At the Texas Tech track in 2012, Decatur track coach David Park stopped Taylor Clayton momentarily as the then-sophomore cooled down after a third-place finish in the 1600.
“We had a little one-on-one. I asked him who the most talented guy in the race was,” Park recalled.
Clayton answered him that it was Castleberry’s Gabriel Zambrano.
Park countered, “No, Zambrano was the hardest worker. You were the most talented.
“After that he became a student of the sport and wanted to learn the hows and whys of the sport.”
That was when Clayton set out on a mission – to become the most talented and hardest-working distance runner in class 3A.
In 2013-14, he did. The Decatur senior capped his stellar distance running career by nearly claiming the distance triple crown. He won the 3A cross country title and the 1600 at the University Interscholastic League state track meet and finished second in the 3200.
On top of that golden run in cross country and track, Clayton paced the Decatur boys basketball team to the 9-3A title and the third round of the playoffs as a starting point guard.
Clayton’s year full of medals and awards added up to his selection as the Messenger’s Wise County Male Athlete of the Year. It’s the second straight year for the Eagle to earn the honor.
“There are so many great athletes in Wise County,” Clayton said. “To stand out and be selected as athlete of the year is a great feeling.”
As a junior, Clayton led the Decatur cross country team to a state title and captured a bronze medal. In track, Clayton finished fifth in the 3200 and sixth in the 1600 at the state meet.
He longed for better in his final year and spent the summer training as hard as he could.
“I felt I could work harder and put everything into it,” Clayton said. “Park pushed me and every workout mentioned Jacob [Perry of Sanger] to motivate me.
“I started running twice per day and throwing in swimming and biking and working on my core to get in perfect shape. I was running 55 to 60 miles per week but also paying more attention to detail.”
Clayton kept pushing himself throughout the fall as Park dialed up the intensity of his workouts. One workout, he explained, had him running four miles and having to beat teammates who were running three miles and were given a head start.
At the invitational meets, Clayton held his own against the top 4A and 5A runners in the state. But his focus was the championship portion of the season.
He recalled that his final tempo run before district was a four-miler that he completed in 20 minutes and 4 seconds.
“I knew I was ready to smash the course,” Clayton said.
Running at Joe Wheeler Park, where he captured several district medals through high school, Clayton won the 9-3A crown by 37 seconds, clocking a 15:28.
He followed that up with a 10-second win in the 3A Region II race on a mushy course in Grand Prairie.
But all Clayton was focused on was state.
“It was not the gold medal I visualized. It was coming off the levy [at Old Settlers Park] in first place,” Clayton said. “I knew if I could do that, I was strong enough to beat anyone in the 3A field.”
Clayton ran a near perfect race at Round Rock, breaking to the front of the field early and forcing everyone to run hard from the start.
“I had to take it out fast,” Clayton said in November. “I wanted to break them early. I wanted to go out at 4:35 for the first mile and run 5-flat the final two.”
He hit the two-mile at 9:29 in the lead.
“Keep throwing my elbows, keep your form and don’t fall,” Clayton said was going through his head as he neared the finish line.
He did have to hold off a late challenge from Burkburnett’s Kody Anderson but broke the tape in 16:00.08 to claim gold.
“I was in horrible pain in the last 50 meters,” Clayton said. “But I could see the tape and everything I worked hard for four years was there.
“It was way worth it. I’d go back and do it again if I had to.”
The champ didn’t celebrate the win long. He passed on running at nationals to get to the basketball court to help his Eagle teammates.
“What amazed me was he won a state championship on Saturday and was at open gym on Sunday,” said Decatur basketball coach Drew Coffman.
“He had a different energy level. He’d work his tail off in cross country and come to practice, and then go run more.”
With Clayton as the floor general, Decatur rolled through 9-3A undefeated and captured the league crown. Clayton averaged 7.1 points and dished out 3.8 assists.
“We were blessed to have him. You could trust him to do the right thing with the ball,” Coffman said. “He was very unselfish and was always looking to distribute the ball to others. There were times we wanted him to shoot the ball more.”
The Eagles beat Celina in bi-district and then won a dramatic game over Dallas Roosevelt in area. In that game, Clayton injured his toe. He stayed on the floor and played in the region quarterfinal loss to Frisco Lone Star.
Clayton said the loss was more painful than the toe injury.
“I thought we’d get to the region final,” Clayton said. “Once I hurt my toe, I couldn’t contribute the way I wanted and didn’t play near where I should have.”
The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse for Clayton – coming with five quarters left in his high school basketball career, just as he was getting ready to run for state in track.
The injury forced him to the pool for workouts early in the spring. All he could think of was ground he was losing to Perry and some of the state’s other top runners.
“I wanted to be putting in runs. I knew Jacob was getting that much ahead,” Clayton said.
The determined Clayton got his feet back under him by district, winning the 1600 and finishing second in the 3200. He took second to Perry in both races – at area and the 3A Region II meet.
Clayton took the losses to his rival, friend and future Texas A&M teammate at regionals personally.
“To see him outkick me was upsetting,” he said.
On a hot and humid track in Austin, Clayton again saw Perry run away from him in the 3200 to take gold. Clayton took second and the silver medal in 9:33.45.
The next day, Clayton watched his teammate Brandon Rivera charge from behind in the 800 to win the 3A title. An already focused Clayton was determined to win the 1600.
“I knew I wasn’t going to leave without a gold. Even if I had to sprint 1,000 meters, I was going to win that race.”
Clayton delivered on that promise. Even after missing his mark through the first 800 by 10 seconds, he held off Perry and the rest of the field to win the gold in 4:25.97.
“I wasn’t letting him get by me,” Clayton recalled.
“It was everything I’d hoped for, getting that medal handed to me.”
He shared the podium with Perry and also Sanger’s Josh Mills, who took third.
Clayton’s win helped Decatur’s three-man representation claim the runner-up trophy in 3A and proved to be the perfect cap to a career.
“I was more proud of what he did in the spring than the fall because of the adversity he battled through,” Park said.
Clayton will run at Texas A&M in the fall and looks forward to the next chapter in his career. But he’s also thankful for the teammates and coaches who pushed him to be his best.
“It was a blessed year,” Clayton said. “I had great coaches and teammates I owe everything to.”