This statement from Tomcat legend Herb Conley should tell you enough about Don Clere’s impact on Ashland Tomcat football: “Don was my hero.”
Clere, who starred for the Tomcats from 1951-1953, died April 25 in Conyers, Georgia. He was a dynamite running back whose high-stepping, powerful running sent him from Ashland to the University of Kentucky where a broken leg ended his career.
“I thought he was the greatest football player who ever played in this town,” said Conley, the man who is certainly in the conversation of greatest Tomcat. “I went and watched him play all the time. He’d run over people.”
Clere ran with “high knee action” and barreled over defenders. Conley, who was five years younger, said he tried to imitate Clere’s running style when he became a Tomcat a few years later.
For several years, Ashland’s running game had a Clere vision. Don’s younger brother, Ralph, joined him on the Tomcats as a sophomore and started his junior and senior seasons.
“Ralph was a good football player, too,” Conley said. “And there’s not a better person in Ashland than Ralph Clere.”
It typically took more than one player to bring down the Clere brothers, who ran with similar power style. Don came through the hole in the line of scrimmage like a locomotive, legs pumping like pistons and head lowered. He was a punishing runner who left tacklers in his wake. You may bring him down, but you were going to feel it – maybe for days.
Don Clere gained 1,589 yards and scored 13 touchdowns during an era when the Tomcats played one of the top schedules around. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry for his career. It was also an era where the carries were equally distributed among four to five players. He only carried it about 10 times per game but made the most of them.
Don’s best game came during his senior season when he gained 190 yards in a 40-14 win over Ironton – the Tomcats only victory that season.
Conley began idolizing Clere at an earlier age when Don would put him on the front of his bicycle and go up and down Ashland Avenue to Central Park to play baseball. Little Herb Conley hung out with the older guys hoping to get put on a team. He usually held as own, as you might expect.
“We’d be going up Ashland Avenue and them muscles in his legs and arms would pop out,” Conley said. “I thought, this guy was superman. I went and watched him play (football). He’d run over people with his big thighs. I wanted to be just like him.”
Don’s best season individually was as a senior when he ran for 600 yards. He gained 469 yards as a junior and 520 yard with seven TDs as a sophomore when Ashland went 6-5. The Tomcats were 13-14-4 in his three seasons.
Clere and his brother were part of Ashland’s 1954 state championship track and field team too. Ralph started in the backfield his junior and senior seasons, gaining 900 yards with 10 touchdowns. He played two years on a strong Fort Bragg, N.C., team while serving in the military. Ralph also went through a spring practice with Bear Bryant at Alabama.
Most importantly, the brothers were men of strong faith. Don was a member at Unity Baptist in his youth and later a member of First Baptist Church in Conyers. Ralph is still a member at Unity Baptist.
Don Clere’s funeral will be May 6, 2021 at West Cobb Funeral Home in Marietta, Georgia. Burial will be at the Georgia National Cemetery.