STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — There were 110,669 people in Beaver Stadium on Saturday night, nearly all dressed in white. A full 10 minutes after the final horn had sounded on Penn State’s 28-21 victory over Michigan, very few of them had left their seats to get a jump on traffic. Instead, they stood and screamed. They cried. They reveled in the moment. They sang “For the Glory of Old State …” and then they laser-focused their elation toward a pair of the kids running and embracing on the field below. It was 110,667 people, all at once thanking two.
“This is why we came here!” quarterback Sean Clifford screamed into the face of the teammate he had wrapped in a violent, yet loving, headlock. “This right here!”
“Hell yeah it is!” wide receiver KJ Hamler responded, his head buried under the arm that had just thrown him two touchdown passes and handed him the ball on the run that iced the victory. “What we dreamed of, son!”
Meet college football’s best new buddy comedy. The kind of relationship that is born from sports at its best, a beautiful friendship forged between painted lines on a field that might not have ever happened otherwise. Clifford, the tall white dude from the historic Cincinnati private school who grew up throwing balls into a bouncy net in the cul-de-sac, he of the vaunted right arm that was fine-tuned alongside bigger names who got the jump on the national college football spotlight. Hamler the short black kid from Pontiac, Michigan, running cone drills in a blue-collar backyard, raised in the shadows of the auto industry by parents who installed in him a turbocharged engine and a chip on his shoulder the size of a hood ornament.
Through football, they have formed a lifelong bond, a pairing that’s always been fun for them and is now becoming fun for the rest of us. See: the chants of “K-J! K-J!” as they walked into the end zone together toward a revved-up State College student section Saturday night.
But it is increasingly not so fun for the teams charged with keeping them out of that end zone during games. See: accounting for all four touchdowns against Michigan, including two perfectly timed passes from Clifford to Hamler, one more 17-yard beauty by Clifford to tight end Pat Freiermuth, and a Clifford 2-yard keeper run. Hamler even managed to pound out the final first down that iced the victory, a bruising 4-yard interior run more befitting a fullback than a 5-foot-9 (maybe), 179-pound (maybe) receiver. The handoff on what head coach James Franklin called “a power back” play came from Clifford.
Hamler and Clifford have hooked up through the air 32 times this season, resulting in seven touchdowns and nearly 600 yards. The pair, which ESPN reporter Maria Taylor called “my favorite bromance in college football,” is also in love with the deep ball, averaging more than 17 yards per pass play and busting off at least one play of 45 yards or more in four of Penn State’s seven games, including a fourth-quarter 53-yard strike that proved to be difference in the final score against Michigan.
Every deep connection on the field is simply an illustration of their deep connection off that field.
“When I told him that’s what we have dreamed of, I meant it,” Hamler said later of his postgame comments to Clifford. “What y’all see are two guys finally getting a chance to do what we do together on this big stage. What you didn’t see is us talking about this right here since we were kids.”
The first sparks of the dream were kindled during middle school. That’s when Clifford and Hamler first met, at a Midwest QB-receivers camp when they were both in the seventh grade.
“I don’t remember exactly where it was, maybe Columbus [Ohio], somewhere we could both get to pretty easily,” recalled John Clifford, Sean’s father, a corporate marketing and business development executive. “At camps like that, the kids who really have a lot of talent and passion for football, they tend to gravitate to one another. KJ and Sean definitely did. They found each other pretty quick and hit it off immediately.”
Had that meeting taken place a generation ago, their bond likely would have dissolved as soon as that camp ended, left to fade in an old-school fog of landline phone calls and pen pal letters. But in the smartphone/social media age, friendships are allowed to flourish in absentia. Texts and DMs know no physical boundaries. As they both moved into high school and their talents moved onto the radars of national recruiting analysts, they experienced those rises together. “Just had a meeting with Coach (insert name here) from (insert college here), what did you think of him?” “Just visited (insert program here) and toured (insert stadium here), that place is nice.”
During the summer of 2016, as they prepared for their senior years of high school, they reconnected in person at various all-star camps. Clifford had already committed to Penn State. Hamler had a gaggle of schools on his list, and had been pursued by the Nittany Lions (specifically, assistant coach Josh Gattis, now Michigan’s offensive coordinator). But those closest to him, including his parents, believed he would stay home and play at Michigan State, even after he moved to Florida to play his senior season at IMG Academy.
They had no idea how hard Clifford was working behind the scenes. As soon as they’d seen each other at the first Rivals camps of ’16, they insisted on being paired together for throwing sessions, even when the coaches tried to split them up. Then Clifford went on to the superstar-heavy Elite 11 camp that included Tua Tagovailoa, Kellen Mond, Jake Fromm and Sam Ehlinger. When the self-proclaimed “It Factory” rolled into the July all-position all-star competition titled The Opening, Clifford was elated to see Hamler step off the bus. Again, they connected through laughter and deep routes. And again, Clifford went to work on his “We Are” hard sell.
“There is a lot of recruiting going on at those camps, and I’m not talking about the coaches,” said former Elite 11, Florida and West Virginia QB Will Grier, now back in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, with the Panthers. “At dinner, around the TV, around the pool table, as soon as you see who the good guys are, the ones you know are on the fence, you’re like, ‘Dude, you gotta come with me to this place. We would kill it!’ But not a lot of people change where they are going because of a friendship. You go where you think you will be the best fit.”
Hamler figured he could get both at Penn State, the fit and the friendship. The final tipping point came not because of football, but because football was taken away. After he tore an ACL during the first offensive drive of his senior year, his phone that had always been so active with coaches and other kids fell largely silent. But Gattis called from Penn State and Clifford called from Cincinnati, both with genuine concern in their voices. They continued to check in throughout the fall as Clifford, hampered by a bum hamstring, led his injury-ravaged St. Xavier team to squeak into the Ohio high school playoffs and gutted out a triple-overtime state championship victory. “We both overcame a lot and we did it together,” Clifford says now.
That December, Hamler announced he would be taking his talents to Happy Valley.
His first season in State College was spent rehabbing his knee. He did that work with fellow redshirt Clifford as his biggest cheerleader. In 2018, they both started seeing a little playing time, Hamler as an emerging big-play downfield threat and Clifford as a garbage-time backup to Trace McSorley. Against Ohio State in late September, Hamler hauled in a 93-yard TD pass from McSorley. When Clifford stepped in for McSorley during a blowout of Kent State, he threw a 95-yard TD pass.
Meanwhile, they both bugged McSorley everywhere he went with questions about how to handle their business once the offense was finally handed over to them.
“No one will outwork either one of them and I think that’s a big reason why they are so tight,” said McSorley, now with the Baltimore Ravens. McSorley has often told of Clifford’s endless stream of questions, from the film room to the team bus to even now, still chatting with his predecessor every Friday night before big games. Among McSorley’s most adamant pieces of advice for Clifford as he departed for the NFL? “It was pretty obvious,” he explained with a laugh. “If KJ gets into the open, you get him the ball.”
Thus far in 2019, that’s not been a problem, thanks to some quick sports psychology work from the wide receiver. In the days leading into the season opener against Idaho, having just been officially named the starting quarterback, Clifford assured a playfully concerned Hamler that he wasn’t nervous.
“I told him, ‘Man, I’ve been waiting two years for this, why would I be nervous?'” the quarterback recalled. “Then the game started and I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?'”
It was a flock of butterflies in his stomach the size of fighter jets, his first real nerves since that high school title game. After two drives of happy feet, huddle miscommunication and overjuiced throws, he could feel the side-eyes from his own sideline. Then he looked down. There was Hamler, in Clifford’s face with a WTF expression. After all of the help during those camps, the college commitment decision and rehab, it was time for the receiver to return the favor and throw down what no one was willing to say.
“Yo, you need to chill out.”
The second quarter included a pair of TD passes from Clifford to Hamler. A few weeks later, they hung 108 yards and a score on Maryland, starting their current streak of four games with at least one touchdown pass between them. Now, those nerves are gone and the challenge has shifted from overcoming early-game jitters (they jumped out to an early 21-0 lead against Michigan) and figuring how to keep offensive momentum rolling through entire games and not merely a handful of electrifying deep balls.
As the Nittany Lions (7-0 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) make simultaneous moves into the top six and into the heart of the Big Ten calendar, it feels ill advised to bet against the ability of this quarterback and wide receiver to solve that problem, too.
“That’s my favorite part of this, that they can enjoy it all together,” says John Clifford, whose youngest son, Liam, a St. X wide receiver, committed to Penn State on Sunday. “There is so much pressure on these kids, especially when they are marked as potential stars at such a young age. There is so much they have to keep up with and expectations to deal with. But they have experienced all of this together, since they were kids. They deserve nights together like they had Saturday night.”
“This was the dream, right?” Clifford said on that very night, touting Hamler as the most explosive player in college football and pointing to a second-half 100-yard kickoff return (wiped off the board via penalty), run in only 11 seconds, as his evidence. “Moments and nights like this with my brother. Since middle school we wondered, ‘What would this be like if it ever really happened?’ And right now, it feels better than we could have dreamed.”