John Clayton was reluctant to do the commercial that would transform him from bookish NFL insider to an iconic viral sensation whose self-deprecating hilarity continues to bring joy – and laughs – 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 on him a little bit," said Mike Sando, an NFL insider for The Athletic who succeeded Clayton as the Seahawks’ beat reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune after Clayton was hired by ESPN. "I sensed he wasn’t sure if people would laugh at him or with him. He’d worked so hard to build his credibility."
Clayton sent Sando an email in 2012 expressing his hesitation about participating in a "This is SportsCenter" commercial. Attached to the note was the proposed script for the ad, in which Clayton would play himself doing an NFL report from what appeared to be a remote studio and then rip off his jacket and tie to reveal a sleeveless Slayer T-shirt, untie a long ponytail, transform into a guy living in his mother’s basement cranking up heavy metal music and yell, "Hey Ma, I’m done with my segment!" before diving into a container of Chinese food with chopsticks.
Clayton didn’t want to risk a hit to a reputation built over decades as one of the most reliable, insightful, and passionate NFL reporters in the country. Sando wanted to convince him otherwise.
"I almost couldn’t contain my enthusiasm," Sando said. "I went over the top encouraging him to do it, telling him what a great idea it was and how there was no downside. I just wanted to see super serious John Clayton play the role. It seemed so out of character, but he nailed it. It was great. It made him a star."
That video clip has gone viral once more, only now it is tinged with great sadness. Clayton died on Friday after being hospitalized for a brief illness, according to his family. He was 67. Clayton is survived by his wife, Pat, and sister, Amy. Clayton spent the last several years as the primary caretaker for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis.
One of sports journalism’s legendary NFL insiders, Clayton informed readers and viewers over a career that spanned five decades, including 20 years at ESPN. And as Clayton himself discovered, that commercial didn’t diminish his career; it put it on blast and enhanced a reputation burnished over half a century of coverage. He continued to be a reliable information man. And then became an everyman.
At his core, Clayton was a football devotee who loved telling people about the sport he loved. Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, Pennsylvania, Clayton first covered 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 during his senior year, embarking on a career that led him to the top of his profession. In 2007, he was named the winner of the Bill Nunn Memorial Award, presented annually by the Pro Football Writers of America in recognition of "long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro 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 endless energy and professionalism."
Nicknamed "The Professor" – a fitting moniker 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 regular radio work in Seattle. Clayton’s most recent appearance was less than two weeks ago, when he discussed the blockbuster trade of Russell Wilson to the Broncos.
"He was a pros (sic) pro, Pittsburgh guy, smart tireless worker, funny, witty, friend and mentor to many, compassionate, personable," Hall of Fame defensive end Jason Taylor tweeted Friday night.
Clayton was beloved by fellow journalists, including many who spoke of his welcoming personality and helpful attitude, especially by those just breaking into the business.
"John Clayton was the kindest person," Fox television and radio personality Joy Taylor tweeted, posting a picture of her and Clayton on the sidelines before an NFL game. "This was my first sideline job for the NFL. He found me, gave me advice, gave me some information for the broadcast and as always, wanted to talk about Braddock, PA. Thank you for everything John, I am so grateful for your friendship. RIP."
Clayton was also a longtime selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his discussions about players eligible for induction were always insightful and revealing to fellow voters.
A wonderful life for a man who loved nothing better than telling people about football. And a guy who came to enjoy the celebrity that came with his unforgettable commercial. For years, people wondered if Clayton really had a ponytail. (He didn’t.) And barely a day went by when someone didn’t bring up the spot.
"A couple years after the commercial aired, we were covering a Super Bowl together and walking from the convention center to grab a sandwich," Sando recalled. "John couldn’t walk 50 feet without football fans asking for selfies and the like. 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 really modestly in Braddock, Pa., had made it. I know he reveled in that."
Covering football was his life’s work, and Clayton himself knew he’d never stop telling people about the NFL.
When he was once asked during a 2018 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette how long he’d keep covering the NFL, Clayton replied, "Until they plant me, I guess."
Rest in peace, my friend.