PITTSBURGH — Before Chase Claypool scored four touchdowns in a single football game, he scored 10.
And he probably would have scored more in that game if Khul Sanghera hadn’t limited his touches.
“He didn’t touch the ball a lot, but when he did, he made the best of it,” said Sanghera, who coached Claypool for six seasons in the community football league in Abbotsford, British Columbia. “He gave everything, every drop of Chase that game. That was special.”
To keep other players — and their parents — happy, Sanghera had to walk a fine line between managing and developing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ future second-round pick and showing good sportsmanship to his own team and opponents.
But when the 10-year-old Claypool got the ball in his hands, things just happened. He couldn’t help it.
“The plan was not for him to score 10 touchdowns,” his mom, Jasmine, said. “The plan was for him to get a first down so we could keep driving down the field. There were other players that were on the field. It’s not like he was the only player on the field. But they’d throw to him in those critical situations at third or fourth down, and he’d score a touchdown. It wasn’t intentional: ‘Hey we’re going to rub your nose in all these touchdowns.’ You’re not going to tell him, ‘Don’t score. Just get a first down.'”
Like Sanghera’s game plan, the Steelers are still targeting Claypool on third down, and even though the difficulty level has increased tenfold, he’s still scoring touchdowns. Last Sunday, in just his fourth game in the NFL, Claypool, 22, scored four touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles, two of which came on third-and-long. He might have had another too, if not for an offensive pass interference call. Even so, he was the first rookie in NFL history to catch three touchdown passes and run for another.
“It brought us back to that game,” said Jacob Carvery, 27, Claypool’s stepbrother, of watching Sunday’s four-touchdown performance. “He’s making this look so easy.”
But nothing about Claypool’s journey to the NFL was easy. Coming from Canada, Claypool had to prove he wasn’t just regionally good but good enough to make it in the States. And even though he was a muscular 6-foot-4 with the speed and finesse of a much smaller receiver, he had to work hard to catch the attention of American college recruiters.
With the help of a tight-knit football community, Claypool made the improbable leaps from community football in British Columbia to Notre Dame to the NFL, becoming one of 114 Canadians to make an NFL roster.
“I feel like there’s so many athletes in America that have played this sport since they were four or five years old,” Carvery said, “that what’s the point to look into Canada? I get that, but there are some amazing athletes over here, and it’s so amazing to see Chase do so well.
“It gives a lot of kids from Canada hope to one day do the same.”
The first time Claypool handed his mom the registration sheet for community football, she put it on the bottom of a stack of papers and hoped he’d forget about it.
Though her 7-year-old son was already stronger than most kids his age — his stepfather, Palmer Carvery, remembers seeing him with abs at 3 years old — Jasmine was worried about him playing a rough sport, so she conveniently let the registration deadline pass without submitting the paperwork.
Claypool didn’t let that happen the next year.
He suited up for the Abbotsford Falcons and quickly put his mom’s fears to rest.
“I was like, ‘Wow, he’s not getting hit at all. He’s pretty fast. Maybe this isn’t so bad,'” she said.
Claypool’s team was a juggernaut, playing in the Provincial Finals — the equivalent of a state championship — five times. They didn’t always win, but Claypool almost always dominated.
“He was an anomaly as a child from Day 1,” said Chel Sanghera, Khul’s wife and vice president of the Fraser Valley Football Community Association. “My husband would say, ‘I’d call a play, and then Chase would do something I wouldn’t think. I thought he’d only get this far and then he’d be at the end zone already.'”
Claypool supplemented his community football practices with sessions learning from Carvery, five years his senior, in grassy patches around their home. A compact, athletic receiver, Carvery was a stellar athlete, and he taught Claypool the shifty skills and underneath routes he used in his own game. Claypool emulated the 5-foot-10 Carvery and quickly mastered the skill set of a slot receiver, something he continued even as he hit a growth spurt that shot him up by a foot in 10th grade.
“That’s the best thing you could possibly have being that big, tall receiver,” Carvery said. “Most of those guys are jump-ball or deep-ball threats. Catch the ball and go down or make one move and get tackled.
“To be able to make a drag route as a 6-4 receiver and still make people miss and get a first down pretty much any time he touches a ball is something to say. It’s incredibly hard to do at that size.”
After community football, Claypool continued to develop in high school at Abbotsford Secondary, where he switched from Canadian Rules to American, and the coaching staff, led by Jay Fujimura and offensive coordinator Teague Funk, kept him on the field almost constantly as a receiver and strong safety. In 12 games, Claypool racked up 1,473 receiving yards and 18 touchdown catches. In all, he had 2,519 all-purpose yards and 29 touchdowns, plus three touchdown throws. He was also tied for the team lead with 74 tackles and five interceptions.
“You can’t dream of having a player that good, and then he shows up,” Funk said. “So you just kind of give him the ball in as many ways as possible and let him do his thing. Let him be the athlete that he is.”
Even with so much success in community and high school football, it took a Facebook post and a prayer to put Chase on the radar of American football programs.
Chel, affectionately known as “Mama Chel” to players and parents in community football, recognized Claypool’s rare talent and posted dozens of highlight videos on her Facebook page with the hope of catching the attention of someone to further his football career.
“My biggest thing was, I used to pray to the universe: ‘Universe. somebody come and find him,'” Chel said.
At the same time, Carvery was playing football for Eddie Ferg, who founded Air Raid Academy and coached a 7-on-7 team. He constantly told Ferg about his little stepbrother and bugged his coach to take a look. While he made his own highlight compilations on YouTube, Carvery encouraged his younger brother to do the same.
“[We were] just some Canadian kids trying to make it,” Carvery said.
Eventually, the universe listened, and when Claypool was a high school junior, Ferg came across one of Chel’s videos on Facebook.
“I was literally scrolling through,” Ferg said. “I want to say it was him returning a punt, so I clicked on her link. He had a punt return for a touchdown, an interception for a touchdown playing free safety, and he had a huge tackle. I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’
“I’ve never seen a kid of that size move that well. He looked like an absolute giant on the film. He was over 6-foot-2, but he moved like he was 5-foot-9.”
From there, a combination of Chel’s video, Carvery’s connection and Ferg’s friendship with Funk led Ferg to take Claypool under his wing. Claypool joined Ferg’s Air Raid Academy and started traveling to tournaments in the United States.
“Once he got the exposure down there, it was like, ‘Who is this monster from Canada? Where did he come from?'” Carvery said. “It was just getting his name out there initially, just getting the exposure to even get looked at from America. It’s very challenging from Canada.”
Ferg also distributed his highlights to coaching connections at Division I programs.
Less than 24 hours after Ferg sent the first tape out to a coach at Nevada, Claypool had a scholarship offer. Word about Claypool spread quickly in coaching circles as Ferg got his videos in front of more coaches. Letters and phone calls poured in and offers soon followed. Claypool got his first offer early in 2015, and by that summer, he’d committed to Notre Dame.
“When big schools are calling, asking what he’s like and asking for everything that you know about him, and then, you know, a couple hours later they’re offering, it’s just pretty amazing,” Ferg said. “Because you see somebody’s dreams becoming a reality.”
It wasn’t an easy transition to Notre Dame, where the talent level was leaps and bounds from that in British Columbia. After primarily playing special teams his first season, Claypool steadily picked up steam until his senior season, when he scored 13 touchdowns and had 1,037 receiving yards.
Enamored with his 4.42 speed and 80-inch wingspan, the Steelers, known for their prowess in drafting wide receivers outside of the first round such as Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, selected him with their first pick in the 2020 draft, No. 49 overall. His physicality and willingness to block and play on special teams had put him even higher on the organization’s draft board, and the Steelers thought he’d probably be gone by the time they picked.
“I was really excited when he ran a sub-4.4 at the combine, and I don’t get excited because boy, you just assume you’re probably not going to get to him at 49,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said in April.
But the Steelers did, and he fit in right away.
Though adjusting to NCAA Division I football was difficult at first, it set the foundation for a smoother start to his professional career. With four receiving touchdowns, he already ranks eighth among Canadian NFL players, and he’s rushed for another.
“You know, it wasn’t a huge jump,” Claypool said, “in terms of playbook and then speed of the game. I adjusted pretty, pretty quickly to that.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic making it next to impossible for Claypool’s family and support system to travel from British Columbia to see any part of his rookie season in person, they found another way to be on the sideline.
Every week, family and friends enter the Steelers’ Virtual Sideline Experience giveaway, where they can win a chance to watch warm-ups from a camera on the field via Zoom.
Jasmine’s sister-in-law won for the Week 3 game against the Texans.
Decked out in Steelers gear, the family gathered at her house and watched as Claypool and his teammates stretched, and they shouted excitedly when coach Mike Tomlin and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster walked over to the cameras and waved.
But Claypool never came by.
“I gave him heck,” Jasmine said. “He said he noticed it at the end, but it was too late, and he was running off after the warm-up.”
But even if his family didn’t get to see him that day, he saw them. The whole group appeared doing a pre-recorded cheer on the video board during a fourth-and-1 play.
With the stellar start to Claypool’s professional career, it’s a good bet his family will get a chance to cheer him on in person someday.
“He was like ‘Yeah, I looked up and was like, hold up? Is that my family? I think my family is up there,'” Jacob Carvery said. “It’s really, really cool to be a part of it.
“For us to miss his first game and stuff like that is heartbreaking. But we are so freaking proud of what he has done, who he has become, what football has made him into.”