Friday, December 04, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Alleged killer squandered unique talent

Leader sports editor

News of the arrest of Jeffrey Leroy Clifton for the murder of his 2-year-old son Malik Drummond has spread around the state and nation since Wednesday. What hasn’t seemed to come to light is that Jeff Clifton was once a household name among Arkansas sports fans, and a bigger-than-life character for high school rivals in the late 80s and early 90s.

He’s an inductee of the Arkansas State University Lettermen’s Club Hall of Honor – i.e. the ASU sports Hall of Fame – and was one of, if not the, best basketball player that school has ever had.

Clifton was a 6-foot-8 phenom for Searcy High School in the late 80s and early 90s who originally signed with Middle Tennessee State. He transferred to Arkansas State and played for the Indians in the 1992-93, and 94-95 seasons.

I was a sophomore at Beebe when Clifton was a Searcy Lion senior, and memories of his dominance on the basketball court are vivid.

The Badgers started hot at SHS in December of 1989. Beebe went into the locker room at halftime ahead and believing an upset was in the making. But the larger, taller and more talented Lions prevailed by about 20 points when they found that the key to breaking the Beebe press was just letting the big man take the inbounds pass and do it himself.

Clifton averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds his two years in Jonesboro and was named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year for the 93-94 season. Though he only played two years for ASU, he finished his career fourth all-time in scoring, fourth in rebounding and sixth in blocked shots with 72.

He played professionally briefly in the now defunct United States Basketball League, as well as in Spain.

He is one of only a handful of players in NCAA history to record 40 points and 20 rebounds in a game multiple times.

Clifton wasn’t heavily recruited by the Razorbacks because of academic issues, but he became a household name in Arkansas when he recorded 43 points and 25 rebounds in a high-profile matchup with UALR on Jan. 29, 1994. It was a game between two teams in a hot race for the SBC championship.

UALR had also made national news that week when the Derek Fisher led Trojans had refused to practice the day before the game, and had told then athletic director Mike Hamrick they would boycott the ASU game if coach Jim Platt were not immediately fired.

Platt was not fired and the team played anyway, but had no answer for the behemoth night had by Clifton.

Who could know at the time that all those accomplishments were by someone allegedly capable of such brutality on such a helpless, adorable and defenseless little victim – a victim for who Clifton was supposed to have been the main protector?

Since that night in late 1989 at Searcy High School, there’s been a respectful admiration for Clifton, at least for his God-given athletic talent. That lasted until Wednesday – when the sharp reminder came that talent means far less than character.

Lots of people are talented. Some people are fortunate enough to have the right talent at the right time in history to create opportunities others might not get.

Clifton’s talent afforded him those opportunities. He was bigger than MTSU or ASU coming out of high school, but he squandered the opportunity to play on the big stage by not making his grades. He squandered five years of college by not getting a degree.

Who knows why he didn’t make it professionally as an athlete. Maybe he just wasn’t quite talented enough. Most likely, though, his pattern of selfish and self-destructive behavior cost him a pro career.

Last Nov. 20, his selfishness reached deplorable heights as his destructiveness overflowed into the lives of a beautiful child and all who loved him. The ledger at the ASU Hall of Honor should be scrubbed clean of Clifton’s name, and then hopefully, someday, his memory.

Sports are supposed to teach character, and athletic institutions should not honor people who have none, no matter how talented.