Somehow, Will McClay has accomplished the impossible. The Cowboys vice president of player personnel, a team employee for two decades now, is virtually anonymous, able to take his 15-year-old son, Gabriel, out for dinner in Frisco or Dallas and rarely be bothered. This from the same fan base that has turned a long-snapper and the mascot into celebrities.
Heck, this same franchise featured a previous vice president of player personnel, Gil Brandt, who was more recognizable around town than most of the players over his 29-year run.
Yet, McClay can casually stroll from his hotel room to the practice field at training camp in Oxnard, California, and the only people to say, "Hey, Will," are fellow Cowboys employees.
When asked about this phenomenon, his mysteriousness within a sports culture that is anything but, McClay laughed, saying, "That's exactly how I like it."
Seriously, give him a Google. The majority of hits are about him leaving Dallas to become a general manager elsewhere, the same rumor that has been floating around since Tony Romo was still taking snaps. There are also some quotes about recent draft selections. McClay, who signed an extension in January, isn't opposed to talking with the media and usually does so a few times a year. But he's certainly not seeking them out, outside of friendly off-the-record chit-chats.
Like most high-level NFL front-office personnel, McClay is a football lifer. Born in Memphis as the oldest of two boys, his mother, Barbara, was a housewife while his father, Melvin, worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. Melvin's job led to the family relocating several times when Will was young, first to Dallas for four-plus years and then briefly to San Antonio before the family landed in Houston when Will was 7. That was his last move, aside from within the city, until after college.
First donning the pads and helmet as well when he was 7, McClay was coached in youth football by his father, who played in high school and the military himself. A natural at running back and linebacker on the gridiron, McClay also played baseball, basketball and ran track.
Not surprisingly, McClay was a huge Houston Oilers fan during the heyday of head coach Bum Phillips, running back Earl Campbell and his favorite, wide receiver/return specialist Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. His father even took him to the old Astrodome for a couple of games.
At Marian Christian High School, McClay started at running back as a freshman and helped lead the program to three state titles in four years, the latter two behind center. As in, directly behind the center. There wasn't a whole lot of passing at the high school level in the 1980s and his school was no exception, running the Veer offense, which was an option rushing attack popular at the time.
A strong student, there were scholarship offers in abundance, including Boston College, Texas and Nebraska, who was a season removed from playing for the national championship. However, the combination of academics and his parents being able to watch him play, at least home games, went a long way in his decision to attend Rice. Coincidentally, former Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was the coach who recruited him to play for the hometown Owls.
Alas, while his parents were able to watch him, and he earned a bachelor's degree in political science, the football aspect of the college experience was a nightmare for McClay.
While recruited to be an option quarterback, which most of the Southwest Conference was running at the time, after just a few practices the staff decided McClay was a better fit at defensive back. Sure enough, he started all 44 games during his four years at Rice, although unfortunately those teams went 9-35, including an 0-11 finish in 1988 when McClay was a senior co-captain.
"It was tough, especially since I wasn't used to losing," McClay says. "The other co-captain and I used to joke that we were the captains of a dying ship. By the time NFL camps came around, my love of football had waned. My plan was law school, but after four years of Rice (academics), I was going to take a year off.
"Then came a call from the Arena League, and the love came back. It's just so much different – from 100 yards and 53 yards across to 50 yards long and 28 feet across with boards on the sides. Just so unique, I fell in love."
Apart from Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, no one has benefited from the Arena League more than McClay. He spent 11 wildly successful seasons as a player, an assistant and a head coach, but that time also served as an invaluable apprenticeship in scouting.
McClay joined the Detroit Drive in 1989 as a wide receiver and defensive back (almost all AFL players line up on both sides of the ball), and in four seasons he was solid in helping the Drive win three Arena Bowl titles. More importantly, though, in his second year, one of the most important decisions of his life was made.
"There was no money in playing, and at that point I wanted to teach or coach," McClay says. "I figured you are teaching as a coach, so I could do both and coach football. I liked the idea of trying to find ways to help players get better at what they did, be it leverage, physics, techniques."
In fact, the money was so bad that McClay was forced to find offseason jobs, working at Detroit's legendary Fox Theatre, as an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Detroit Red Wings and then as a marketing manager for an adoption agency, Orchard's Children's Services, which specializes in helping battered kids find Foster Care and permanent families.
"I went in thinking I was going to save the world," McClay says. "After two years of disappointment after disappointment, I got out. I realized the world wasn't that different than two years ago. It took a toll on my soul."
Working his way up the coaching ladder, from secondary and special teams coach to defensive coordinator, led to his eventual transition to scouting. The Drive offered him the role of player personnel director, which was an offseason gig to supplant his paltry salary as an assistant coach. He attended camps, called NFL scouts when players were cut, learned the almost foreign language of football scouts, read the Pro Football Weekly Draft Guide from cover to cover and wrote countless scouting reports. He just immersed himself into knowing every player who might have an interest in the Arena League.
The nomadic lifestyle of a coach or scout also took McClay to the XFL and the Orlando Rage in the spring of 2001 before he landed his first NFL gig as assistant director of pro scouting for Jacksonville. The following season, the Dallas Desperados, an Arena League team owned by Jerry Jones, came calling. After two campaigns as the defensive coordinator, McClay was elevated to head coach, where he went 54-24-1 and won two division titles as well as a Coach of the Year honor.
During this tenure, McClay showed that gifted scouting instinct that has since vaulted him to his current position. Anthony Armstrong's football days were all but finished after a solid career at Division II West Texas A&M and a season in Odessa playing in something called the Intense Football League. The pay was $200 per game. Armstrong was depressed, drinking beer and playing Madden on off days.
His agent called him about a tryout for a reality show. Armstrong ran a 4.26 40-yard dash and soon enough, McClay signed him to the practice squad. The following season, in 2008, Armstrong caught 85 passes. Then it was the NFL who came calling, and in 2019 as a 27-year-old rookie with Washington, he caught 44 balls for 871 yards and three touchdowns. His 19.8 yards per reception was third in the league.
"Will has an uncanny eye. If he can see how you play, how you actually play the game, he immediately has a peg of who you are," Armstrong says. "The majority of scouts are obsessed with height, weight, speed, while Will takes into account how can this guy help our team? And Will is right a whole lot more than not.
"Coming out of high school, I was a little. Not Roy Williams or some of these guys at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. But my deal is hunger, drive and perseverance. Will sets aside that stuff. He could care less I played DII. He doesn't come in with any preconceived notions.
"My father died on my sixth birthday, so I have always been clingy to coaches who have looked after me, truly care about me, and Will has been one of those men for me. He gave me my opportunity; my NFL career stemmed from that."
During his seven years with the Desperados, McClay was also a pro scout for the Cowboys. In 2009, his coaching days concluded when he was named pro scouting director, and while the decision was a no-brainer considering the Arena League momentarily folded, there were other factors.
"I miss coaching to this day, the chance to teach. There's nothing like it, being in the locker room with the guys. It's the greatest place to be, such a brotherhood," McClay says. "But my son was 3 or 4 at the time and I didn't want to be traveling around all the time."
For his profession, the fact McClay has been able to give his son such a normal upbringing is miraculous. Some coaches and scouts have lived in as many as 13 states in 15 years.
And it's worth noting that there have been many opportunities to leave or to pursue other jobs, including general manager positions, but for the most part, McClay, who is 55, has passed. The reasons are threefold: 1) His career has continued to progress with the Cowboys, from director of football research (2011-13) to assistant director of player personnel (2014-17) to now vice president of player personnel (2018-present); 2) his son and 3) loyalty. The Jones family has treated McClay and his family like family.
While his son has been a training camp staple since before he can likely recall being there, McClay's father, Melvin, was battling cancer when he attended camp for the first time. First, he's watching practice from high above with Jerry Jones, then he's walking out looking like a marketing campaign for the Cowboys gift shop, and then he's posting photos on Facebook with the Jones family, the coaches and the players.
When Melvin passed away in 2015, that day at training camp served as one of his son's happiest memories.
"That's part of the reason I've always wanted to stay, how they have treated my father, my mother, my son. Not all teams treat you like family," McClay says. "What makes me smile about my father that day, he was never a Cowboys fan, and I just remember him leaving with all this gear on."
Of course, like just about everyone in professional sports, the hours are hard to fathom, 6 or 7 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. during the season and normally 5 a.m. to at least 9 p.m. in the months before the draft. During the season, he meets with head coach Mike McCarthy every morning and then the training staff, followed by a film session. After organizing reports from college and pro scouts, it's off to practice. He then grabs some food and watches and grades the practice film.
Needless to say, the coach in him often comes out during practice. He's not one of those front office types who the players never see or hear from.
"He's on the ground floor with us every single day," cornerback Jourdan Lewis said back in January. "He's at practice every day, and I mean we always joke back and forth. He has an amazing mind. He knows football. He knows people. That's one of the good qualities that he has. He's a great judge of people and a great judge of character. He gets the right guy in here, like you see.
"All of these guys, a lot of us are draftees that he drafted or helped draft coming here. You can see the productivity we've had since then. I know he's garnering a lot of attention, too, but at the same time, everybody is thinking about that ring, getting to the Super Bowl."
Still, along the way, McClay always made time for his son, taking him fishing, skiing, coaching his Little League team. That outweighs a lot of other factors for him.
When asked what his other hobbies were besides football, McClay didn't hesitant, saying, "Whatever my son wants to do. He loves to talk about skateboarding but after tearing both his Achilles a few years back, there's zero chance I'm jumping on a skateboard.
"Otherwise, I just read and watch sports."
As for what he looks for in a player, be it a recommendation on a stealth signing like Laurent Robinson in 2011, who led the team with 11 touchdown receptions, or a prospect, many of whom have become Pro Bowl selections like Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Byron Jones and reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, McClay first mentions the physicality, the athleticism, the bend-ability and the reaction times … but then he pauses.
"That stuff is important but so is competitive spirit. Who loves to play football? The NFL is the only pro sport without a minor league, so it's tough," McClay says. "They have to be ready from the start, and I do think we focus too much on athletic ability."
He also agrees that it's impossible to know how a person is going to react when they go to bed one night with a couple of hundred dollars in their bank account and wake up with millions. Is the determination and drive still there? Those are the players McClay wants.
Two of the better examples of this theory are the team's last two franchise signal-callers in Prescott and Romo.
"Tony made a unique impression on me. When I was coaching the Desperados, we practiced at Valley Ranch. This is the NFL offseason, and the Arena League was a different game. We threw the ball a lot," McClay says. "Tony was always at practice, trying different things, challenging me about how to attack defenses, natural ball distribution. He's really like a point guard. He was a gym rat, always hanging around asking questions when he obviously didn't need to be there.
"With Dak, we're going through our process with Jared Goff, Patrick Lynch, but there was something different about this guy. Now, he went in the fourth round for a reason. His college system was not succeeding in the NFL. Could he take a snap under center? It's worked out pretty well."
The same could be said for McClay. Not only does he have his dream job, he has three more autumns of watching his son play defensive end in high school. And after the game, the two can grab a pizza without distraction. Just how McClay likes it.
The Official 2022 Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine Draft Guide has comprehensive scouting reports on 110 players with more than 500 top prospects listed overall. Available in both print and digital, visitDallasCowboys.com/starfor more information and to purchase yours today!