John Clayton was across the table from me, laying down the gauntlet.
It was 1996, and I had just joined The Seattle Times as Seahawks beat writer — his turf. He invited me out to lunch one day during training camp at Northwest College in Kirkland, and over teriyaki and rice John politely let me know what I was in for, professionally.
“If you work 10 hours, I’ll work 12,” he said. “And if you work 12, I’ll work 14. If you work 14, I’ll work 16.”
There was a glint of amusement in his eyes, but the message was clear: He took his job as Seahawks reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune very, very seriously and didn’t plan on letting this upstart from San Francisco take over his turf.
John Clayton was the best reporter I ever saw — fearless, relentless, tireless (as he made clear) and as well connected in his arena as anyone could possibly be. He knew everybody in the NFL, it seemed, and could get them on the phone at a moment’s notice. I saw that firsthand. This was long before cellphones; John had a special personal landline hard-wired into the media room so he could both make and field calls — which he did, non-stop, all day and into the night, still working when my 10 or 12 or 14 hours were up.
It was intimidating, and yet after that stern introduction, that season — my lone one on the Seahawks beat before moving over full-time to baseball — turned out to be a delightful experience. John was great company, and I’d like to think his work ethic brought out the best in me as a competitor.
One other key aspect of John’s persona quickly became apparent — he loved his job with every fiber of his being. And he worked virtually every day of the year, be it reporting on the NFL or conducting his radio show, first on 950 and then 710. He was known to almost never turn down a request to be a guest on any sports talk show in the country. The concept of “vacation” was foreign to him, but instead of getting burned out, John seemed to be perpetually energized.
Former Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley and I used to say that we had never seen anyone so perfectly suited for their occupation. That’s why Clayton, who so tragically died Friday at age 67, never had any desire to retire — or hardly to even take a day off. Covering football didn’t just consume Clayton; it sustained him.
The only thing he loved more was his wife, Pat, whom he met when she worked at the News Tribune as an agate clerk. They were the perfect couple, a mutual adoration fest. And when Pat was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, John became a dedicated caregiver and vocal advocate for improved benefits for those with MS.
The outpouring of tributes for Clayton since news of his death filtered out has been reminiscent of a dignitary or celebrity — which is what he became when he joined ESPN in 1995 (full time in 1998). There was an everyman quality about Clayton that resonated on television — and the classic “This Is ESPN” commercial showing Clayton unfurling his ponytail and listening to Slayer after doing his segment made him a legend. I’ve seen Clayton at airports — he would get besieged for autographs like he was the rock star.
But Clayton was far more than a quirky television personality. The nuggets of information he conveyed during his “Inside the Huddle” segments made him an invaluable news source, especially for fantasy players. President Obama once said he never set his fantasy lineup until he saw Clayton’s injury updates. Funny thing — at first, Clayton hated to be probed for fantasy advice during his radio shows. He would cut off callers who asked, until he realized that it wasn’t going to go away, and he could provide an essential service. Once he embraced fantasy, it opened up yet another realm where Clayton was at the top of the game.
During Seahawks road trips, when all the other writers would go out to dinner on Saturday night, Clayton would invariably stay in his room to update his data bases — his pride and joy. When game day came, John wanted to be up to date on every team’s active roster and salary figures. I once had top agent Leigh Steinberg tell me that John’s understanding of the intricacies of the salary cap rivaled that of anyone working in the industry. Six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian told Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune for a 2013 profile of Clayton, “Having a discussion with him is like having a discussion with another general manager. It’s as though you’re talking with a peer.”
Clayton wasn’t called “The Professor” merely as a playful take on his scholarly look; he researched and probed for information like he wanted to be a Nobel laureate of football. I once saw John spend an entire day trying to track down every team’s Pro Bowl selections that were going to be released later in the day. It meant everything to him to have it ahead of everyone else.
During games he was covering, John would often be simultaneously working the phones to keep up with what was going on around the league. And that level of inside information made him someone that people in the industry felt compelled to talk to. But more than that, he had a disarming manner that got people to open up to him. Even Marshawn Lynch in the heart of his media shutdown could often be seen chatting with Clayton in the locker room — not a formal interview, just a friendly conversation.
It’s not by accident that a cross-section of NFL luminaries, including commissioner Roger Goodell, tweeted heartfelt tributes to Clayton (along with those from media colleagues and those who just loved his work). I especially liked the one from linebacker Malcolm Smith, the MVP of Seattle’s Super Bowl victory over Denver: “An interview with John Clayton made me feel like ‘dang, I’m really in the NFL.’ Rest In Peace. An honor to cross paths.”
Former Seahawks lineman Ray Roberts tweeted of Clayton: “Was one of the 1st to interview me after I was drafted. I had a tough rookie year but he always asked the tough questions w humility & respect. During free agency, he was my inside dude. Gave me all the scoop on the interested teams.”
I especially loved the sentiment of longtime Seahawks reporter Clare Farnsworth, as relayed in a Boling tweet: “I can’t help but think that he’s totally pissed that he wasn’t the one who broke the story of his passing. RIP Big Guy!”
Clayton’s illness came on with shocking suddenness, even though some people had noticed in recent weeks that he hadn’t quite seemed to be himself. Clayton was still doing his radio show and writing an analysis of the Russell Wilson trade less than two weeks ago. Word filtered out earlier this week that John had been hospitalized, but no one was prepared for the devastating news that came on Friday.
Yes, John Clayton outworked me and everyone else. And I wish he was still here to do more of the work he loved.