John Clayton, the veteran NFL reporter nicknamed Professor who is best known for his detailed opinions on teams, his football analysis and brief summaries of his game for ESPN, died Friday at a hospital in Bellevue, Washington. He was 67 years old.
He died “after a battle with a short illness,” according to a statement from the Seattle Seahawks, which confirmed his death. He worked for the latter part of his career as a side reporter for Team Radio Network.
Mr. Clayton’s journalism career spanned five decades, moving from the print pages of the Pittsburgh Press, where he covered the Steelers in the 1970s as a teenager, to the ESPN studios, where he became a staple of network shows and an icon of the NFL reports.
Mr. Clayton, who wore rimless glasses and had a shaky delivery, was known for his objective reporting rather than any flashy, eye-catching style during his on-air appearances.
said Mike Sandow, a senior writer at The Athlete’s magazine who has been a friend of Mr. Clayton for decades.
Mr Sandow said Mr. Clayton often joked that he “doesn’t look like a TV guy”, telling friends that, unlike fellow TV-mans, he’s kept his haircut the same for more than 40 years.
About his appearance, Mr. Clayton told the New York Times in 2013, “I mean, you are what you are.”
His colleagues said his love for the sport and for the report has been evident over the decades. When he was 17, he landed a job at the Pittsburgh Press covering the Steelers when they were about to become a dynasty in the 1970s.
He would go to the locker room, meet the players and coaches and then come home, dropping beers that his teammates would then enjoy in the press box.
In 1978, he wrote an article about the Steelers’ violation of NFL rules when their players used shoulder pads during a mini-drill—a finding he dubbed Shouldergate that resulted in the team losing in the third round of the draft pick.
Mr. Clayton left the press in 1986 for the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, where he met his wife, Pat, a sports reporter who has covered bowling.
At The News Tribune, he devised ways to cover the NFL, such as maintaining spreadsheets that track every player’s salaries after the league introduced a salary cap in 1994; Calling up all 32 teams every Friday to see who didn’t attend training; And contact each stadium on match days to find out which players are inactive.
“John has been a pioneer in the precise way the league is covered today,” said Mr. Sandow.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Clayton is survived by his sister, Amy.
His obsession with football started as a child. John Clayton was born on May 11, 1954 in Braddock, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. His mother took him to the Steelers Games, a hobby that further fueled his love for the game.
He told USA Football in 2013: “Of course you can see my body – you see I didn’t have the ability to compete on the football field. It wasn’t there. But I loved the game a lot.”
He graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1976 and began his career in journalism.
In 1995, he joined ESPN. There, Mr. Clayton’s reporting grew in importance when he starred on weekly radio shows and hosted the “Four Downs” segment with Shawn Salisbury, the former NFL quarterback.
But his TV star was not boosted until his appearance in what became a memorable ad for “This is” SportsCenter.
In the ESPN ad, a broadcaster says, “It is hard to find an expert more dedicated than John Clayton. He is the consummate professional.”
The scene shows Mr. Clayton giving his analysis live in a jacket and tie and cutting to reveal that he only wears the tops of both. He takes off his clothes to reveal that he is wearing a tank bearing the name of the thrash metal slayer band.
Then he stands in his plastered room, missing the shape of a hidden ponytail.
He jumps on the bed and yells, “Hey Mom! I’m done with my part!” Then he eats pasta from an outside food container.
The advertisement was successful. Dave Pearson, chief communications officer for the Seattle Seahawks, said Mr. Clayton, however, was reluctant to make the announcement.
Mr. Clayton told Mr. Pearson and Mr. Sandow that he had built his reputation on serious reporting and that he did not want to discredit it by appearing in a ridiculous advertisement.
“Are they going to make fun of me?” Mr. Sandow mentioned Mr. Clayton’s question.
After the ad aired, Mr Sandow said it gave Mr. Clayton a “new level of celebrity that was completely unexpected”, and he cherished it.
Mr. Clayton’s ESPN career ended in 2017 when he was one of many workers who were discharged – temporarily released by the network, according to The Sporting News.
He joined Seattle Sports Radio 710 and worked for five seasons as a side reporter for the Seattle Seahawks Radio Network. This month, Mr. Clayton was reporting on Russell Wilson’s projected trade to Denver.
When asked by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018 how long he planned to operate, Mr. Clayton replied, “So they plant me, I think. I love these things.”
Ed Buchet, a former sports reporter for The Post-Gazette who is now a senior writer for The Athletic, said Mr. Clayton was more devoted to his wife, who has multiple sclerosis. Mr. Bouchet said he had an elevator built for her in their house and took her to the Super Bowl games he’s covered.
“She was in a wheelchair, and John was taking her everywhere,” he said. “It was kind of touching, I thought.”
In 2007, he was awarded the Bill Nunn Memorial Award, one of the highest awards for football reporters.