Jontel Clayton emerged from the locker room and gave his field one final look after Iowa Central's victory over North Dakota Science on Saturday.
''I'm going to miss this place,'' Clayton admitted. ''I've had a lot of fun here.''
Statistically speaking, Clayton is by far and away the best running back to ever play at Dodger Stadium. He is Fort Dodge Senior High's career rushing champion with 3,522 yards. He is closing in on Iowa Central's record as well; at 2,307 yards, Clayton is just 39 shy of Charlie White's three-decade old all-time school mark.
That's 5,829 combined yards wearing No. 20 as both a Dodger and a Triton, or a shade over 3.3 miles.
I saw Jontel make his high school debut as a wide-eyed sophomore five seasons ago late in Fort Dodge's win over Des Moines Roosevelt at Drake Stadium. I was there when Dodger head coach Matt Miller made Clayton his full-time tailback a month later in Council Bluffs, when FDSH roared back from a 15-point second-half deficit to beat Abraham Lincoln.
Clayton scored four touchdowns and had 188 yards the next week in a win over Mason City. He topped the 200-yard mark in the regular-season finale as Fort Dodge defeated Marshalltown to earn a playoff berth, then completed his partial year with a school sophomore-high 895 yards.
There was the 1,608-yard junior campaign that rewrote the record books, followed by a senior year where he gutted out 1,019 yards despite playing hurt from start to finish. By the time Clayton graduated, the Dodgers had compiled a record of 18-8 with him in the starting lineup. He carried the ball 562 times and scored 34 touchdowns in an FDSH uniform while finishing with five 200-yard games and nineteen 100-yard performances - all program bests.
The success continued at Iowa Central, where Clayton ran for a freshman program-record 1,477 yards last fall. He is now a few open holes away from White's career total, established in 1972 and '73. The 35-carry, 195-yard effort on Saturday was, as his head coach Kevin Twait pointed out afterward, a ''vintage Jontel Clayton performance.''
I've interviewed Jontel quite a few times over the course of his career. Respectful and unassuming, Clayton always puts the team first and credits the players around him. It was that way when he was a 16-year-old kid and it still rings true today.
I met Jontel in the end zone and we talked for a while after Saturday's win. His college plans beyond Iowa Central are still up in the air, though he did say, ''I'll do anything and play any position my (future school) wants. Just give me the opportunity.''
Clayton may not necessarily be the fastest or biggest back to ever wear the red and black or blue and white, but he's the toughest and most complete one I've seen. The numbers back me up.
As Jontel left the Dodger Stadium turf in a football uniform for the last time, I stopped walking and took a look back myself. After all these years, the least I could do was recognize one of the best this town has ever produced on the field he will always call home.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at email@example.com