Two years ago, game day looked different for Bryce Clay.
A little more than three hours before gametime, he and his roommate — then-senior defenseman Zach Johnson — started the day with a coffee and meandered over to Michigan’s lacrosse facilities, eagerly awaiting the team breakfast laid out for them.
With coffee and breakfast dispensed of, Bryce enjoyed preparing at his own pace.
“I’m a very quiet, simple dude,” Clay said. “Especially on a game day. Before the game it’s just me and my own thoughts.”
The preparation formula was never too complex: a quiet meditation to country music in the lounge, warming up with then-freshman Michael Boehm in a passing practice, before finally reviewing the final scouting report.
It was simple. And that’s just how Bryce wanted it.
Three years into his collegiate career with the Wolverines and after amassing one of the most prolific scoring tenures in Michigan men’s lacrosse history, Bryce knew his routine like the back of his hand. With just a few minutes left of pregame time remaining, the last leg of preparation was always the most important.
Bryce sat in his locker, and visualized his “last thoughts and positive thoughts.” Picturing the gameflow, his place in it and manifesting his success, it was those quiet moments that brought him stability. In a sport dominated by physicality, at the NCAA level, mental strength reigns supreme.
Going into the 2022 season, Clay was poised to take on one final season of game days and see what the last leg of his Wolverine journey had to offer.
But then came the “freak accident.”
In the Fall of 2021, Michigan lacrosse ramped up its preseason process.
Though official games were still months away, by October, the Wolverines’ fall practices had already begun. These training sessions serve as an integral link in the growth of a developing program ready to build upon its recent success. Even for veterans like Clay, the fall gives a player another opportunity to hone their game.
Perhaps the most meaningful event of the fall season is the Alumni Game. Though Michigan varsity lacrosse only recently turned a decade old, the program boasts a vigorous alumni network still involved in lacrosse in a variety of ways.
Less than a week before the 2021 Alumni Game, Michigan coach Kevin Conry designated his captains for the upcoming season; among them was senior attackman Bryce Clay. With 65 career goals and his exemplary lead-by-example energy that had empowered Michigan’s upset Big Ten tournament victory over Ohio State just over five months prior, it was an easy decision.
Going into the alumni game, Clay brought that same energy. Late into the contest, Clay and the current Wolverine offense looked to nab a statement goal. Catching a through pass from his teammate, Clay made a cut and darted towards the net poised to strike.
“I got to the net and took a weird step after I shot the ball,” Clay said. “It’s something I do probably every practice; just a routine play and my left knee just kind of gave out.”
As he fell to the ground, Clay heard “a couple of twists and a pop,” instantaneously knowing that something was off.
The game halted and Conry rushed to Clay’s side — hoping for the best, yet fearing the worst.
“When you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you see him go down you’re like ‘Oh boy,’ ” Conry said. “I know exactly what that is.”
Clay suffered a torn ACL, his senior season vanishing in an instant. Suddenly, his final ride with all of his best friends, teammates, brothers was not to be.
Suddenly, everything had changed.
“You basically forget how to use your leg for a little bit,” Clay said. “And it’s very stiff. You can’t really move a whole lot, but I remember I had surgery on a Tuesday and on Thursday, they had me come in and start doing rehab.”
Although he was familiar with the “stingers” that accompany the day to day life of a devoted lacrosse player, Clay had never suffered an injury of this magnitude before.
“I was frustrated, I was scared and I didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Clay said.
Outside of lacrosse, what lay ahead for Clay was a months-long process of rehabilitation and strength training for not only his knee, but the muscles surrounding it. From calf raises to range of motion stretches, Clay had his work cut out for him.
“They’re not the most difficult stretches and they’re not crazy exercises,” Clay said. “But they’re pretty difficult right away.”
One of, if not the most common, side effects of ACL surgery is knee pain. Inflammation and swelling from the surgery can impact the nerves of the area, and make the knee feel uncomfortable for up to three months afterwards.
Clay credits Michigan lacrosse athletic trainer Anthony Rossi for “putting him through the wringer” and allowing him to grind through his rehabilitation. Clay and Rossi met nearly every day, practicing stretches and exercises whenever possible.
Nevertheless, for all of the physical toll that tearing an ACL can bring, one sentiment rose above it all for Bryce:
“Just playing with the guys on the field. That’s what I was most concerned about. Being able to try and help the team … especially my senior class.”
In an instant, Bryce seemingly lost his senior season, and with it, his connection to the class of teammates he had once been prospective recruits with. It felt like a heartbreaking end to a once incredible story.
Then Conry stepped in.
Bryce may not have been able to play his senior season, but he could still play a role.
Coaching college lacrosse wasn’t what Bryce initially had in mind for his senior season.
But whatever could keep him near field — he was up for the challenge.
“Obviously it sucks being out,” Clay said. “But you have got to make the best of your situation and coach really gave me a lot of responsibility as a really cool, unique experience.”
Clay was assigned the task of overseeing his attackmen teammates. Though he was not necessarily the offensive coordinator, he was able to oversee key portions of Michigan’s offensive game, and give pointers to a crop of young attackers.
Standing on the sidelines, Clay was in lockstep with his teammates throughout their contests. From helping players warm up before the game to giving advice after a missed play, Clay had found a role. A role he embraced wholeheartedly.
“It’s funny, you watch the progression of him, and it happens with a lot of young coaches too,” Conry said. “You just get off a playing career and you’re able to do some things, and Bryce has been so productive over his career, … (so) when you’re on the sideline, it starts with like, ‘Oh, man, how can you not see this,’ frustration to a point where, ‘Okay, I can help him see this, too.’ ”
After three seasons leading the program with his play, Clay had to find a different avenue to get the most out of his teammates. The once-quiet leader, who would step into his own zone on game days, became the team communicator.
The Wolverines faced their fair share of struggles last season, but the campaign gave Clay a new perspective — one he won’t forget.
“It was a unique experience,” Clay said. “I did take a step back and then I saw what the coaches went through every week and the preparation they do and how to prepare from a coach’s standpoint.”
And after earning a medical redshirt, the player-turned-coach will turn player for one final season.
A season with a new outlook.
Gamedays will soon look more familiar for Bryce Clay.
After a full season without locker room preparations, without quietly getting into the zone with his trademarked country music, without being the leader on the field he knew he could be, Bryce Clay is ready to return to game days — albeit with a new outlook on leadership.
“I was dialed in,” Clay said. “And there’s nothing wrong with being ready to go, not talking to anybody before the game, or being a quieter guy. But I think it really helped me emerge and be more of a vocal leader, and be a positive guy.”
A leader with his play, Bryce had to learn to become a leader with his voice.
That’s not to say that everything will change, though. The morning coffees and early arrivals will forever be quintessentially Bryce. But when it comes to being on the field, Bryce is ready to take everything he’s learned, and hit even higher levels of success.
Whether that means the elite sniper needs to move the ball more, or tap into a new vein of playmaking skill, he’s willing to do whatever it takes.
He’s still Bryce, though.
Soon, Bryce will have the opportunity to return to the field as a leader. An ability that he developed while off it.
After a year’s absence, Clay wants to remind everyone who he is.
And he’ll tell you himself:
“You’re gonna get a mean, gritty, Bryce Clay who hasn’t played lacrosse in a while and is willing to do whatever it takes.”