John Clayton was reluctant to make the publicity that would transform him from bookish NFL insider into iconic viral sensation whose self-deprecating hilarity continues to bring joy — and laughter — to millions.
“John was so serious about his craft that it just wasn’t natural for him to joke around like that, especially when the joke was kind of on him,” NFL insider Mike Sando said for The Athletic who took over from Clayton as The Seahawks’ battered reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune after ESPN hired Clayton. “I felt he wasn’t sure people would laugh at him or with him. He had worked so hard to build his credibility.”
Clayton emailed Sando in 2012 expressing his reluctance to participate in a “This is SportsCenter” commercial. Attached to the note was the proposed script for the ad, in which Clayton would play himself reporting on the NFL from what appeared to be a remote studio, then rip off his jacket and tie to reveal a Sleeveless Slayer t-shirt, would untie a long ponytail, transform into a guy living in his mother’s basement churning out heavy metal music and shouting “Hey Ma, I’m done with it my segment!” before diving into a container of Chinese food with chopsticks.
Clayton didn’t want to risk damaging a reputation built over decades as one of the most trusted, insightful and passionate NFL reporters in the country. Sando wanted to convince him otherwise.
“I almost couldn’t contain my excitement,” Sando said. “I went above and beyond encouraging him to do it, telling him what a great idea it was and that there was no downside. I just wanted to see super serious John Clayton play the part. It seemed so out of place, but he nailed it. It was awesome. It made him a star.
This music video has gone viral again, only now it is tinged with great sadness. Clayton died Friday after being hospitalized with a brief illness, according to his family. He was 67 years old. Clayton is survived by his wife, Pat, and his sister, Amy. Clayton has spent the last few years as the primary caregiver for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis.
One of sports journalism’s legendary NFL insiders, Clayton informed readers and viewers during a career that spanned five decades, including 20 years with ESPN. And as Clayton himself found out, that publicity didn’t diminish his career; he blew it up and enhanced a reputation built on half a century of coverage. He continued to be a reliable man of information. And then became an ordinary man.
Basically, Clayton was a football fanatic who enjoyed talking to people about the sport he loved. Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, Pennsylvania, Clayton first covered for the Steelers in 1972 – the year of the “immaculate reception” – while still in high school. He went to Duquesne University and was hired by the Pittsburgh Press in his senior year, embarking on a career that took him to the top of his profession. In 2007, he was named the recipient of the Bill Nunn Memorial Award, given annually by the Pro Football Writers of America in recognition of “long and distinguished reporting in the field of professional football”.
“John Clayton, one of the first ‘Insiders,’ helped bring fans closer to the game they loved,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “For five decades he covered the league with unending energy and professionalism.”
Nicknamed “The Professor” – an apt nickname for a bookish man who imparted knowledge and wisdom throughout his career – Clayton had written a weekly column for The Washington Post in recent years and continued to work regularly at the radio station in Seattle. Clayton’s last appearance was less than two weeks ago when he discussed Russell Wilson’s blockbuster trade to the Broncos.
“He was a pro (sic) pro, Pittsburgh guy, smart, tireless worker, funny, witty, friend & mentor to many, compassionate, lovable,” the Hall of Fame defensive end tweeted. fame Jason Taylor on Friday night.
Clayton was beloved by fellow journalists, many of whom spoke of his welcoming personality and helpful attitude, especially by those just getting started in the business.
“John Clayton was the nicest person,” Fox TV and radio personality Joy Taylor tweeted, posting a photo of her and Clayton on the sidelines before an NFL game. “It was my first side job for the NFL. He found me, gave me advice, gave me information for the broadcast and as always wanted to talk about Braddock, PA. Thanks for everything John , I’m so grateful for your friendship. RIP.”
Clayton was also a longtime selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his discussions of players eligible for induction were always insightful and eye-opening for other voters.
A wonderful life for a man who loved nothing better than talking to people about football. And a guy who came to enjoy the fame that came with his unforgettable publicity. For years people wondered if Clayton really had a ponytail. (He didn’t.) And barely a day went by without someone bringing up the subject.
“A few years after the ad aired, we were covering a Super Bowl together and leaving the convention center for a sandwich,” Sando recalled. “John couldn’t walk 50 feet without football fans asking for selfies and such. When we finally got to the sandwich shop, a man came up to John with a request. Turns out the guy was with Evander Holyfield, and he wondered if Evander could meet John.
“John Clayton, who grew up very modestly in Braddock, Pennsylvania, had made it. I know he reveled in it.”
Covering football was his life’s work, and Clayton himself knew he would never stop talking about the NFL.
When asked once during a 2018 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette how long he would continue to cover the NFL, Clayton replied, “Until they plant me, I guess.”
Rest in peace my friend.