Thirteen years ago, his father, John, surprised the then-11-year-old with tickets to Steve Clarkson's “The Quarterback Retreat,” a camp for aspiring quarterbacks held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
“That was a moment I’ll never forget,” Clifford said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “We flew in together and it was a real bonding experience for us.”
The camp served as a pivotal father-son moment. and it also confirmed to the then-fifth-grader that he was meant to throw a pigskin.
“I really fell in love with football there,” Clifford said. “What grew my love for the game was the setting of the Rose Bowl and how beautiful it was.”
Five years later, the wide-eyed high school sophomore with a talented right arm stepped foot onto Penn State’s campus for the first time. He knew almost immediately that it was where he was meant to be.
“I fell in love with it the minute I went on campus and talked to coach [James] Franklin and the staff,” Clifford said. “I felt right at home.”
The Cincinnati, Ohio, native committed just two months later and has called Happy Valley home for the past six years.
Before Clifford became the first four-year starting quarterback in nearly two decades for Penn State, he spent his initial two seasons on the bench. There, he learned behind current Arizona Cardinal and former Nittany Lion legend Trace McSorley.
“He taught me how to lead and how to learn,” Clifford said. “Trace really just showed me the ropes of college ball and how to command a locker room. I’m just trying to give the same guidance to the current quarterbacks at Penn State that Trace gave me.”
Clifford finally received his chance to be a starter in 2019 as a redshirt sophomore, joining a lineup littered with stars.
“The NFL talent we had on that team was insane,” Clifford said. “Micah Parsons, K.J. Hamler, Pat Freiermuth, Jahan Dotson, Yetur Gross-Matos, Jaquan Brisker. The list goes on and on. To be a captain on that team was very special.”
Penn State had a special season itself, finishing 11-2 and winning the Cotton Bowl over No. 17 Memphis. Clifford was supremely accurate in the short and intermediate game that season. His adjusted completion percentage on throws 1-19 yards downfield ranked fifth in the Power Five, trailing four quarterbacks who would go on to start multiple NFL games.
Most accurate Power Five quarterbacks on short and intermediate throws in 2019 (min. 80 attempts)
|Name||School||Adjusted completion % on throws 1-19 yards||Current NFL team|
|Tyler Huntley||Utah||85.1%||Baltimore Ravens|
|Joe Burrow||LSU||83.7%||Cincinnati Bengals|
|Justin Fields||Ohio State||81.2%||Chicago Bears|
|Jalen Hurts||Oklahoma||80.3%||Philadelphia Eagles|
|Sean Clifford||Penn State||79.1%||N/A|
That high didn’t last long. Penn State came crashing down to earth with an 11-11 record over the following two seasons. It was the program’s worst two-year stretch in 17 seasons. Clifford’s 69.6 grade in that span stood just 114th among 150 FBS quarterbacks.
“It wasn’t fun,” Clifford said. “I’ve never really been on a losing team before. I went through hell and back with those teams. It was just a tough time for Penn State football.”
After a difficult two years, Clifford knew he had to do something to take his mind off football. So in January 2021, he co-founded Limitless NIL, designed to represent college athletes in today’s age of name, image and likeness in college sports.
“I’ve always been very entrepreneurial at heart,” Clifford said. “I love being in conversations with executives and heads of companies to hear what they’re all about. I fully plan on continuing it after I’m done playing.”
Today, Limitless represents 42 student-athletes across the country and has brought in deals up to $10,000. It aided Clifford on the field, as well.
“It helped me compartmentalize,” Clifford said. “It’s given me something to do in my spare time that I’m passionate about.”
The other co-founder of Limitless, Sean’s younger brother Liam, is a redshirt freshman wide receiver at Penn State. Sean and Liam have connected on passes twice this year, something that’s still surreal for the big brother.
“I recognize how rare it is to play college football,” Sean said. “On top of that, I’m doing it with the person I grew up throwing a football to in the backyard. Now, I’m throwing to him in front of a national audience. I’m just taking in all the moments that make this final season so special.”
Sean Clifford and Liam Clifford racing down the Beaver Stadium grass. Just two kids in the backyard. pic.twitter.com/QuvGg2rxBv
— Seth Engle (@bigsengtweets) November 27, 2022
After starting this year unranked, the Nittany Lions now sit at No. 11 with a 10-2 record. Their only two losses came to eventual College Football Playoff teams in No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State. Clifford himself has had a resurgence, as his 90.6 passing grade in the red zone leads all quarterbacks in college football.
The sixth-year senior also became Penn State’s all-time passing leader in both career yards and touchdowns, surpassing his former mentor in McSorley.
Despite all those eye-popping numbers, Clifford will ultimately remember the little things when he reflects on his six years at Penn State.
“I just look back at the moments,” Clifford said. “The wins, the losses, the times in the locker room, the times in the summer that nobody will ever see. That’s what I’ll remember the most. Being able to have experiences with my teammates that I wouldn’t give up for the world. I can’t thank Penn State enough for all the blessings I’ve had. I made the best decision of my life going to Penn State.”
Clifford’s final game as a Nittany Lion comes where he first fell in love with the game 13 years ago: the Rose Bowl.
“It’s a dream come true.”
No. 11 Penn State takes on eighth-ranked Utah on Jan. 2 in “The Granddaddy of Them All.”