necessarily want to do it, they’re not going to push me to do it.”
Not only do his parents push him to be his best, they also function as his biggest cheerleaders and people that he can talk to about anything.
“It just makes me feel extremely blessed, and it gives me a reason to keep working because I know I have people behind me that believe in me, that believe in my team and that believe in this community,” Mains said. “Every day I know that I have someone that I can go and talk to if I need it. And that keeps me going more than I realize it on a daily basis.”
He has seen their unwavering support through all of his life as he has gone through his football career, but especially during football recruiting. He is grateful for the sacrifices that they have made simply because they see his dream and want him to have the best chance to accomplish it.
“They always get me to where I need to be and above and beyond,” Mains said. “Really as of late, just traveling around the country to all these different things, we don’t necessarily have the budget to do all this stuff, but we make a way and we find a way, which to me is just insane. And I cannot wait to be at a point in my life where I can return the favor back to them.”
Learning in the limelight
But now, Mains is the starting quarterback and unquestioned leader of the Pelham Panthers.
He couldn’t say the same at this time last year, as he was in a quarterback battle with Drake Hickox for the starting role. Mains impressed enough early to win the job and established himself throughout the season as the man to lead Pelham.
Mains brought a dual-threat dynamic to Pelham as he threw for 1,800 yards and rushed for 680 more for a total of 2,480 all-purpose yards in his first season as a varsity starter.
He was the centerpiece of Pelham’s offense and empowered his teammates to make great plays and together carry Pelham back to the 6A playoffs for the third straight season, and to a playoff win for the first time since 2006.
While Mains flourished in the spotlight last season, he still had a lot to learn. Because of the quarterback competition, he only received half of the first team reps throughout the spring and summer, and he had to make up that gap in preparation on the field.
Now with a full offseason, the preparation is completely different. Mains has more time to slow down and learn the offense and work on the skills he wants to improve on such as his decision-making now that he knows he is for sure the starter.
“It’s really just been like the more reps I take, the more comfortable I get in the offense,” Mains said. “Obviously, we’re getting very close now, but I think that it really helps being able to take a step back and just dive into what I needed to dive into. And still, even today, just being a sponge and just soaking up every bit of information that I can take from Coach Vick.”
Part of that preparation comes from his work with longtime quarterback coach Nathan Fordham. The two have worked together throughout Mains’ entire high school career, and especially this offseason, Mains has tapped Fordham’s knowledge throughout practice and film sessions to get better.
They have a special relationship, and Mains is grateful for him providing steadiness and building his confidence.
“Obviously he’s going to yell at me when I need yelled at, but obviously he’s always going to be there for me when I need him,” Mains said. “During a game, during practice, I know that I can always turn to him and I can always ask him a question, and I’d always pick his brain, which has been huge in four years.”
That steadiness has been a theme of Mains’ high school career, even after a coaching change when Tom Causey left Pelham after the 2021 season and Mike Vickery came in from Northridge to take over the program.
Mains said that even though it was hard to learn a new system, the coaching change worked because all of the players wanted to be there, and their will to win overcame any challenges they faced.
“The gap was completely different based on the offense, and I think coach Vick did a phenomenal job picking up where coach Causey left off last year because obviously it was very different,” Mains said. “But at the same time, there were guys in the building day in, day out that wanted to be there, wanted to work and wanted to strive for success. And so, having that same mentality that we have with Coach Causey carry on to coach Vick, it helped us win when necessarily we didn’t know what we were doing, but the drive to will and the will to win kicked in and overpowered everything else.”
In Mains’ eyes, the transition from coach Causey to coach Vickery has been seamless because Causey made character building a priority, and the growth that came from that has carried on past his time at Pelham.
“Causey would never he would never go a day without giving us away as something to take away outside of the building, if that was picking up trash every day, if that was a Bible study,” Mains said. “He would just make sure that we were going to be great men as well as football players, and even great men before great football players, because he wanted to build character in this program. I think that the character and the culture that he built is only being built on with Vick.”
Next in line
Even as Mains searches for ways to build his own legacy, he is already part of a proud quarterback legacy at Pelham.
Before Mains, Will Lankford was the signal-caller for the Panthers. Like Mains, Lankford was a dual-threat quarterback and thrived in the playstyle, guiding Pelham to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2020 and 2021. And like Mains, Lankford loved Pelham and wanted to give back to his community.
The two quarterbacks bonded as Mains learned a new offense in his freshman year, and Lankford took Mains under his wing and mentored him as he realized that Mains was the future of the program.
“He was always going to help me out and coach me up,” Mains said. “If he was going to the field, he was going to make sure that I was invited to go too. He was just making sure that the next generation of talent was just as set up as his generation of Pelham was.”
Even though Lankford has since graduated and moved away to play at Elon, the two still stay in touch regularly, and Lankford has helped Mains get acclimated with life as the starter.
Lankford was just doing what he learned from his brother Xavier, who was the Panthers quarterback before him and mentored him as well. That’s the true culture of Pelham football: everyone has a Will Lankford; someone who helped them learn the ropes when they were younger and as they grew into their future roles.
“I’m pretty sure every single other guy in my grade would say the same thing, to have that one guy that always would help them out on their journey. And for me, that guy was Will Lankford,” Mains said. “I promise you that guys like that are the reason that Pelham keeps building on what they build every single year.”
Now that Mains is a senior, he wants to be a Will Lankford to his teammates and ensure the future of Pelham football stays bright long after he hangs up the green and gold uniform. He may not know if he’s doing everything right, but he still tries and does what he can.
“Obviously I don’t know how much of an impact I have on them until I graduate and I see other stories like this,” Mains said. “But on a daily basis, I do try my hardest when I’m not getting my reps, I’m right behind them making sure they understand how the offense works, how things fit, everything like that, and really just giving back every chance I have. I don’t do the greatest job at that. I’m not doing the best I can, because you can always do better. But I just try very hard to make sure that we get the guys around us on the same page and the younger guys understand how the program, the culture and everything else relates and how we can continue to build our football program.”
And that brings everything back to his legacy. The passion for his community and the future of the Pelham Panthers is evident in everything he says, and there’s nothing he wants more than for both to thrive long after he leaves.
“I want the guys under me here, especially the two quarterbacks that are under me, I want them to be able to take what I’m giving them and transform it and be better than I am,” Mains said. “And this is something that Will told me. He’s like, ‘I want you to be better than I ever was.’ Because that’s how a program grows and that’s how a team grows. I really want to see Pelham as a whole take that next step.”
In everything that Mains has given to Pelham, the community has poured everything back into him. He feels the love and support from Pelham and is grateful to be in a community that cares so much about their teams, no matter the sport, and the people that are part of those teams.
“Whenever my dad goes to the store, majority of the time he’ll come home and he’ll tell me how someone complimented my season even from last year, like even now I still get those compliments, and it’s just really cool that I get to represent my community on that stage every single year,” Mains said. “That’s one thing I’m going to miss.”
Clayton Mains is still contemplating his legacy. But even with a year to go as Pelham’s main man, he may have already left one that will last for years to come.