Sure, the compact 5-foot-10-inch,195-pound wide receiver didn't miss a game last year as he led the Ravens in receiving yards. But forget for the moment his talent on the field—talent prodigious enough to make him a first-round draft pick two years ago. It pales in comparison to his skills on . . . PlayStation.
The 25-year-old Clayton tackles the John Madden videogame version of NFL football with almost as much fervor as he plays the actual sport. He's been known to spend four, five, six straight hours in front of the console, his always-sure hands operating both controllers simultaneously. Clayton sharpens his reflexes—and his mind—by concocting trick plays that would make Brian Billick beam and blitz schemes that would make Steve McNair scream.
"He can do everything and play Madden," says Clayton's mother, JacQuetta. "He'll have two or three conversations going on and he's still creating plays. I think it was part of the development for him in the game. I do think it helps him on the field."
On the real football field, Clayton has shown steady improvement since 2005, when he set Ravens rookie records with 44 catches for 471 yards. Last year he hauled in 67 balls, including five touchdowns.
"I think Mark will become one of the elite wideouts ever to play the game," says tight end Daniel Wilcox, one of Clayton's closest friends on the team. "His temperament is wonderful and he's always working to better himself. He has one of the biggest hearts of a li'l guy and he's definitely a competitor."
Maybe that's because nothing came easy for Clayton, who was born in Oklahoma and spent the first years of his life bouncing from home to home.
"I remember staying with one of my mom's friends, with my grandma, even in a shelter," he says. "I was a problem child."
But during his fourth-grade year, things got much better when his mother married and moved the family to Texas.
"Everything turned around," says Clayton. "My mom got a job in downtown Dallas. My stepdad was working at a manufacturing company. We moved into a nice house. My whole personality and demeanor changed. I got good grades, I was devoted to school."
And to football. Clayton played quarterback through his junior year of high school. Fortunately (for Baltimore football fans), one particularly rough outing led to a switch to wide receiver, and he never looked back.
Clayton went on the star at the University of Oklahoma, and when the Ravens used the 22nd pick of the 2005 draft on him, he was off to Baltimore, a city he knew only by reputation.
"All I heard about were the negatives," he admits, "but as soon as I got here, I saw that they were a real small part of Baltimore. I've enjoyed it here. And I love, love, love the seafood. I told everybody back in Oklahoma and Texas, 'Y'all have not had any crab cakes till you've been to Maryland.'"
This summer, Clayton had plenty of time to devour his new favorite food at restaurants in the Inner Harbor and downtown Annapolis, two of his preferred locales. In fact, Clayton—who got married this past January—spent most of the offseason in Maryland, where he's worked to make an impression off the field, too.
From the moment he joined the Ravens, Clayton has put down roots in his adopted community. During his rookie year, he held his inaugural Thanksgiving distribution, providing 300 needy families with turkeys, bread, and toiletries for the holiday. He's spoken to local high school students about the value of education. And he created the Mark Clayton Foundation, which among other projects, helped feed and house victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"Going down to New Orleans was a powerful experience," the soft-spoken Clayton says. "I'm from the Dallas area, so when everyone started evacuating there we put up enough money to get a hotel for 20 families for a month, to give them the necessities."
Clayton plans to focus his foundation on helping foster children, a group he holds near and dear to his heart.
"Mark loves kids, he lights up in front of them," says Alexia McWhinney, his event coordinator and a friend from their college days in Norman. "He's a real down-to-earth, fun-loving person. We were at one of his teammates' son's birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, and Mark was having as much fun as the kids were."
When it comes to this season, Clayton's aim is clear. "From a team perspective, I would love to go to the Super Bowl," he says. "That's where we want to be. I loved Coach Billick's play calling when he took over."
But even if the Ravens fall short on the field, Clayton still plans to be in Arizona—site of both Super Bowl XLII and the 14th annual Madden Bowl, a video game competition that pits NFL players against one another to crown the king of the console.
"I know my offenses, and I always find a way to figure out some kind of defense that's unstoppable," Clayton says. "I didn't make it last year, but I made it to the finals the year before. Winning that would be my pride and joy."