COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Gophers' seventh-year senior Clay Geary receives long-awaited rewards
Geary will be part of a group of wideouts asked to step up as No. 1 pass-catching target Chris Autman-Bell was lost to a season-ending leg injury against the Buffaloes.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Their nickname isn’t exactly creative, but the bond they formed became unique.
A group of injured University of Minnesota football players were put together in a pod for offseason rehab and workouts over the previous year. The collection included star Mo Ibrahim, key contributor Trey Potts and a handful of lesser-known role players — Clay Geary, Preston Jelen, Josh Aune and others.
Ibrahim has called them “rack buddies,” based on a weight rack used to get stronger within the Larson Football Performance Center. Two of those lesser-known buds have had their own moments to shine in front of everyone this season.
Geary and Jelen are two former walk-on, skill-position players who came back from ACL injuries to score touchdowns in the Gophers’ nonconference portion of their schedule this fall. Jelen, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, scored in the 62-10 win over Western Illinois on Sept. 10; Geary, of Lakeville, Minnesota, scored in the 49-7 victory over Colorado on Saturday. Both TDs were collegiate firsts.
Geary had been waiting a long, long time.
“It made seven years all the more worth it,” Geary said Tuesday. “It’s something I’ve been preparing for since I got here as a freshman, and to see that finally come to fruition, it just felt good to get that off my shoulders. Get that first one and move on to the next.”
Geary will be part of a group of wideouts asked to step up as No. 1 pass-catching target Chris Autman-Bell was lost to a season-ending leg injury against the Buffaloes. After Autman-Bell’s surgery on Wednesday, and aside from his tailored rehab, he, too, will likely join his own small group.
Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said they want to group the rehabbing players together not with their closest friends on the team but with others who have the same needs.
“It sets the legacy for how you overcome an injury,” Fleck said. “… They all came back stronger, better, more equipped for the season, better attitudes. … Who’s going to bring the most out of each other, and why?”
Ibrahim said “the rack” is where he tried to be supportive as Potts made his decision to return after an undisclosed injury.
“We struck a pretty solid bond, just embracing in the suck,” Geary said. “We don’t get to embrace the same grind as everyone else on the team. We’re kind of doing our own thing. To have those guys with me, going through the rehab process, was special because it’s easy to feel isolated during that. You’re separated from the team and if you have a group of guys pushing you, it makes it fun.”
Geary said he couldn’t stop smiling after he caught the TD pass from Tanner Morgan in the third quarter Saturday. He got not one, but both feet down in the end zone.
Geary is the longest-tenured player on the team, with a seventh year made possible by a redshirt season in 2016, the COVID year in 2020 and a medical redshirt in 2021. It’s the same length of time Autman-Bell is considering for a possible comeback in 2023.
Geary has just kept adding majors during his time at the University of Minnesota and has moved on to a post-grad degree and an internship. He majored in finance, marketing and entrepreneurship within the Carlson School of Management, then pursued a post-grad degree in managerial leadership before switching to entrepreneurship.
“I don’t know how it works; I just keep adding majors,” Geary said with a laugh. He now works part-time for True North Equity Partners.
“I’ve never done a senior slide, just because I value the education I have at Carlson,” he added.
Geary was a standout running back at Lakeville South who gave up hockey and picked up track to focus on improving his running form and speed. He didn’t have any scholarship offers coming out of high school, not even Division II, and attended a skills camp at the U when Jerry Kill was the coach.
“I just dated myself back quite a bit,” said Geary, referencing the Minnesota coach from 2011-15 who is now the coach at New Mexico State. Kill and in-state recruiter Mike Sherels offered him a preferred walk-on spot. He said it was a “no-brainer” to come play for the program he grew up rooting for.
At the university, he became roommates with some of the program’s best players — Antoine Winfield Jr., Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber. During a team outing to a Twins game in 2019, Geary was surprised with a scholarship while throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. His roommates mobbed him in celebration.
“That was special; I get chills just thinking about it,” Geary said.
Winfield and Coughlin are now playing in the NFL; Martin’s pro career was cut short by injuries; and Barber is a graduate assistant at Minnesota.
“It’s pretty wild,” Geary said. “We are all on completely different timelines. God had a different path for me. Each one of my roommates, they’re doing great. It’s so fun seeing Thomas every day. I miss all those (other) guys. I look forward to every offseason when they get back to see them and catch up. They’re my brothers.”
Geary injured his knee in the days leading up to the 2021 season opener against Ohio State, and what was supposed to be his senior season became a grueling year, with bonds formed with his “rack buddies.”
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Geary said of his story. He said that a few days before he scored his first career touchdown.
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