Every Friday night when Clayton Coll was younger, he would sit in the crowd and cheer as he watched his father, Chris Coll, lead Tri-West High School Football as head coach in Lizton, Indiana. He would eventually watch his older brothers, Casey and Cody Coll, go on to play football at Tri-West for their father.
Watching football became the norm for the junior linebacker, as he eventually became teammates with Casey at Tri-West during his freshman and sophomore years and would go on to become a “film junkie” and a student of the game.
Clayton and Casey played for Chris for two years at Tri-West in 2015 and 2016 before Chris would become head football coach of Franklin Community High School in Franklin, Indiana. Clayton then followed his father and joined him for his junior and senior seasons where he would go on to set a school record in tackles, finishing with 320 over just two seasons.
Clayton said moving to Franklin Community was when his football career took off and when he really started to have a better understanding of the game. He said he considers his father and brothers as his heroes.
“My dad's always been a mentor in my life and always will be, so having him on the field with me as coach was a little weird at times,” Clayton said. “He was always coach first when we were on the field. And then, by the time we got home, it was just Dad being Dad, but having him around and being such a great mentor was a blessing to me.”
Chris said the relationship with his sons is “special” and almost always revolves around football. However, when it came to family trips, it wasn’t traditional.
“When they were growing up, they did two things, and that was football and rodeo,” Chris said. “So, as a family, the boys and I were always together at practice or playing. On the rodeo side, we didn’t do normal vacations. We were in a truck together, going up and down the road.”
Their bond would continue to strengthen through competition. Casey said it was almost always friendly, but he felt like he had to one-up Clayton, whether it was adding an extra plate in the weight room or beating him while playing video games.
The countless days Clayton and Casey spent competing against each other all led to where they are now, as they are fulfilling their dreams playing together on the same Division I football team and competing for the Cardinals in Muncie — 87 miles from where they began their career in Lizton. Casey is a graduate student tight end and Clayton is a linebacker, so the competition continues in practice.
“It is one of the most rewarding things in the world — you spend your whole life competing with each other,” Casey said. “This was our dream, to play Division I football together. From youth football, it was our dream. [Clayton] 100 percent has always been the highest IQ guy on the football field — his drive and motor is unparalleled.”
Part of the reason why Ball State Football head coach Mike Neu recruited Clayton in the first place was because of his football IQ and his work ethic on the field and in the film room. He said Clayton came to the Cardinals with advanced football intelligence and has done an unbelievable job since he stepped foot on campus.
Clayton said he knew from the beginning the importance of watching film and preparing for the next opponent. He said college has really propelled his ability to watch film.
“In high school, you try to watch film, but it isn’t the same because tendencies aren’t the same,” Clayton said. “Once I got to college, I realized this stuff puts people ahead. Being able to see plays happen before it happens comes from preparation.”
During his high school career, Clayton received offers from Miami (Ohio), Eastern Michigan, Navy, Army and other programs, but he said Ball State’s coaches made it feel like coming to Muncie was the right decision.
Once he arrived at Ball State in 2019, the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator, Tyler Stockton, said all Clayton needed was the physical reps to gain experience, and his knowledge of football was already there. Stockton said that has improved even more since his freshman year.
“He truly is a coach on the field,” Stockton said. “He is always helping the younger guys and even the older guys. He even helps us, as coaches, to see things differently. Even the younger guys gravitate toward him.”
Fast forward to 2021, where Clayton has seen more playing time than in previous seasons. While he has always played with the starters, redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Martin suffered a knee injury for six games after the Cardinals’ season-opening victory against Western Illinois, giving Clayton even more time on the field.
“[Jaylin Thomas] and Brandon Martin have been mentors for me so far,” Clayton said. “You hate to see an injury to anybody on the field, but the coaches preach ‘Next Man Up,’ and it is a part of the game. I studied and did my part.”
Neu credited Stockton for preparing Clayton and the entire Cardinals’ defense for buying into their team-first mentality and being ready to play at any given moment.
“It is a competitive room, so when Brandon Martin went down with the injury, Clayton was ready … Clayton has just done an unbelievable job of taking this opportunity that he's earned and [running] with it,” Neu said. “He is just getting better and better and better every single week.”
So far, Clayton has had a career season for the Cardinals with 66 total tackles, a sack and an interception. The success all started with watching his dad coach and his brothers play. It all happened because he would spend extra time watching film.
Now, Chris said he feels like he can finally sit back and be a dad when he watches Clayton play on Saturdays.
“I have spent my whole career coaching, so it has always been about the team and the big picture,” Chris said. “So, now with him at this level, I now get to be a father and sit back, watch his contribution — it is fun to be a dad.”
Life has come full circle for Clayton and Casey — from Clayton watching his father coach and his brothers play, to him playing with Casey in high school, to finally fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing Division I football.
Clayton doesn’t know exactly what the future holds. While Stockton and Neu said he is essentially another coach for the Cardinals, becoming a doctor or working in wildlife is something Clayton is looking to pursue after college.
Clayton is playing it by ear, but one thing is for certain — he will study to be the best he can at whatever he pursues.
Contact Ian Hansen with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ianh_2.