Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the class of 2017 signees. Michigan State reporter Luke Srodulski has hit the road to visit this year’s incoming freshmen and give you an inside look beyond Hudl highlights and head shots. The latest feature covers 3-star linebacker Darien Tipps-Clemons’ journey back from knee surgery.
PIQUA, Ohio — Darien Tipps-Clemons relaxes inside the training room at Piqua High School’s Alexander Stadium, leaning against the table on which he has lain in pain several times before.
“We’ve spent a lot of time together,” Katie Smith, Piqua’s athletic trainer for 16 years, says to him.
For better or worse. The two have grown close during his four years in high school, and he’s happy for that. But injuries have been the cause.
A bum ankle here, an AC joint sprain there, and most recently a season-ending knee injury. The latest has been the most trying, and Tipps-Clemons estimates that he’s 80 percent back to full strength. His doctor expects him to be in playing condition in August — just in time for the outside linebacker’s freshman season at Michigan State.
For now, he’s savoring the time he has left in Piqua. His mother once considered moving him to a different school, but they ultimately stayed.
“I’m glad I did,” Tipps-Clemons says. “It all worked out.”
It’s hard to deny that, because he’s headed to Michigan State. He committed to the Spartans well before his injury, and they stuck by him throughout. That resonated with Tipps-Clemons, who puts a premium on relationships and loyalty.
He says he has no regrets about his time in Piqua, despite missing nearly two entire seasons because of injuries. He’s a people person and didn’t want to leave his friends and family behind — though he’d surely have no problem fitting in elsewhere.
“Every single person he talks to becomes his buddy,” says his father, Brandon Tipps. “He’s got a special quality. People gravitate to him.”
Tipps-Clemons gives Smith a hug then walks out into the warm April sun, where countless cousins, friends and admirers finishing up gym class rush over to see him. He greets them all warmly.
“I feel like you need people in your life,” Tipps-Clemons explains. “You can’t have nobody in your life because then you get to a dark place. Sometimes you feel like you ain’t got people, and you just start thinking bad things. I feel like it’s always good to have somebody in your corner.”
‘We’ve got you if you’ve got us’
The darkest place Tipps-Clemons has been in recent memory was Trotwood-Madison High School, on Sept. 2.
Primarily a running back throughout high school, he had taken a pitch on a sweep and headed toward the right sideline. As he tried to cut upfield, he heard a pop in his knee and crumpled to the ground, just as a horde of defenders fell on top of him.
Tipps-Clemons hobbled to the sideline, where Smith awaited. She took him to the bench, grabbed the lower part of his leg and noticed that it extended much farther forward than it should.
“That’s not good,” she said.
It was a simple line, but one that put a sense of panic in Tipps-Clemons. He thought about his commitment to Michigan State, made public about four months earlier on April 26. What would become of that? He thought about how long it had taken before he finally got his first offer in February of his junior year. Would all that progress be for naught?
“Do you think they’re gonna take my scholarship?” he frantically asked Smith. She didn’t have the answer, of course, but she reassured him with her response: “No, don’t think like that.”
And so he didn’t. He focused on positive thoughts in the midst of what could be a serious injury. Smith, though she didn’t immediately tell him, thought it looked like more than just an ACL tear. His coach, Bill Nees, was focused on the game and saw an immediate shift.
“He went down and our starting defensive end [Derek Hite] went down,” Nees says. “It was like a one-two punch. We ended up just sleepwalking our way through.”
Tipps-Clemons was in a similar daze during the 38-6 loss, but for a different reason. And it turned out Smith was right. Tipps-Clemons saw a doctor the next day and received the news that he had torn both his ACL and his meniscus. Surgery was scheduled for the following Friday at Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in Cincinnati.
Smith was also right about the scholarship. Tipps-Clemons had texted Michigan State defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett immediately after the injury, then decided to call once he learned the severity.
“It’s all good,” Tipps-Clemons remembers him saying. “Don’t worry about it. It happens. We’ve had plenty of guys do it and come back. You’ll be fine.”
Then he called Spartans coach Mark Dantonio for further validation.
“Don’t worry,” he says Dantonio told him. “The scholarship’s still good. We’ve got you if you’ve got us.”
That’s all the affirmation Tipps-Clemons needed. The recovery didn’t particularly concern him. He’d been through it before after he fractured his ankle as a freshman, then broke it all the way through after trying to play on it. He’d suffered a stress fracture in his back flipping off a diving board in junior high, and jammed a shoulder falling to the turf as a junior.
He’s no stranger to injuries and how to recover from them. The issue was figuring out what to do with himself without football.
“At one point, I think I said something to [assistant coach Josh] Smith like, ‘Man, I’m starting to get worried about Darien,’ ” Smith remembers with a laugh. ” ‘All he ever talks about is what he’s watching on TV.’ ”
Tipps-Clemons interjects: “I was a bum for a hot second, but I got it right.”
Through the help of friends and family getting on his case and pushing him forward, Tipps-Clemons began hitting the weight room as heavily as the doctors would allow. And getting an occasional letter from his Michigan State coaches such as the one pictured above provided motivation as well.
“I was like, ‘That’s what’s up,’ ” Tipps-Clemons says of receiving one particular letter signed by the coaches. “No matter what, I’m sticking to Michigan State. I don’t think I’d ever de-commit.”
‘Strong and deep’
Tipps-Clemons has loyalty inked into his skin.
Look at his inner right forearm, and you’ll see tattoos of three dates in Roman numerals. The represent the birthdays of his mother, Tameka, and older sisters Danajha and Taydra. Up his inner arm, there’s a tattoo in the form of a scroll that says, “The love in our family grows strong and deep, leaving special memories to cherish and keep.”
On his right elbow, Tipps-Clemons has newer ink as he prepares to depart for Michigan State. He didn’t want to leave Ohio behind and thus got a tattoo of the state’s outline.
Will he get Michigan on the other elbow? Tipps-Clemons chuckles at the idea. Maybe.
“I was thinking about getting a Spartan head,” he said, pausing a moment to think about Kentucky quarterback signee Danny Clark, who got inked with a red “O” while previously committed to Ohio State.
“I’d get a Spartan head after I graduate.”
‘Let’s get it’
Tipps-Clemons hoped to enroll early at Michigan State until the knee injury ended those plans.
Surgery and rehab put him behind. He wouldn’t be able to participate in spring practice, thus eliminating the main reason to arrive early.
So he graduated after the first semester of senior year and has since been, as he puts it, “chilling.” He still gets up at 9-9:30 a.m. and heads to the high school every morning. There, he meets up with Elijah Hudson, a former teammate who graduated in the Class of 2016, to lift weights. Both will head out soon — Tipps-Clemons to MSU and Hudson to the Air Force Academy.
“He was just like, ‘I leave in May, you leave in May. Let’s get it,’ ” Tipps-Clemons says.
Tipps-Clemons received a workout plan from Michigan State after signing and needed someone to help him do it. The two of them head to the Piqua High weight room overlooking the basketball court and lift for hours. There, you’ll see a board of lifting, speed and agility leaders for the football team. Tipps-Clemons is listed as “Thorpe,” a homage to one of the greatest all-around athletes ever, Jim Thorpe.
It seems fitting. As a young boy, Tipps-Clemons participated in gymnastics at the local YMCA, an outlet found by his mother for his uncontrollable energy. Over the years, he has regularly played basketball, soccer and even racquetball there. He’s dabbled in baseball and skateboarding.
He wanted to play rugby but thought better of it with his injury history. Maybe his greatest sporting passion outside of football, though, is mixed martial arts. He used to train at Fightopia MMA in Piqua and could see himself competing after football.
“You never know what he’s going to do next,” Hudson says. “He just gets spurts of ideas and motivation. He just wants to do different things all the time.”
Typically, the two of them will follow up a workout by heading back to Tipps-Clemons’ mother’s home, where they will make protein shakes, play Xbox and sometimes lift weights in the makeshift workout unit set up in the shed.
But that’s as close to a routine as it gets for the Michigan State signee. Usually he’ll throw out a random idea and roll with it because, well, why not? He doesn’t have much else to do these days.
“I’m going camping tonight,” he recently told Hudson.
“Because I want to.”
‘I’ll ride for my family’
Tipps-Clemons stays away from controversial topics of the day such as religion, politics and social justice. He prefers to stick to what he knows best: football.
“People talk too much, say too much and do too much,” he says.
What would have to happen for him to speak up?
“Something would have to happen to me or my family,” he adds. “I’ll ride for my family.”
Ask his father, and he’ll tell you it goes even deeper than blood. If someone stands by him, Tipps-Clemons returns the favor if it’s ever necessary.
“He’s always stuck up for the little guy,” Brandon Tipps says. “Even though he was bigger and stronger than everybody, he never, ever tried to bully people or be that guy. He was always that guy that people turned to.”
He holds his teammates to the same standard of loyalty as he does himself. Tipps-Clemons serves as the de facto moderator of the Michigan State recruiting class group text. Did you make a silent commitment and then renege? You’re out. Did you commit to Michigan State and then decide to visit another school? You’re out.
He wants to be surrounded by players who are all in, just as he is. Heck, he wanted to commit immediately after getting offered by Michigan State, and the staff had to hold off on accepting until it saw him work out.
The long wait to get to East Lansing is almost over, one that seemed to drag out because he had hoped to enroll in January. He can feel it. He’s already sending out random texts to the group chat about the upcoming adventures that he has in mind.
“Who’s buying a boat so we can fish?”
For the complete Michigan State NextGen series, click this link.