March 26, 2022
He was one of a kind. Almost meek looking, he was dubbed the Professor somewhere along the line. John Clayton grew up in a single parent household in Pittsburgh. His mother took him to his first Steelers football game at age six. He was too small to play the sport. ‘Look at me,’ he’d say. So, John started writing football stories in junior high. And before he graduated high school, he was covering the Steelers for the local suburban papers. Hired by the Pittsburgh Press out of college, Clayton proved his worth as a reporter by blowing the whistle on the Steelers for a minor practice infraction that cost the team, he grew up rooting for, a third-round draft pick.
With a dogged attention to detail, Clayton was an old school beat reporter. Tireless. Fearless. And he loved the game of football. He spent twenty-two years covering the NFL for ESPN. Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian admitted he learned from John. President Barrack Obama claimed he wouldn’t make a move on his fantasy team without hearing first from Clayton.
In 2017 he fell victim to an ESPN talent purge. Clayton was one of a hundred let go by the sports network. Still, it’s sad that in an era of sports television dominated by hot takes and who can yell the loudest, there wasn’t room for a guy like John Clayton anymore.
But he stuck with it, returning to his roots with the Seattle Seahawks as a radio reporter. And he continued to dote on his wife Pat, whose long battle with Multiple Sclerosis had become more pronounced. Right up until his death last week at the age of 67. Those who knew him best remembered John as much for his devotion to Pat as much as his tireless dedication to craft.
I don’t know if you can leave a better legacy. Yet in the most ironic of ironies, Mr. Clayton is best known for that moment when he stepped farthest beyond his comfort zone. That SportsCenter commercial. There was Clayton. Wearing a sleeveless Slayer tee-shirt with a concealed ponytail, yelling to his mother from the basement. It changed the professor into a rock star. He didn’t want to do it. Was afraid it would impact his credibility. But it’s priceless. As was he.
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