By the age of two, it was clear Chase Claypool would be an athlete. He climbed the monkey bars with ease. Only a few years later, he would be playing baseball and trying gymnastics, however briefly. There was a foray into BMX riding and karate, which he practiced at a dojo next to his house. He tried and challenged everything. But nothing captured his imagination like football.
As a kid growing up in Abbotsford, British Columbia, the four-year Notre Dame wide receiver didn't just like playing the game—he absorbed as much as he could as a fan too. He watched the Seahawks religiously during the NFL season and the BC Lions when the CFL was in session. He idolized running back great LaDainian Tomlinson, who inspired Claypool to wear the same No. 21 throughout his early athletic pursuits. He tried to emulate the defensive ethos of safety Sean Taylor.
He finally joined a community tackle football team at the age of eight. A year later, he was playing against kids two and three years older than he was in a summer flag football league. The age gap didn't faze him; he just wanted to be tested.
When Claypool was 12, his mom, Jasmine, recalls driving home after a football game her son dominated and wondering out loud, "Wouldn't it be cool if you played in the CFL?" Chase pleaded with her to "let me get through high school first."
In the fall of 2011, however, the Claypool family context was changed forever.
One morning in late October, around 6:30 a.m., Chase, 14, was awakened by his mother in their Abbotsford house. She told him that his 17-year-old sister, Ashley, had taken her own life. Still half asleep, the news didn't register. He went back to sleep and thought it was a dream.
A few hours later he woke up, went to the bathroom and then heard his mother crying in the kitchen. That's when the shock and numbness kicked in. It wasn't until Ashley's funeral, where he was surrounded by grief-stricken family members, that the reality of her loss clung to him tightly. He didn't want to believe it was real.
Claypool realized then that he had to find different ways to live without his big sister, one who used to tell him to keep playing sports.
"I just want to make her proud," he said.
If he hadn't already done that by morphing into a team leader for one of college football's most storied programs, he's about to leave no doubt after he's selected as an under-the-radar X-factor in next week's NFL draft.
His clips had gone viral on Facebook, and it was clear why. On the screen was a big, muscular kid catching a punt return and racing through defenders. Few touched him, and those who did bounced off him. Eddie Ferg watched it 20 times to see if it was real. Ferg is the founder of Air Raid Academy, a Canada-based program that helps train and promote high school athletes to get into colleges.
"Seeing such a big kid moving like he was 5'9", I've never seen such a large individual move like that," Ferg said. "This kid was special."
Indeed, Claypool's elite athleticism made him a multisport threat. On the basketball court, he showed the ability to do a little of everything—dunk, shoot threes, spread the floor. Soon enough, though, Claypool began training with Ferg and other elite football talents, playing seven-on-seven tournaments against U.S. high school teams as far away as New Jersey.
He refined his game, working on running more efficiently, navigating cleaner routes, catching away from his body, playing more aggressively and reading defenses. He gravitated toward the learning process and picked things up rapidly.
"Chase has a ruthless approach to everything he does," Ferg said. "He never loses or wants to lose. If he does lose, he's challenging the person that beat him until he wins."
If he dropped a catch in practice, he'd run the play again until it was perfect. He regularly filled his time on trips to football tournaments by asking Karen Lopez, a personal trainer for Air Raid Academy, about how to improve his release off the line of scrimmage or his footwork. He'd set up shoe markers in the hallway of the hotel, film his form and send it to Ferg. On nights where he couldn't sleep, he would work out.
"Everything that he's dealt with in his life, losing his sister, is something that motivates him to be the best," Ferg said. "He was doing what he needed to do to not only improve but to be the best. It's the [Kobe] Bryant effect. That is Chase. It's not fair to compare him like that, but that is the closest comparison to Chase I could give anybody."
By his senior year in high school, Claypool was dominating the Abbotsford sports scene. In the fall, he led the Panthers football team in receiving yards (1,473), touchdowns (18) and tackles (74). With winter sports came a season that saw him average more than 40 points per game while scoring more than 50 four times.
Though some say he could have played Division I basketball, once the football offers started to come in, his belief in himself as a football player grew. And with an offer to play for Notre Dame, Chase moved to South Bend in 2016.
The Claypools were an active, outdoorsy family. There was knee hockey with mini sticks and soap on the floor and building BMX ramps in the street. There were laughs—lots of them. And there was a close-knit group of siblings (three boys and one girl, as well as two step-brothers), of which Chase was the youngest.
The last time he remembers talking to Ashley was a few days before she died. He was walking home from a friend's house and saw her walking in the opposite direction. He ran across the street and gave her a hug.
It's been almost nine years since. He thinks about her every day. Now, on his right arm is a tattoo that reads:
"A thousand words won't bring you back. I know, because I tried. Neither will a thousand tears. I know, because I've cried. Until we meet again."
He says the words aren't used as motivation, because she's always on his mind.
His mother is a good reminder too. She's a lot like his sister. Same humor. Similarly down to earth. But a relationship with a sibling is different, and Chase was close to Ashley. She used to put him in dresses when he was young. Later, she made it clear to him the potential she felt he had as an athlete, as a football player.
It's easy to see now what Ashley saw then.
As he prepares to watch the draft with his family in Canada, Claypool is a portrait of what modern offensive coordinators dream about: 6'4", 238 pounds and sporting a physique that brings to mind a CrossFit world champion as much as a football player.
If you've seen his press conferences from Notre Dame or, more recently, at the NFL combine, you would have also noticed his laser-like focus and confidence. "I've shown that I have size. If I can show that I have speed to go with it, that separates me from most of the guys," Claypool told scouts at the 2020 combine.
Those scouts are guardedly optimistic about Claypool's NFL future. Though he's prized for his size, hands and speed, his suspect ability to shake free of defenders after the catch has raised some concerns, according to NFL.com. "Everyone is going to talk about his 4.48 speed, but I didn't think he played that fast," one AFC director of college scouting told B/R. "Hopefully you can get that out of him, but the height/weight/speed is so intriguing that you almost have to roll the dice and hope for the best. I bet he goes top 50."
As far as Claypool is concerned, "Obviously, you want to get drafted as high as possible. I have set my expectations high. I'm honestly excited for the opportunity to even get drafted. I gotta keep my head on straight and focus on the little things to get better every day at football, being a good person, and the rest will take care of itself."
It was a basketball game that convinced Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly that Claypool would be a good fit under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus in South Bend.
In a game against local rival Pitt Meadows, Claypool dropped 51 points, and Kelly, who had flown up to Canada on a recruiting trip to see him, was there. There were dunks, threes, put-backs, kids bouncing off him. He was a man among boys.
To Kelly, it wasn't just Claypool's performance that impressed him but his desire to dominate.
"We never really got to see him play football in person," Kelly said. "Once we were able to see the athleticism that he had and the competitive fire. … He piqued our interest. We took a bit of a flier."
Still, Kelly knew that if Claypool was to be a cultural fit, he had to work within the Notre Dame system, a football engine Claypool knew little about. After a few days on campus hanging out with Fighting Irish players in the dorms playing video games, talking football over dinners, getting a feel for life at the university, the Abbotsford native got the thumbs-up from the school's players, which was enough to convince Kelly he would fit in.
It didn't take long for Claypool to acclimate himself. He proudly displayed a Canadian flag in his dorm room as well as pictures of his family. There were practical jokes with his dormmates, like the time he hid his roommate's mattress in a bathroom only to have his own possessions emptied out of his room in retaliation.
"He just liked to fit in with everyone else and do what every other normal college kid was doing," said Chris Wilcox, who met Claypool in his freshman year and eventually became the roommate whose mattress disappeared. "It's funny, I think that sometimes when he's not in that football atmosphere he almost forgets he's a football player."
With each year, though, Claypool's importance in the Notre Dame offense grew. As a senior, he caught 66 passes for 1,037 yards and 13 touchdowns in 13 games, earning team MVP honors. And that wasn't only for what he accomplished on the field.
"To go from somebody who is not sure to being someone who is extremely confident in who he is, that's what I'll always remember about Chase," Kelly said. "To play this game of football, you have to be somebody that people can count on. He doesn't miss games. There's a consistency in him that I think, for the scouts and everybody that is now evaluating him, they're starting to see something that is very unique."
Every step Claypool has taken throughout his football journey, Jasmine has been there with him. Though she often worked two jobs while he was growing up, she rarely missed a practice or a game.
When Chase went to Notre Dame, she made it to at least five games per season, and last year she attended all of his home games. She was there at the Navy game when Chase put up four touchdowns. She went to Texas in December one year, where they dined on barbecue. She watched him practice in the rain.
No matter whether this all led to a football career or something else, Jasmine felt her son had a personality that would always help him make the best of any situation.
"I thought he might be a lawyer," Jasmine said. "He always had an excellent argument for whatever I was going to say," Jasmine said. "He was always outspoken. He challenged teachers. He would rally his friends to do workouts at the gym to constantly improve."
Ahead of the NFL's virtual draft because of the coronavirus, Jasmine's plans for a big party have been downsized into a Zoom get-together with a small core group of family eating Caribbean oxtail stew—Chase's favorite dish.
"Whatever happens, the world is completely open to him," Jasmine said. "Chase has always been successful at everything he does, whether it is academics or sports, so we're feeling pretty confident for the next stages for him."
It's not a stretch to imagine that Ashley would have felt the same way.
Matt Miller contributed to the reporting in this story.
Justin Robertson is an Australian journalist living in Toronto. He has written for Vice, Sportsnet, the Guardian and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @justinjourno