By KEVIN JAKAHI
HONOLULU — Father and son have followed similar tracks all their lives: work hard to earn everything and appreciate every single person along the way.
In fact, they have the same name. Well, almost. The father is Charles Henry Clay. The son is Charles Robert Clay, given the middle name of his grandfather Robert Santos.
The son, affectionately labeled Charlie Boy by his dad and mom Jelena, points to his father as the biggest influence in his life. The father speaks with the same pride when he looks to Santos, who married the elder Clay’s mom and raised him when he was a 1-year-old.
Father and son are in good places, and even mom, too. Charles has his own construction company, claybuilt.com; Jelena sells gourd art at the Volcano Art Center and on her website, jelenaclay.com. Charlie is a safety at the University of Hawaii, and was awarded a scholarship in his senior year.
The other two Clay siblings are on equal footing, too. Dylan, a 2012 Hilo High graduate, is working with his dad. He was on track to play college ball, but tore his labrum. Rachel, a Hilo High senior, has danced in every Merrie Monarch since she was 13 years old; she dances for Oahu kumu hula Aloha Dalire’s satellite halau in Hilo.
Charlie graduated from Hilo High in 2009. And one parting gift was a motivational push from his old coach Al Kawelu, who guided the Vikings from 1996 to 2007, and led Hilo to its last Big Island Interscholastic Federation title in 2003.
With no Division I or other big-school offers on the table, Charlie took up Southern Methodist’s invitation to walk on. Assistant coach Wes Suan was the point man in the local recruiting for June Jones, the former UH coach.
Still, Charlie would be a long way from home, roughly 3,794 miles. And coming aboard as a walk-on meant he always would be facing an uphill battle against SMU’s scholarship players. If he had any reservations, Kawelu wrapped it into a box and punted it down the field.
“Coach Al inspired him and told him if he worked hard enough he could play college football. A light bulb went off for Charlie with football,” Jelena said. “Charlie had to write an entrance essay and he wrote about coach Al. Sometimes you get really good coaches, and he was definitely one of them. Coach Al was one of my favorites.
“Charlie really did struggle. When he got there, they were used to their preferred players from rivals.com. It was hard financially being a walk-on, but we’re still good friends with coach Suan.”
Charlie redshirted in 2009, and appeared in 12 games as a redshirt freshman the next season, playing primarily on special teams. He compiled three tackles.
He transferred to UH and played in all 13 games in 2011, again mostly on special teams. He had 15 tackles and three forced fumbles. Last year as a junior, Charlie had a job switch to safety, and registered 29 tackles and four pass breakups.
Charlie still looks at his time at SMU as a learning experience, especially soaking up football wisdom from Jones, who led the Warriors to a 9-4 record and share of the Western Athletic Conference championship in 1999. UH went 0-12 under Fred von Appen the previous season.
“It was a good growing experience, to see the mainland, and live outside of the island,” Charlie said. “Coach Jones is a great coach. He really instilled the work ethic that it takes to be successful. I really grew up a lot when I went to SMU. But I wanted to play for my home state.”
When Charles was at a construction site, young Charlie would tag along. It was his introduction to the lead-by-example work ethic from his dad. It’s the common thread between father and son.
“My dad always taught me about work ethic. My mom did, too, but I was always with my dad,” Charlie said. “He was always at different construction sites, teaching me to get what you want in life you have to work hard. It was easily portrayed.”
Jelena remembers attending a grade school conference and the teacher remarking that young Charlie was self-driven to chase straight A’s.
“It’s just the way he’s wired, both he and his dad. Charles started from nothing. He worked straight out of high school,” Jelena said. “All he did was construction. Charlie picked up how hard his dad worked. His dad built up his construction company. The name Claybuilt is fitting for the both of them.”
When Charlie graduated from Hilo High back in 2009, he weighed 150 pounds. His work ethic carried over into the weight room. He’s now 5 feet, 11 inches and 205 pounds.
Charlie was elected through player voting to the 17-member captains council. The function is to mentor teammates, and offer suggestions to the coaching staff. Maybe a bigger honor is the five-star praise he received from his position coach.
“There isn’t anybody on the team who works harder than Charlie,” UH secondary coach Daronte Jones said. “He has great character. I wish we had more like him. He loves to play the sport and he’s a motivated individual. He’s one of our leaders, and I can’t say enough positive things about Charlie.”
If being a hard worker is one characteristic trait, another of equal size is Charlie’s mindset as a team player.
In 2009 at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state track and field championships, Charlie and his teammate, Chan Spikes, fought for sixth place in the 100-meter dash. The meet was held at Keaau High, basically Charlie’s familiar home turf. He was a senior and Spikes a junior.
Throughout the BIIF season, Charlie trained Spikes, who came out for track with his friend’s encouragement. They were also teammates on the Vikings football team. But for one final race they were competitors; six medals are awarded to the eight-man field.
Spikes finished in 11.35 seconds, secured sixth place and a medal. Charlie took seventh in 11.36; he later clinched fourth in the 200 and a medal. But it’s what he said after the novice beat the veteran, that revealed more about Charlie than a time of 11.36 seconds.
“That’s how it goes sometimes,” he said in 2009. “You have to treat him as a brother and want him to do as well as you.”
Charles grew up on Oahu’s North Shore, went to Kahuku High and played ball, before he graduated from Kaiser High. He and Jelena recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. Like father and son, mom is built with toughness, too.
“His mom is strong minded. She’s really strong minded,” Charles said. “When I was growing up, it was easy to get on the wrong track. Then I met my wife and when we had Charlie Boy, she helped me get my life on track. She got me to get my carpenter’s license. I’ve been a general contractor the past 12 years.
“We’ve always taught our kids that you work hard and nothing comes easy. You need all that hard work to get ahead.”
Jelena’s parents are from Serbia and moved to California in the 1950s. They were fruit farmers, and eventually worked hard enough to purchase a lot of ranches in the Bay Area. Jelena didn’t mention it, but it’s apparent that Charlie’s hard-working gene came from both sides of the family.
Through his efforts, he earned a scholarship in the spring. He’s majoring in environmental science. Charlie is also well aware that he’s a role model for other BIIF football players with aspirations of walking on to UH and earning a scholarship.
“When I got it this past spring semester, that was one of the best feeling I’ve ever had,” he said. “Seeing my parents’ reaction, that was great. My parents did so much helping me to go to school. It’s another reason that I’m always working hard.
“I enjoy being a role model. I’ve always taken pride doing the right things. I was brought up by my father to be a good example for everybody.
“I play for a lot of reasons. I love the game of football and take pride in showing people how much I love to play and how hard I’ve worked. I love to see my parents come to all my home games, and see my grandpa happy. I love the satisfaction that hard work pays off.”
Then he thinks about the main message that UH coach Norm Chow hammers home to the players. Sometimes, really good coaches influence players in more ways than one. And in the best cases, sons turn into their fathers.
“Coach Chow is a great coach. You have respect for him because his words always mean something,” said Charles Robert Clay, mindful in a sense that he’s not just speaking about his coach. “One thing he says and I really take to heart is every little thing counts, on and off the field. All that stuff matters. It makes you as a player and a man.
“Hard work is a habit that carries off the field. It really sinks in with me. You have to respect everybody and people. All that stuff counts.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about Big Islanders on the University of Hawaii football team.