One of the most difficult things a college football player can endure is a year off. Robert Morris secondary coach Bill Hurley took a year off when he was a quarterback at Syracuse. The time away from the game was a wake-up call.
"When you're away from the game for a while, things that maybe you took for granted before, you kind of have to regain a little bit," Hurley said. "Little things like your footwork, your reaction time, things like that take a little while to kind of hone and feel good about them."
Clay Ilkin was away from the football field for nearly two-and-a-half years. Saturday, he'll likely line up as the starting corner for Robert Morris in the annual Spring Game. At the very least, Ilkin figures to play a major role for the Colonials at corner in 2012.
"It's awesome. I'm really blessed," Ilkin said. "Last year I was practicing with the scout team and I was kind of frustrated, because it's so hard to work your way back up after all these years off."
The son of former Steelers offensive lineman and current broadcaster Tunch Ilkin, Clay Ilkin last played organized football as a senior at Upper St. Clair in 2009. It took the most difficult moment in his life to bring him back to Pittsburgh and back to the football field.
Ilkin went to Ohio University after graduating from high school, but the bug to return to the football field didn't push him to consider walking on until the winter of 2010. But at that point, his mom's health began declining. Sharon Ilkin was first diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2004, when Clay was just about to start high school. After a couple years of rough battles with treatment, she was healthy and active until December of 2010. By February of 2011, she was rediagnosed with cancer that had spread to her lungs and liver.
Clay had been thinking about walking on at Ohio over the winter, preparing for spring ball that year. Instead, he and his father talked about leaving Ohio altogether.
"I came home a couple weekends, talked to my dad about being closer to home, spend some time with the family," Clay said. "We were going over schools in the area and kind of talking about whether I wanted to play football again."
Robert Morris' connections with the Steelers opened the door for a visit. John Banaszak was Tunch Ilkin's former teammate, and the Ilkin family also knew Hurley and Joe Walton. By the time the Ilkins visited Robert Morris, it all fell into place. Clay would get a shot to play football again while being just a short drive away from his ailing mother.
"I don't know how many visits we made down to Allegheny General," Clay Ilkin said. "If I was at Ohio U., it's only three hours so you can do it, but it would have been too much."
Over the summer of 2011, as Clay Ilkin moved to Robert Morris and began to resume his path as a college football player, Sharon Ilkin began making trips to San Diego to visit a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico for advanced treatments. She was able to see the first scrimmage at Joe Walton Stadium during camp.
"She got to see me practice a little bit with the team, do the whole scrimmage and some 7-on-7, but that was about it," Clay Ilkin said.
The immersion back into football took a toll on Clay's body.
"Camp killed me," Clay said. "I came back and felt frustrated in camp, really, after the first week. Then I hurt my hip flexor and missed most of the rest of camp."
As Clay worked his way back from the hip flexor to make two cameo appearances against St. Francis (Pa.) and Duquesne, Sharon Ilkin struggled with her health.
"It was definitely hard. I tried to just focus on school and football, then go home on the weekends," Clay said. "But it was definitely stressful being in and out of the hospital. I kind of left that in the hands of God. There's not much I could do."
The Ilkins were together over the holidays, but Sharon Ilkin didn't improve. By late January, she was back in the hospital, and on February 6, 2012, she passed away. Sharon Ilkin was 55 years old.
Teammates came to the viewing while coaches worked with his professors regarding his coursework.
"We have a great group of kids on the team and everyone's been there to support me the whole time," Ilkin said.
It'll always be hard for the Ilkin family. It's been just over two months since she passed. But for Clay Ilkin, he's found an escape, one that two years ago, he wouldn't have had at his disposal.
"It's been huge just to focus on football and school, just keeping busy," he said.
Working almost exclusively with the first team in spring ball, Ilkin is finding his way on the field. He's remembering everything he loved about playing corner back in high school.
"I like to come up and press, I like to jam. I love playing corner," he said. "I like to think I have a feel for it. But definitely some things I need to work on."
Not everything's perfect. Ilkin said he's still getting used to the contact, coming up and making a stop on his own out in the flat. It's one of the last things that will likely return to him.
"Even my coach was yelling at me at the end of practice today for not coming up and hitting someone," Ilkin said. "That's probably the biggest struggle for me just because it's been a while."
Hurley's been there. It takes time to get everything right, for everything to be in sync. And Hurley said if Ilkin can put it together, he's the type of player Robert Morris can use immediately.
"Clay's got a good work ethic, a good head for football, he takes coaching well, and he's not a bad athlete," Hurley said. "If we can get those guys to perform at their best, we can not only play with them, we can with guys like that."
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi contributed to this report and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.