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Remembering my friend John Clayton

The former ESPN analyst was truly one of a kind

San Francisco 49ers vs Seattle Seahawks - December 14, 2006
John Clayton, Frank Gore in 2006
Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images

Who leaves voicemail messages anymore?

John Clayton did and am I ever grateful he did.

On Friday night, while processing his death earlier that day at the age of 67, I benefitted from his communication diligence and was afforded the opportunity to hear his voice again. I only have a small amount of voicemails in my phone history and most of them, naturally, were left by “The Professor.” I listened to all of them.

There were no surprises in store. I knew what was coming and the messages were all the same: five seconds long.

“Billy, John Clayton. (206) xxx-xxx. Thanks.”

Every time. Since 1997 when I first met him. And when we did connect on the phone (for many years, they were essentially daily calls), he’d always greet me with “how we doing?” Many of our mutual friends have shared similar stories in these tough first few days after losing him. And the John Clayton story material vault is rich and vast.

He was goofy and he was unique. But he was also a superstar NFL reporter, a champion for fellow hard-working journalists and he was a guy who lived his profession at all times. For better or worse, work came first for John. It fueled him.

I first met John in 1997 as a young, inexperienced beat writer of the Seattle Seahawks at a suburban Seattle newspaper. John ruled the beat at the Tacoma, Washington, paper. He is the gold standard of NFL beat writing.

Like so many other lucky young people in our profession, John took me under his wing. He saw something in me. Some of my best memories in Seattle is when, at night, it would often just be me and John at the Seahawks’ old facility in Kirkland. Sometimes, we would be there later than the coaches. I’d listen to John and ask questions. It was my NFL version of watching film. I was honing my craft and he was helping me.

As I moved on in my career, John was there for help and advice every step of the way.

I’ll never forget in the summer of 2004 when Adam Schefter left the Denver Post to go to the NFL Network early in training camp. I interviewed for the job and that night, Clayton called me acting as if these media job switches were like NFL free-agent moves.

He told me what he was hearing about Adam’s contract terms and informed me what to expect in Denver. I hadn’t been offered the job, yet. Yes, The Professor scooped me on my own life news. As usual, he was right.

Clayton was always on. In a locker room, media room, press box, airport, bar or rental car shuttle. He was always John Clayton, NFL reporter. He was pretty famous, in a sports reporting scope, and he loved talking to people who wanted to talk to him. Going to dinner with Clayton was a patience test, though.

Me, and other friends, never learned our lesson and would go to eat with John at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis over the years. John loved potato skins. But he loved talking to sources even more. I don’t know how many times he would leave our table to go talk to a coach or a scout and we’d all be left, staring at those damn, dreadfully dry potatoes. But it was the Clayton Show. We all just sort of went along for the ride. And I’m glad I did. John was instrumental in my career and I’m forever grateful.

On Friday night, before listening to those classic voicemails, I texted John to thank him for everything and to tell him I will miss him. I didn’t text John much because, frankly, I’m not sure he knew how to text back.

When I texted him, I noticed I had sent a previous text. It was back in January 2020, when I told him I was hired by SB Nation. He responded with his typical excitement for career advancement.

“Great news. Congratulations.”

I’ll save that text, too.