Scott hopes to lead Millville to Group 5 title

His coach, who was so hoarse from yelling that he could barely speak on the phone, was explaining why Clayton Scott, who has been so sick for three weeks that he barely has the strength to answer a phone, is such a role model.

Scott, himself, was at a point where talking was a struggle Wednesday night.

He's been trying to keep himself hydrated. He can't keep food down. His energy is low. He thinks, and hopes, it's just a virus. But the longer it lingers, the more he's not so sure.

Not that he has much time to think about it, at least not this week anyway.

Saturday morning, Scott has to take the SATs.

Later that day, he'll head to Rowan University, where he'll play in the biggest football game of his life.

"He's just a warrior," said coach Dennis Thomas, who all but coughed the words out as he has put everything, including all of his voice, into preparing his Millville football team for its South Jersey Group 5 championship game against Toms River at 6 p.m. Saturday.

It's sometimes hard to quantify how much high school sports means to many top athletes.

But Scott, Millville's gifted star running back, offers vivid insight.

"Having success with this team is one of the biggest goals in my life that I've set for myself," said Scott, a 5-foot-7, 167-pound junior who has rushed for 1,585 yards and 15 touchdowns on 249 carries for the 9-2 Thunderbolts.

After the Thunderbolts' 32-15 win over Rancocas Valley in the semifinals, Thomas bear-hugged Scott, lifted him up, and carried him off the field. Scott, battling hard against whatever was ailing him, rushed for 193 yards on 39 carries against the higher-seeded Red Devils.

Thomas had said before the game that he had faith in Scott's ability to fight through illness. He backed up that claim in a big way. And it paid off.

"He's a catalyst for our team. He's a leader," Thomas said. "He would never not give 100 percent."

For Scott, being carried off the field felt good. It let him know that people noticed what he went through. Maybe he really was having an impact on his teammates that was more than just about football.

"I know a lot of guys on the team look up to me. I know a lot of guys feed off my energy. So one thing I didn't want to do was let them down," said Scott, who said he got sick - to put it gently - a few times during his heroic performance at RV.

"To have my coach carry me off the field meant the world to me," Scott said. "He understood what I was going through. He understands that I haven't always been in a great mood through this. But I'll always come to practice. I'll always be there for his team."

Even through the obvious weakness in his voice Scott is well-spoken. He carries a 3.8 GPA, and his wisdom is beyond his years. He spoke lucidly about what he learned about his playing through pain and sickness.

He talked about building character, about not letting down the people who depend on him.

He talked about the pride he takes in playing for his hometown.

It's no secret that, if Millville could keep home more of the players who grew up in Millville, the team would be a powerhouse.

Some of Scott's best friends, the kids he grew up playing football with, played this year for St. Augustine, arguably South Jersey's top team, which, by the way, handed Millville one of its two losses this season.

With all of this staring him in the face, Scott said he's proud to wear a Millville uniform. And that, too, will be on his mind Saturday night as he tries to will his team to its first sectional title since 1975.

"It honestly means a lot, and I don't want to discredit any of those guys who went over to St. Augustine. I don't want to take anything away from them. But I had a feeling that not following those guys, starting something in my hometown, would mean more to me," Scott said.

"I knew it would be hard, but I knew if I worked hard, I could accomplish all of my goals at Millville. Playing in this game is one of the biggest goals I've set for myself. I think it shows that you don't have to follow others to accomplish what you put your mind to."

And finally, Scott said, he'll be thinking about his mother on Saturday.

"That's who I play for," he said. "I want to make her happy."

There will be a lot on his mind in the days leading up to the game. And there's still a hope, albeit a fading one, that he'll actually feel better.

But none of that really matters at this point.

Though his team is an underdog against a defending champion riding a 21-game winning streak, Scott knows one thing: His team can win. He has a chance. And perhaps more than anything, that's what keeps him going.

cmelchiorre@phillynews.com