John Clayton nailed the story of his own life four years ago, when he was asked by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette how much longer he would keep covering the NFL.
“Until they plant me, I guess,” he said. “I love this stuff. What I love about it is there’s so much more stuff we didn’t have access to years ago and now we do—the salary information, NFL Game Rewind where you can watch coaches tape. There’s so much information and analytical stuff, it’s phenomenal.”
He proved, one last time, to be uncannily accurate. Clayton died Friday in a Seattle area hospital, after what his family described as “a brief illness.” He had put in 45 years covering the glories and the nonsense of the NFL, and he was among the first national reporters (with Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen) to gain his reputation for breaking news quickly and exhaustively. He had an almost pathological interest in contract minutiae, to the point where agents sought him out not only to plant information but to gather information from him. He was, in short, one of the first NFL media players of the 24/7 news cycle era—a field now thickly overcrowded across the bandwidth diaspora.
And, yes, he did love that stuff, to an almost worrisome degree. He was covering the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Press while a student at Duquesne, and eventually moved west to give the Seattle Seahawks their first bit of national media throw-weight. He jumped to ESPN in 1995 and made the world safer for bright, dogged, even obsessed football nerds who had aggressively non-TV looks. He sold his stuff with his brain, which in a weird way gave it more gravity, and his now-famous and maybe even best-ever ESPN commercial played on his essential tweediness in a way that ultimately defined him as a type. It was hard to see or hear him describe the atomic structure of the Russell Wilson trade 12 days ago without invoking that image of him shoveling Chinese food into his face while yelling at his mother.
He eventually got crowded out of the TV business by an army of less-obsessed info drivers, returned west, and did a number of gigs, including the Seahawks’ sideline reporter. He was, remember, fully obsessed with the sport, and, in the world of modern football media, the jobs open when and where they open. Still, he remained well-wired into the fuller NFL, mostly because he couldn’t not be. He was a true believer whose belief expressed itself through rigorous and occasionally dry analysis. His view of the sport was bent that way, but he wasn’t blind to the greater implications. He is probably the afterlife version of pissed right now that he died on the day of the Deshaun Watson trade, and we ended up not getting his raised eyebrow. When someone suggested that maybe the NFL is too amoral and hypocritical for its own good, he almost surely would have responded with an arch, “And that represents a change to you?” before moving on to Baker Mayfield’s potential suitors.
Like many pioneers, Clayton helped create a monster that behaves with greater speed and less discrimination now. But that’s just the effect of technology gone mad that he benefited from when he broke out nationally. Nobody and nothing is forever. But John Clayton, analyst, contract nerd, and football lifer, will also always be the guy who stripped to the Slayer T-shirt and jumped onto the bed in his mom’s house. If that’s his legacy in the end, well, let that be proof, if proof were needed, that we actually don’t get to pick our legacies at all. At least his ends well; he knew football so well and was so respected for the details of that knowledge that the commercial worked in a way that most commercials don’t. On balance in this culture, that’s a life win.