John Clayton, veteran NFL reporter who worked at ESPN, dies at 67
By Eduardo Medina
John Clayton, a veteran NFL reporter who was nicknamed the Professor and who was noted for his detailed insights about teams, his football analysis and his concise game recaps for ESPN, died Friday. He was 67.
Clayton died at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, Washington, said Mike Sando, a senior writer for The Athletic who was a friend of Clayton’s for decades.
Clayton died “after a battle with a brief illness,” according to a statement from the Seattle Seahawks, who confirmed his death. He worked in the final part of his career as a sideline reporter for the team’s radio network.
His journalism career spanned five decades, taking him from the print pages of The Pittsburgh Press, where he covered the Steelers in the 1970s as a teenager, to the studios of ESPN, where he became a fixture on the network’s shows and an icon of NFL reporting.
Clayton, who sported rimless glasses and who had a crisp delivery, was known for his substantive reporting rather than any flashy, attention-getting style during his on-air appearances.
“He brought an even-handedness and a fairness and a voice of reason to reports at a time when the kind of bombastic debate shows and less substantive, more entertaining forms of programming were becoming more popular,” Sando said.
Clayton often joked that he “didn’t look like a TV guy,” Sando said, and told his friends that, in contrast to his more dashing television colleagues, he had kept the same haircut for more than 40 years.
Of his look, Clayton told The New York Times in 2013, “I mean, you are what you are.”
Throughout the decades, his love for the sport and for reporting was obvious, his colleagues said. When he was 17, he got a job with The Pittsburgh Press covering the Steelers when they were on the precipice of becoming a championship dynasty in the 1970s.
He would go into the locker room, interview players and coaches and then return home, forgoing the beer that his colleagues would enjoy afterward in the press box.
In 1978, he wrote an article about the Steelers’ violating NFL rules when their players used shoulder pads during a minicamp practice — a revelation that he called Shouldergate and which resulted in the team’s losing a third-round draft pick.
Clayton left the Press in 1986 for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, where he met his wife, Pat, a sports reporter who covered bowling.
At The News Tribune, he pioneered ways of covering the NFL, such as maintaining spreadsheets that tracked every player’s salary after the league introduced salary caps in 1994; calling all 32 teams every Friday to find out who had not attended practice; and contacting every stadium on game days to learn who the inactive players would be.
“John pioneered the granular way in which the league is covered today,” Sando said.
In addition to his wife, Clayton is survived by his sister, Amy.
His obsession with football began as a child. John Clayton was born May 11, 1954, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. His mother took him to Steelers games, a pastime that only intensified his adoration for the game.
“Of course you can see my body — you can see I didn’t have the ability to compete on the football field,” he told USA Football in 2013. “It just wasn’t there. But I loved the game so much.”
He graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1976 and embarked on his journalism career.
In 1995, he joined ESPN. There, Clayton’s reporting prominence grew as he starred in weekly radio shows and hosted the “Four Downs” segment with Sean Salisbury, a former NFL quarterback.
But his television stardom was not solidified until his appearance in what would become a memorable “This is ‘SportsCenter’” commercial.
In the ad for ESPN, an anchor says: “It’s hard to find an expert more dedicated than John Clayton. He’s the consummate pro.”
The scene shows Clayton delivering his analysis on the air in a suit jacket and a tie and cuts away to reveal that he is wearing just the upper portions of both. He pulls the garments off to reveal that he’s wearing a sleeveless T-shirt with the name of thrash metal band Slayer.
Then, he stands up in his room, which is plastered with posters, and lets loose a hidden ponytail.
He jumps on a bed, yelling: “Hey, mom! I’m done with my segment!” He then eats noodles from a takeout container.
The ad was a success. Clayton, however, had been hesitant to do the commercial, said Dave Pearson, chief communications officer for the Seattle Seahawks.
Clayton told Pearson and Sando that he had built his reputation on serious reporting and did not want to tarnish that by appearing in a silly ad.
“Are they going to laugh at me?” Sando recalled his friend’s asking.
After the ad aired, however, it gave Clayton “a new level of celebrity that was totally unexpected,” and he cherished that, Sando said.
Clayton’s career at ESPN ended in 2017 when he was one of several workers who were laid off by the network, according to The Sporting News.
He joined radio station Seattle Sports 710 and worked for five seasons as a sideline reporter for the Seattle Seahawks Radio Network. This month, Clayton was reporting on what was then Russell Wilson’s expected trade to Denver.
When asked by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018 how long he planned to work, Clayton replied: “Until they plant me, I guess. I love this stuff.”
Ed Bouchette, a former sports reporter for The Post-Gazette who is now a senior writer with The Athletic, said Clayton had been even more devoted to his wife, who has multiple sclerosis. He had an elevator built for her in their house and took her to Super Bowl games that he covered, Bouchette said.
“She was in a wheelchair, and John would take her around everywhere,” he said. “It was kind of touching, I thought.”
In 2007, he received the Bill Nunn Memorial Award, one of the highest honors for football reporters.