The decision, one could say, was a no-brainer.
Brighton senior running back Joey Clifford posted video game numbers in his final year with the Bulldogs, leading the offense of a 9-2 team that went 8-1 in the regular season under a new coach, secured a piece of the KLAA West title and won their second playoff game in a decade, doing so by their largest margin of victory ever in a postseason contest.
Equally as significant, the last feat came in a rematch against Brighton’s biggest rival, Hartland, which the Bulldogs had their worst game against and lost to earlier in the season, the only blemish on their otherwise perfect regular-season record.
It could be argued Clifford had the biggest hand in all of that aforementioned success. After all, he posted more than 1,800 total yards and scored 26 touchdowns — by far the most impressive marks of all Livingston County players — for the KLAA West’s best offense.
Therefore, again, it was a no-brainer. Clifford made it that way.
The senior ran away, literally, with the award for Livingston Daily’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Of course, that came as a surprise to no one, especially not those closest to him.
“I’ve known since (our) sophomore year that Joey was going to be big for us,” said Brighton linebacker and Clifford’s longtime friend Mike Redlinger. “And he didn’t disappoint. He came out and showed how good he is for sure. I don’t know if it’s just being friends with him for so long, but it didn’t even shock me. It felt like just another year with Joey Clifford doing his thing.”
“I saw some film on him as soon as I got the job, and I was like, ‘Oh, this kid’s pretty good,’” Brighton coach Brian Lemons said. “He’s an explosive, big kid. Probably the most impressive thing, though, is once I got into the building with the kids was seeing him workout. He’s such a great person, and the way he worked in the weight room, the way he worked in offseason workouts, combined with his personality, I knew right away he was going to have success.”
For Clifford, his monster year started where one would expect, he said: In the weight room.
Of course, that’s typical of any athlete, but for Clifford it hadn’t been something he previously, fully, dedicated himself too. And that’s just because he didn’t have much time. Clifford was a three-sport athlete up until his junior year, playing football, hockey and baseball. Entering that third football season he decided to drop baseball to focus his attention on getting stronger for winter and, especially, fall.
The results of that paid immediate dividends when he eclipsed 1,300 rushing yards as a junior.
Another year to spend concentrating solely on lifting, conditioning and perfecting his techniques for football allowed him to become not just one of the county’s best, but one of the state’s best offensive weapons.
“I guess a lot of it … started when I changed my offseason routine. When I started working out more,” Clifford said. “Obviously, I benefitted from that and I was more conditioned, I felt like. The better conditioning helped me to be a better player.”
It helped him to be a “beast” of a player, according to his coach.
Lemons, who took over as Brighton’s coach this year after spending the prior seven at Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard, said he wasn’t aware of much of the personnel currently on the team, but knew, “we had a running back who was quite a beast.”
And yet he still exceeded Lemons’ expectations.
“Just the entire season,” said the Brighton coach, when asked to pick a play or a game with which Clifford had really wowed him. “The thing that impressed me most was how explosive he was. You couldn’t bring him down one-on-one in a normal situation. As tough as he was and as strong as he was, he was just fast. You watch him on film and he just splits guys, even if they have an angle, he splits them.”
The impressive runs weren’t just happening in blowout games when teams had given up, either.
Clifford went off all season, in any situation, whether his team was trailing, tied, or leading by a substantial margin. It started opening night against Novi, when he went for 155 rushing yards and a touchdown. For most backs, that’s a highlight game. That’s one they’ll send to colleges for recruiting purposes. That was a subpar night for Clifford, who ended the season with 1,659 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns, an average of 150.8 yards per game and 2.2 touchdowns per game.
Clifford was essentially unstoppable, and even he admitted that much success wasn’t fully expected. After all, it was his first year with a new coach and while he knew he’d start, he was unsure how he’d be used.
“I mean, obviously, you want to do good during the season. But I was kind of surprised how good I did,” Clifford said. “But the (offensive) line and (quarterback Grant) Dunatchik really helped me out. … We were passing a lot this year and they couldn’t focus on me because Grant did so well passing.”
Perhaps that was why Clifford’s “worst” game came in Brighton’s only regular-season loss to Hartland.
The Bulldogs lost, 14-7, to the Eagles and missed out on the top seed in crossover play. Dunatchik had been injured after playing only five snaps, and Clifford was kept to 96 yards in the contest without a score.
While that’s a decent game for most, it was a poor night for the senior back. And it was one of only two games in which he was held to under triple digits on the season — both times recording 96 yards.
However, as his coaches tell him, it’s all about how one responds. And the next week against Howell he respond by carrying the offense — which was again without Dunatchik — to a share of the West title. He ran for 119 yards and both of Brighton’s scores in the 14-11 win.
And when the Dogs got their rematch against the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs, he went off for 194 total yards — 156 on the ground and 38 receiving — and another score in a 35-0 blowout.
“I’ve had some special players in the past,” Lemons said, “and he ranks up there with all of them.”
With how talented he is, it’s befuddling to Lemons that Clifford hasn’t yet found his college to play at.
Clifford said he wants to play at the next level, and Lemons said he is drawing interest, including from a few Mid-American Conference schools. But for a back with that much strength and speed, Lemons finds it difficult to comprehend why the offers haven’t been rolling in.
However, he expects that to change.
“I think the next month or two is gonna be a pretty exciting time for him,” Lemons said. “He’s a college recruit that’s kinda been under the radar here for the last year or two. Somebody who steps forward and offers him, they’re getting a steal.”
Clifford is doing his best to keep his mind off it right now. He’s in the midst of playing hockey for Brighton, which the county knows is perennially one of the best in teams in the state. What happens in his future will be decided one day soon, but he’s still not quite ready to forget about the past.
“It means a lot to me, being a key player on an 8-1 team,” Clifford said. “It means you had a big role and being that go-to guy felt pretty good. Then when you succeed in that go-to role, it feels really great to yourself and for the team.”