FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Morris Claiborne thought it was over.
As he was lying in bed recovering from surgery on the patellar tendon in his left knee, he worried his NFL career was through. At 24.
“I thought this was the end,” Claiborne said Wednesday. “I felt like it was over at that time, because I couldn’t bend my knee. I couldn’t move. You talk about lying in bed for months, that’s when I really thought like, ‘If football is gone right now, what are you going to do?’ ”
Claiborne never could come up with an adequate answer, and eventually he told himself maybe his football dreams hadn’t ended.
“It was this little voice telling me, ‘You’re OK,’ ” he said. “When I got to think about it hard, it was like, ‘You’re OK,’ and I kind of relaxed.”
Claiborne did carry on with his career, but it still didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. Injuries continued to limit the Cowboys’ sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft and one of the most highly touted cornerbacks in NFL history. The bad rap has followed him throughout his career.
Even now, as he attempts to make a new beginning with the Jets, who signed him to a one-year contract as at least a temporary replacement for Darrelle Revis, Claiborne understands why people say he can’t stay on the field.
“That’s what it’s been,” he said. “They say, ‘He’s been hurt. He hasn’t been reliable. He hasn’t been on the field.’ But it’s a part of me. If I was in the Pro Bowl five years in a row, I’d be happy to talk about that. But that hasn’t happened. Every year has been injury after injury. But that’s my past. That’s part of me, and I have to own up to that. It’s been that type of journey. If you want to hear my testimony, I’m going to tell it to you straight up, and I’m not going to hide from it. I’m going to tell you exactly how it is.”
It’s a refreshing mentality from an athlete who believes his perseverance ultimately will be rewarded. He hasn’t lived up to the reputation he earned at LSU, where he was voted the Jim Thorpe Award winner as college football’s top defensive back. No excuses. No explanations.
Claiborne owns his history. But he also owns his hope.
“I appreciate this whole journey, being drafted with the sixth pick, coming in with high expectations, things don’t go your way,” he said. “I’ve taken all this in, and I know it was meant to be this way. But you’re never going to win if you give up, and I don’t plan on giving up.”
If there are any regrets, it’s from trying to play hurt. In 2013, for instance, he suffered a torn rotator cuff in preseason and tried to play through it.
“I couldn’t even pick my arm up,” he said. “Try to go about guarding receivers and you can’t pick your arm up. But I chose to strap it up (in a harness) and still tried to go out there and play. I learned from that injury that if you can’t do it, you shouldn’t put that on tape. I wouldn’t have played if I had to do it over again. I would have gotten surgery instead.”
He had surgery in the offseason, but the damage was done — to his shoulder and his reputation. Critics said Claiborne’s play had slipped, even if it was because he had played hurt.
But there is another opportunity in front of him, and Claiborne is embracing it. He understands this is a transition year, a prove-it deal that will go a long way toward showing whether he has long-term viability in the NFL. And in New York.
“I have no idea what’s next, but I can tell you what I plan to be,” he said. “I plan to go out and have a good season, play 16 games, and be here long-term with the Jets.”
It’s a long way from here to there, but Claiborne believes his determination will win the day.
And the year.