ESPN’s JOHN CLAYTON
John Clayton is an institution.
He’s a dyed-in-the-wool dweeb.
A dork. A geek. A mook.
A chicken-necked, spindly legged, bespectacled I know not what.
And he was and is a superstar. One of the absolute best and maybe the very best at what he does. Or did.
John Clayton has not expired. Physically, mentally, spiritually or emotionally. But he has retired.
ESPN’s latest round of 100 or so ongoing layoffs, begun on April 26th has now claimed John Clayton.
‘The Professor,’ after 23 years is out.
A Hall-of-Fame journalist — Clayton was inducted into the writer’s wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007 as a Dick McCann Memorial Award Winner — kicked to the curb.
Clayton will still be offering his insightful brand of NFL commentary during his weekday radio show on 710 ESPN KIRO Seattle, a sports radio station (AM) independently-owned which licenses the ESPN name.
He will also keep his gig at SIRIUS.
But because nothing is sacred in the name of the bottom line, Clayton’s is the latest big NFL name axed by the self-proclaimed and, in fact legitimate ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports.’
(See Trent Dilfer, Ed Werder, Adam Caplan and Britt McHenry to name a few others recently shown the door).
Business. Bidness. Dollars and cents.
Dollars and no sense.
ESPN top brass will cite a generational shift in television viewing habits as the catalyst for the unprecedented wave of pink slips. Another time on that. We should focus on and underscore boldly John Clayton’s humor and grace.
But above all else, we should celebrate his undeniable acumen and professionalism.
Clayton’s career covering sports began when he was still in high school, reporting from the Pittsburgh Steelers 1972 training camp in twice-weekly dispatches for the St. Mary’s Pennsylvania Daily Press. He was eighteen years old. From there it was on to Steel City Sports, a weekly Pittsburgh publication which morphed into Score! Pittsburgh in 1975.
While a senior at Duquesne University (Class of 1976), Clayton was on the payroll as a staff writer tagging along with the Steelers and at the same time he served as a stringer — a part-time contributor — for a number of radio networks, including AP Radio. He provided sound clips of locker room interviews following the games of Pittsburgh’s professional sports teams and after graduation he took a job with The Pittsburgh Press.
Ah and then there was the infamous (and no doubt painfully humbling) “Shouldergate” saga which unfortunately cast a pall over Clayton and threatened to derail his budding career.
Kindling wood, accelerant and the match were assertively and somewhat artfully provided by legendary Steelers head coach Chuck Noll.
As the story goes, it was May of 1978 when Clayton was assigned to fill in and cover a Steelers mini-camp for the Press. While on the job, the inquisitive, ever-aware and probing Clayton discovered and reported a rules violation; players were wearing shoulder pads in off-season drills during this late May rookie camp, which was strictly prohibited by the league.
It may not have been so much that Clayton was playing the young buck trying to make his bones, as he was simply reporting what he observed, albeit with a healthy dose of naivete.
Why would he wittingly shoot himself in the foot just as he was getting out of the gate, if you will?
“That story had no news value whatsoever. The thing that made it very bad was that the story was of no news to the people of Pittsburgh. So I have to assume that he [referring to John Clayton] is working for the competition. He certainly wasn’t working in the interest of the paper or the fans. As far as I’m concerned he was working for the other people. The only way I can read it is espionage. I know for a fact that other people use other media for their interests, to spy.”
Espionage? Spying? Really?
It is true that Noll had closed this practice session to the media as was his prerogative. Clayton tilled the soil in interviews with players whom he found wearing shoulder pads in the locker room post-practice. He then contacted the league office seeking rule clarification and learned that the mandate was worded in part thusly: teams must have “no contact work or use of pads (except helmets) in an off-season training camp.”
As punishment for the transgression, the Steelers were eventually stripped of their third-round selection in the 1979 draft by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
As between Noll and Clayton whom would you guess was portrayed as the villain?
The hometown vitriol spewing Clayton’s way was bilious and excessive.
After ‘The Professor’ weathered the storm and worked his way up to become the Press’ beat writer for the Steelers, he left the paper in 1986 and moved to Washington to take a job at The News Tribune in Tacoma covering the Seattle Seahawks.
Seattle sports radio station KJR-AM’s program “The Fabulous Sports Babe” featuring Nancy Donnellan, on which Clayton began appearing in NFL segments, was his vehicle to the big-time.
When the show was picked up by ESPN for national syndication, NFL correspondent John Clayton was asked to go along for the ride.
And the rest as they say is history, most of it very good but ending badly and at ESPN on a sour note.
John Clayton was never hired to fill any professional position because of his matinee idol good looks.
It was his talent that took him where he wanted to go.
How do you put a price on that?
It’s like trying to measure one’s heart.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in June 2017.]