Words are not enough: A reflection from a fan of John Clayton
By Lee Vowell
John Clayton’s passing, for me, is as tough as a non-friend or family member can be. Some might feel sadness when one of their favorite sports figures or celebrities passes away. But John Clayton was both of those things to me.
The great thing about John is that he didn’t see himself as either. He was unbelievably transparent in his writings and on his radio show. The reason was that he never thought he was above most of the rest of us and most of the rest of us are just like he was: A fan.
Sure, John – and normally when it comes to writing about someone I would use their last names but if you ever listened to his show, you know he would simply want to be called by his first – made his living covering some of the greatest football teams in the history of the NFL.
A reflection on the greatness of John Clayton
Clayton started his career as a high schooler in 1972 writing about the Pittsburgh Steelers and continued doing that after graduating from Duquesne University and eventually joining the Pittsburgh Press. He moved to the Seattle area in 1986 and began working for the Tacoma News-Tribune. John became a frequent radio and TV guest soon thereafter.
A lot of people might remember John from his iconic ESPN commercial where he ends up saying, “Hey, ma! I’m done with my segment!” while listening to heavy metal music. The thing that keeps this commercial entertaining, if you followed John and listened to his show, is that you would have learned that John loved funk and not metal. He had a wonderfully dry sense of humor and it came across perfectly in that commercial.
But the greatness of John was that he never spoke down to the rest of us. Did he do his job well and have a lot more inside info than most of us? Yes, of course. But he never stopped being one of us.
One turns on the TV now and watches people like Stephen A. Smith literally yell at us and at other people on whatever show he happens to be on. Smith, of course, isn’t the only one who does this – it almost seems like this is what journalism schools are teaching students to do because so many people come across so rudely. Is this entertainment? Maybe, to some. But can you imagine John screaming at someone?
John wanted to involve fans, not exclude them. One knew that on most every Saturday morning on John’s weekly Seattle Sports radio show (formally 710 ESPN Seattle) that the first caller was going to be JB from Renton. Jet was going to call in as well. So would Irish Minky. JB, Jet and Irish Minky are fans, just like us. But John had them on every week because John liked talking with other fans because John was also a fan.
But we got to know John from the show and his writing. We knew his wife Pat, who he clearly loved, had MS and John would do anything he could to take care of her.
We knew that John had some massive spreadsheet that he kept updating with any new information. I can only imagine how much info must be included in that. That spreadsheet should wind up in the Smithsonian somehow.
I remember driving in my car listening to 710 ESPN Seattle in 2010 and there was a conversation about who the most recognizable figures in Seattle sports were at the time. John was number one on the list. I thought how perfect that was because fans are what make sports possible; Sports don’t make us. John Clayton was a fan first and foremost.
There aren’t many John Claytons anymore. The people who are generous with their time and wise with their words who never talk down to fans or to other writers. John seemed like a person you would simply want to have a conversation with while walking in the park and that is basically how it felt listening to his show.
So hopefully, if there is something like heaven, when John Clayton got there he wryly said, “I guess I am done with my segment.” And we are all better off for being able to be a part of that segment.