A Washington State University football player who's never played in a college game has a dedicated fan base at one West Richland elementary school.
"He's tall. He's huge," whispered the fourth-graders as 6-foot-4 Clayton Simundson walked into their Wiley Elementary School classroom.
"He can touch the roof," one student exclaimed.
Clayton, a freshman offensive lineman, was a team captain and left tackle at Richland High School last year. He had offers to play football at a few small colleges but decided instead to go to WSU in Pullman to focus on school.
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He wasn't recruited to play football at WSU. A week into the school year, a member of his fraternity told him the Cougar football team was holding open tryouts.
"I knew it would be a regret if I didn't at least try," he told the Herald before meeting with the Wiley kids.
Clayton and six other WSU students were chosen to join the team. But he struggled as a walk-on player.
He was redshirted -- kept out of competition for a year -- and became a member of the scout team, which helps the Cougars' defense practice for games. He had to stay in Pullman during Thanksgiving break to practice with the team before the Apple Cup but wasn't taken to the game itself.
Clayton vented his frustrations to his mom, teacher Tami Simundson, who shared them with her students, several of whom are ardent football and Cougar fans. She pointed out that despite her son's struggles, he still went to practice each day and worked hard.
"We study character traits," she said. "It was just kind of a way to hook them."
Tami Simundson used her son's experiences to teach her students about perseverance, a lesson she's seeing her students using more and more.
"You'll hear them tell a (desk) neighbor, 'Well, it isn't always easy,' " she said. "They're starting to encourage each other."
While his mom's students were impressed by his height and 280 pounds, those attributes are nothing compared to most of his teammates, he said.
"I've always been one of the biggest players and here I was one of the smallest offensive linemen," he said. "I'm the tackling dummy."
The students had a lot of questions for Clayton, ranging from why he chose to go to WSU ("It felt like home") to why he started playing football ("I have since I was 4. My dad was my first coach and we watched games together").
But he also emphasized that even with how hard it was to be on the team this year, he wouldn't trade the experience or the friends he has made.
A few students said hearing about Clayton's experiences helped them with their own battles, from motivating them on their basketball team to doing well in school.
Nine-year-old Torben Lake was behind on his classwork and wanted to give up trying to get it done before it was due.
"Then I remembered Clayton and I was able to get my homework done," Torben said.
The end of the Cougars' season had its highlights for Clayton. He did go with the team to the New Mexico Bowl, where he attended banquets, received some promotional gifts and used a locker next to the one used by former Chicago Bears superstar linebacker Brian Urlacher, a Pasco native who attended the University of New Mexico.
"Anytime you feel cornered or things aren't going well, there's always something on the horizon," Clayton told the students.
And he added that even with all the new gear -- including a full Nike sweatsuit, a Diesel watch and Oakley sunglasses -- the best thing he received this year was a bracelet made by fourth-grader Bailey Hausenbuiller.
"I felt really happy," said Bailey, 9, about the gift.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald