In the 1970s and 1980s, the Miami Dolphins experienced an incredible run of football.
They had winning records, multiple championships, the only undefeated season in NFL history, great coaching, and record-breaking players.
One of those players was receiver Mark Clayton.
After arriving in South Florida from the University of Louisville, Clayton paired with fellow receiver Mark Duper to become one of quarterback Dan Marino’s favorite targets.
The trio would put together a blistering 1984 season that culminated in a disappointing loss in Super Bowl XIX.
— John Laub 🇺🇸 (@GridironSchol91) June 29, 2017
Clayton would then play another nine years and remain one of the most consistently productive receivers in the NFL.
Although he has not been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there has recently been a push for his induction.
This is the story of Mark Clayton.
Just Good Enough to Get Noticed
Mark Gregory Clayton was born on April 8, 1961, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) April 8, 2014
It’s practically a rite of passage that kids growing up in the state of Indiana must play basketball.
Clayton was no different.
However, he also fancied himself a football player, albeit one who is small in stature.
At the time, Clayton wasn’t much smaller than his future 5’9” height, and he took a beating on the gridiron because of it.
Barely weighing 150 pounds, Clayton played quarterback and tailback for Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.
He was shifty and athletic enough to draw the attention of a few small schools such as Louisville and nearby Indiana State.
Wanting to prove himself at the next level, Clayton chose to play for the Cardinals.
Slow Start as a Cardinal
Unfortunately for Clayton, the University of Louisville wasn’t known for its football program.
The Cardinals’ basketball team did well under coach Denny Crum and frequently played in the NCAA or NIT tournaments.
Meanwhile, Louisville football had a few good years under Lee Corso in the early 1970s and lost in the Independence Bowl in 1977, but that was about it.
Clayton arrived on campus in 1979, two years removed from the Cardinals’ bowl appearance.
In coach Vince Gibson’s final year with the program, Clayton caught one pass for eight yards while Louisville went 4-6-1.
Under new coach Bob Weber in 1980, Clayton had 15 receptions for 288 yards and a touchdown and the Cardinals won five games.
With DeVante Parker moving up to 8th on the Miami Dolphins’ career receiving list at 4,061 yards, a quarter of the Dolphins’ top eight receivers are former Louisville players. Mark Clayton holds the No. 2 spot with 8,643 yards.
— Kelly Dickey (@RealCardGame) November 29, 2020
Then, in 1981, Clayton became more involved in the offense and grabbed 27 passes for 596 yards and three scores.
During Clayton’s junior year, Louisville won five games for the second year in a row, then made it three straight years with a 5-6 record in 1982.
The lack of talent for a program with little to no national exposure was rough.
A plethora of recruits clamored to play for the school’s hoop team but the football team essentially brought home leftovers.
Regardless of their inability to post a winning record, the Cardinals players gave their all and Clayton posted his best season as a senior.
That year he caught 53 passes for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns, by far his best numbers in college.
NFL Points by Former Louisville Players:
1. 1,721 – David Akers
2. 510 – Mark Clayton
3. 306 – Ernest Givins
4. 234 – Deion Branch
5. 210 – Ernie Green
6. 186 – Michael Bush
7. 132 – DeVante Parker
8. 126 – Lamar Jackson
9. 120 – Bilal Powell
10. 102 – Ron Davenport
— Kelly Dickey (@RealCardGame) September 12, 2022
In four years at Louisville, Clayton had a total of 96 receptions for 2,004 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Late-Round NFL Pick
The Cardinals may not have had nationally televised games or a high profile, but NFL scouts did come by the school on occasion.
A few scouts had watched Louisville games and practices in 1982 and expressed interest in Clayton and fellow Cardinal Frank Minnifield.
He heard the same feedback from numerous league personnel members, and after a while, it began to sound like white noise.
“I can recall Elbert (Dubenion, Miami Dolphins scout) telling me, ‘Yeah man, we like you. We’re going to get you.’ I went, yeah, yeah, since I heard that from the Steelers scouts—and some other scouts in the league who came around—’We like you. We’re going to get you,’” recalled Clayton in 2018.
On the day of the 1983 NFL Draft, Clayton watched the first round and saw six quarterbacks taken.
One of them was Pitt Panthers signal caller Dan Marino, selected by the Dolphins.
After the round was over, Clayton went to a nearby park to settle his nerves.
@MiamiDolphins April 27th 2nd Day The 1983 NFL Draft- With the 167th Pick ( 6th Round ) Miami @MiamiDolphins Select Reggie Roby P Iowa AND With the 203rd Pick (9th Round) Miami @MiamiDolphins select Mark Clayton WR Louisville pic.twitter.com/inlI43d0l9
— Timothy C. Kulla (@TCKooo) April 28, 2019
Not long after returning from his walk, Miami called and informed Clayton that they had selected him in the eighth round.
Quiet Rookie Year
Clayton was pumped to become a member of the Miami Dolphins and to work with legendary coach Don Shula.
“I was excited,” said Clayton. “The Dolphins were my team growing up. I was so excited knowing I was going to be coached by Coach Shula. But I was just as excited to be playing somewhere where it was going to be warm.”
A year before he arrived in Miami, the Dolphins had unexpectedly reached Super Bowl XVII against the Washington Redskins.
Quarterback David Woodley did just enough on offense that year, but the team relied heavily on their second-ranked defense.
In order to boost the Fins’ offense for another Super Bowl run, Shula selected Marino along with Clayton in 1983.
Marino began the ’83 season backing up Woodley, then started the final nine games of the year.
My favorite sports picture I've taken. Marino, rookie year, in the Superdome, about to enter his second NFL game in relief of David Woodley. Fellow rookie Mark Clayton watching the ZING on that ball. Called ticket office and got front row seats behind the Dolphins bench. pic.twitter.com/Hy8wFuVN9A
— Bill Hetrick (@Dolphan_Bill) September 21, 2019
In his first game as Miami’s starter, Marino threw a touchdown pass to Clayton (his first as a pro).
While Marino lit up the scoreboard that season, Clayton saw limited action, ending his rookie year with six catches for 114 yards and his lone touchdown.
He also completed a 48-yard pass for another score.
The Marks Brothers
In the second round of the 1982 NFL Draft, the Dolphins selected Northwestern State receiver Mark “Super” Duper.
After not catching any balls in his rookie year, Duper had 51 receptions for over 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns in 1983.
In 1984, Shula’s offense finally came together.
Clayton emerged from training camp as a starter and “The Marks Brothers” were frequent targets of their second-year quarterback.
Rookie Dolphins QB @DanMarino with receivers Mark Duper and Mark Clayton — "The Marks Bros." — during training camp at St. Thomas University. Those socks Marino was wearing are now worth a million each.https://t.co/8c7eQ8sfNI#Miami #Dolphins @MattyDolphinz @esanders1976 pic.twitter.com/vYIjxpqmv1
— Roben Farzad (@robenfarzad) February 7, 2022
As Marino was carving up defenses with an NFL record 5,084 yards, he found the Marks Brothers early and often.
The Dolphins began the year with 11 straight wins and both Clayton and Duper piled up receptions.
Duper would end the ’84 season with 71 catches for 1,306 yards and eight touchdowns.
On the other side of the field, Clayton had several good afternoons including two nine-reception games against the Rams and Colts near the end of the year.
1984 Miami Dolphins (14-2). NFL records fall as Marino & co. dominate the air with 5,084 yds & 48 TD with 513 points scored & 70 total TD's. 8 Pro Bowlers. Dan Marino is league MVP. Mark Clayton sets NFL record with 18 TD catches. Lost SB 19 to 49ers 38-16. pic.twitter.com/O9yUub9Z8i
— Dolphins History (@DolphinsHistory) March 24, 2018
In the final game of the season, the Fins played the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
Clayton was sitting at 15 touchdowns and needed three more to pass former Houston receiver Bill Groman’s 1961 record of 17 scores in a season.
Playing at home that evening, many former Dolphin greats watched from the sideline as Marino went over 5,000 yards and Clayton caught four passes including three for touchdowns to become the new record holder.
OTD 1984: Wild #Dolphins-Cowboys tilt on MNF
• Miami's Dan Marino spins 4 TD passes to set then-record single-season mark of 48.
• Miami's Mark Clayton catches 3 TDs, including the game-winner w/:51 left, to set then-record single-season mark of 18.
• Fins lock up AFC #1 seed pic.twitter.com/ExJnlJaG73
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) December 17, 2021
Even better, Miami beat the Cowboys 28-21 for their 14th win of the season.
“It meant a lot to break a record that had stood since the year I was born,” said Clayton in 2019. “I had heard of Bill Groman, and I felt that anyone who was able to score 17 touchdowns back in 1961 when they weren’t really throwing the ball must have been a pretty special player. Breaking that record was great, but I loved winning more. I also loved knocking the Cowboys out of the playoffs.”
Super Bowl XIX
The party continued as the Dolphins beat the Seahawks and Steelers in the first two rounds of the postseason.
Clayton caught nine passes combined during both games along with two touchdowns.
As Super Bowl XIX neared between the Fins and the mighty San Francisco 49ers, Marino and the Marks Brothers were the talk of the town.
Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were wide receivers for the Miami Dolphins from the early 1980's until 1992 and were the most frequent targets of quarterback Dan Marino. #MarkClayton #MarkDuper #Miami #Dolphins #football pic.twitter.com/kZVD74ZNeF
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) October 18, 2020
Most football pundits at the time couldn’t believe two receivers who stood under 5’10” could be so prolific.
For Clayton and Duper, size meant nothing as long as you were good at what you did.
”I don’t pay attention to size,” said Clayton. ”I’m sick of hearing about size. You don’t play football on size, you play it on heart.”
”You don’t let those defensive backs dictate to you,” Duper added. ”You dictate to them. You can be 5-5 if you run the routes, get open and catch the ball. If you want to do something and put your mind to it, you’re never too small.”
Becoming one of the focal points of Miami’s potent attack led to an increase in confidence in Clayton who began chirping at opponents who slighted him.
”He’s some athlete,” Seahawks cornerback Keith Simpson said, ”but sometimes his mouth runs a little faster than his feet.”
The Super Bowl promised to be a competitive contest between Marino and Niners quarterback Joe Montana.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be anything but.
Miami had a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, but it didn’t last long.
Not only did San Francisco have a great offense, but their defense wasn’t bad either.
I thought he'd get back there.
Hell, we all thought he would.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 21, 2022
San Fran’s defenders sacked Marino four times and intercepted him twice.
When he was upright, Marino found Clayton six times for 92 yards.
By the final whistle, the Dolphins were licking their wounds as the 49ers celebrated their second world title, 38-16.
Clayton’s stats for the ’84 season (73 receptions, a career-high 1,389 yards, and 18 touchdowns) brought him a Pro Bowl selection along with a second-team All-Pro nod.
In 1985, Miami gunned for another crack at the Super Bowl.
The team was full of confidence and felt it was only a matter of time before Marino would lead the franchise to a championship.
Clayton was the recipient of 70 passes for 996 yards and four touchdowns, leading to another Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro selection.
After a 12-4 regular season, the Dolphins eliminated Cleveland in the Divisional round before losing to New England in the AFC Championship game.
The following year, both Clayton and Duper went to the Pro Bowl.
83 days until Miami Dolphins football.
— Big E (@ian693) June 20, 2022
Clayton caught 60 passes in 1986 for over 1,000 yards and 10 scores while Duper snagged 67 receptions for 1,313 yards and 11 touchdowns of his own.
Their year was spoiled when Miami failed to make the postseason with an 8-8 record.
During the strike-shortened 1987 season, Miami won only eight games for the second straight year and Clayton’s production dipped to 46 receptions for 776 yards and seven touchdowns.
During his illustrious coaching career, Don Shula rarely had a losing record.
In fact, he had only two losing seasons in 33 years. It just so happened that 1988 was one of them.
Miami continued to slide, despite a decent offense, and ended the year 6-10.
Even with the constant losing, Clayton was everywhere, catching a career-high 86 passes for 1,129 yards and an NFL-best 14 touchdowns.
“I feel like I’m at the top of my game right now,” Clayton said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m one of the top five receivers in the game. My statistics speak for themselves.”
He was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl and selected as a second-team All-Pro for the third time.
Happy 61st bday Mark Clayton! A 5x Pro Bowler, in his 2nd season Clayton caught 73 passes for 1389 yards & an NFL high 18 touchdowns! Led NFL again with 14 TD catches in 1988. 1984-89 averaged 1075 yards & over 10 TD per year. Caught 12 touchdowns in 1991, making final Pro Bowl. pic.twitter.com/i4sMdl9uzG
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) April 9, 2022
The accolades didn’t mean much to Clayton though since the Dolphins missed the postseason.
“Numbers, statistics, yards don’t mean a thing when you lose, when you don’t make the playoffs,” he continued. “I’m catching a lot of passes, but they don’t mean a thing unless we put victories together. Talk is one thing, but winning is what it’s really all about.”
Return to the Playoffs
It would be two more years before Miami finally returned to the playoffs after a four-year absence.
Clayton caught 64 passes and nine touchdowns in 1989 then had only 32 catches and three scores in 1990.
— Uncle Al 🇺🇸 (@AlPoppie25) April 8, 2021
Duper made up for his teammate’s lack of production with 52 receptions and five scores as the Fins went 12-4.
The team narrowly beat Kansas City in the Divisional round before falling to Buffalo in the AFC title game.
Clayton returned to form in 1991 when he went to his fifth Pro Bowl after catching 70 passes for 1,053 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Miami missed the postseason with an 8-8 record.
Clayton Moves On
The 1992 season would prove to be the final one for the Marks Brothers.
The duo combined for 113 receptions (Duper had 70) and eight touchdowns as Miami went 11-5 and blanked San Diego in the Divisional round before losing to Buffalo in the AFC Championship game.
Clayton wasn’t re-signed by the Dolphins after the year and was picked up by the Green Bay Packers in 1993.
“I feel like a rookie again,” said Clayton, the Dolphins’ all-time career reception leader with 550. “I have a lot to prove—not just to myself but to some people who really doubted my career and doubted I still had it in me to play,” he said.
Clayton arrived in Wisconsin as the Packers were beginning their turnaround.
The year before, quarterback Brett Favre arrived from Atlanta and helped Green Bay reach nine wins.
Then, the Pack got busy in the free agent period before the ’93 season, signing Duper and then shocking the world by getting former Eagles defensive end Reggie White.
Green Bay went 9-7 again and Clayton added 32 catches for 331 yards and three touchdowns to his career totals.
— Herald of 90's Football (@sconiesportsguy) April 8, 2022
Returning to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, the Pack defeated Detroit in the Wild Card round before losing to Dallas in the Divisional round.
Green Bay declined to bring Clayton back in 1994, and he chose that moment to retire.
In his 11-year career, Clayton caught 582 passes for 8,974 yards and 84 touchdowns and passed for 48 more yards and another touchdown.
He was a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time second-team All-Pro, and two-time NFL touchdown receptions leader. He remains the Dolphins’ career leader in receptions and touchdown catches.
Clayton became a member of the Dolphins’ Ring of Honor in 2003 and was inducted into the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
In the years since his retirement, Clayton’s name has been absent from the prospective Pro Football Hall of Fame list until 2022.
As a player, he was one of only three athletes to catch touchdown passes from Hall of Famers Marino and Favre.
— Fins Up Network (@FinsUpNetwork) July 8, 2022
“I believe I belong there,” Clayton remarked in 2021, “because I don’t know what else I could base it on besides the numbers and stuff. Since Dan is in, I think I had a nice hand in getting him there. I feel like I deserve and I belong there, also.”
Although he may never be called for a Canton bust, Clayton is content with his career and what he accomplished.
“I just did my job,” he said. “I did the best I could. I didn’t play for the numbers. You hear a lot of people now talking about numbers. I played strictly for the love of the game, and I loved what I did. And I wanted to win.”