The NFL and sports world as a collective whole lost a giant on Friday as legendary reporter John Clayton passed away at the age of 67 due to an illness.
Since news broke on Friday afternoon, stories have poured in from hundreds and thousands of people whose lives were directly or indirectly impacted by Clayton. Few reporters covering any sport had a more far-reaching presence than the aptly named “Professor,” who emerged as one of the overlooked architects that turned ESPN into the broadcasting Goliath that it is today. His wealth of knowledge in everything from the salary cap to roster construction coupled with his passion for his work truly made him one of one with no equal.
Growing up in northern Indiana, aside from my parents, nobody had a greater influence on my eventual career path than Clayton and John Madden. I remember grabbing a Nerf football in the basement and running around lofting the ball to myself, pretending to announce games as Madden. Then, I’d take a quick break from the action and get an update from the studio from Clayton, who was always ready with inside information and insight even into my fictional world.
And of course, I’d finish with Clayton shouting, “Hey ma, I’m done with my segment!,” referencing his iconic SportsCenter commercial where he rocked long hair and jammed to Slayer after doing a quick report for ESPN. As a metal enthusiast myself, that made me hold him in even greater reverence. I wanted to be a reporter someday and I aimed to be even half as good at the job as he was.
Fast forwarding to 2018 when I first began my coverage as a part-time beat reporter, I could hardly speak when my good friend Rob Rang introduced me to Clayton, a man that I had idolized for decades. Those who know me well should understand that’s quite an accomplishment silencing me. But I had no idea what to say to a man I owed so much to even if we had never met before.
I think Clayton sensed my anxiety pretty quickly. He walked over with a smile on his face and extended his hand, introducing himself as if I didn’t already know who he was. He welcomed me to Seattle and we spoke for a few minutes about what had just transpired on the field in a preseason game. His devotion to the sport was obvious as we talked about backup quarterback battles and roster bubble candidates.
Since I was commuting from Spokane to cover games at that time and have only been on the beat full-time for two years, I didn’t have many other chances to interact with Clayton in person. But I will never forget the generosity he showed me as a young reporter two years ago when I hit the road traveling to cover the Seahawks upcoming road playoff game against the Packers at Lambeau Field.
Everything seemed to be smooth sailing at first. My trip from Seattle to Salt Lake City was an uneventful one, which is always good when you’re flying. But the second leg of my trip wouldn’t be near as fortunate, as stormy weather in Chicago led to the flight being delayed three times.
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With the weather not improving in the Windy City, I started to explore other travel options fearing my flight would be cancelled altogether. Initially, I tried to get a flight into Minneapolis and I was scrambling looking at hotels and rental cars knowing I would need to cancel my travel arrangements in Chicago too. It was an absolute mess and admittedly, I wasn’t handling the situation well.
As I waited for an agent to comb through other flights I could potentially switch to, suddenly, I noticed my phone vibrating with a call from an unidentified number with a 206 area code. I answered and much to my surprise, Clayton was on the other end of the line ready to dish out an assist, offering to carpool up to Green Bay the next morning.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to pick the Professor’s brain on the three-hour trip north, as my flight ultimately got postponed to the next morning due to the airline not having any pilots available once weather conditions improved. With no other flights anywhere near Green Bay available, I slept a couple hours in a hotel provided by the airport before coming back early to finally make my way to Chicago.
Somehow, I managed to get my rental car and get to Lambeau about 45 minutes before kickoff. Unexpectedly, Clayton came over to my spot in the press box moments after I arrived, smiling and saying, “Good to see you. I was worried you wouldn’t make it!”
Considering I had talked to Clayton twice in person prior to that time, there was no reason for him to go out on a limb like he did when I was dealing with a difficult situation that I had never experienced before. But that was who he was with everyone, a kind, gentle soul who didn’t view himself as a superior to his peers even though he was one of the true heavy hitters in this profession.
Having spoke to Clayton in person only a few short weeks ago, I’m still struggling to cope with the reality that he’s gone. I hoped it was little more than a bad dream and that I’d wake up on Saturday morning hearing him on the radio, unleashing his immense knowledge for this diehard sports fan to absorb as I have for more than 20 years.
Moving forward, the Seattle sports scene and NFL coverage in general will never be quite the same without Clayton. He was truly one of a kind, a walking football encyclopedia always prepared for whatever was thrown at him who consistently pushed the limits to improve. Away from being the best in the business at his job, he was always ready to make time to lend a helping hand to others and cared deeply for his wife Pat, who has battled Multiple Sclerosis for several years.
While none of us in the market covering teams individually will ever stack up to him and his passing leaves a permanent void, we should all look to emulate the qualities that made Clayton both an incredible reporter and an even better man. Treat everyone with kindness, put passion into your craft, and first and foremost, prioritize your family and friends over everything else.