John Clayton, whose list of NFL contacts was matched only by his attention to detail and dedication to his craft, died Friday in Washington after a brief illness, his family announced.
He was 67 years old.
Clayton, nicknamed “The Professor”, was a top NFL insider in a career spanning five decades, including more than 20 years with ESPN. Clayton’s search for news and information was conducted with such fervor that, as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen said, “Anyone who pays attention has come away a little more educated.”
“Long before he became an ESPN icon, John was perhaps the best news reporter of his generation, the guy who could sit on a story for months and then crack it before the others had. clue what was going on,” said Mike Sando of The Athletic, a longtime friend of Clayton. “He was so good. On a personal level, John was incredibly generous to me when I took over as the Seahawks Beat reporter at the Tacoma News Tribune many years ago. I owe John so much and I will miss him terribly.
Clayton, a native of Braddock, Pennsylvania, began his career in 1972 as a teenager covering the Pittsburgh Steelers in a season that included the “immaculate reception.” He then attended Duquesne University and was hired by the Pittsburgh press as a senior. He continued his work until just 10 days ago, when he cut off the Seattle Seahawks’ blockbuster trade between Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos for Seattle Sports 710 AM, where he was a regular contributor. .
“Your words and intelligence will be missed by all of us @JohnClaytonNFL #RIPJohnClayton”, Wilson wrote in a tweetas he and former colleagues and friends of Clayton took to social media on Friday night to offer memories.
“The Seahawks are heartbroken to learn of the passing of John Clayton,” said the the team said in a statement. the Steelers called Clayton “a Pittsburgh media icon.”
“The number of NFL executives and coaches I heard from expressed an overwhelming theme of great respect and a sense of profound loss and shock,” Mortensen said.
Clayton spent more than a decade at the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune before a 20-plus year run at ESPN. Clayton has also written for several outlets, including The Washington Post, in recent years after his long stint at ESPN, and was the sideline reporter for the Seahawks Radio Network for five seasons. He has also contributed stories for KKFN-FM (104.3 FM) in Denver since February of last year.
“John was a trailblazer as an NFL insider, but also one of the nicest men you could ever work with,” said ESPN vice president and executive producer Seth Markman. “He literally never said no to a show that asked him to come on the — from 6 a.m. to midnight, if you asked for the professor, he was there for you. I will also personally remember how he loved and cared for his beloved wife Pat as she battled multiple sclerosis. John will be sorely missed.”
Clayton received the profession’s highest honor, now known as the Bill Nunn Memorial Award, in 2007. The award is presented annually by the Pro Football Writers of America in recognition of “long and distinguished reporting in the field of professional football”.
“It’s the highest honor a writer covering the sport can receive,” Clayton said at the time.
“The PFWA mourns the passing of John Clayton,” the organization said in a statement. “John was the 19th President of the PFWA (1999-2000) and the recipient of the organization’s 2007 Bill Nunn Jr. Award. “The Professor” was a friend to so many in our company. Our condolences to his wife Pat, his family, his colleagues and his many friends.”
Clayton was also a longtime member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.
ESPN hired Clayton in 1995 as a jack-of-all-trades for its NFL coverage. SportsCenter producers created a weekly segment called “Four Downs” pitting Clayton against NFL analyst and former quarterback Sean Salisbury. It has become must-see television.
So did his appearance in the “This is SportsCenter” commercials for ESPN, which to date are among the best in popular segments. Clayton’s appearance included a spot where he appeared as he would on SportsCenter, in a coat and tie, before he ripped them off to reveal a Slayer T-shirt, let down his long hair, jumped on a reads and yells, “Hey mom, I’m done with my segment.”
His love for football has never wavered since those early days.
“Until they planted me, I guess,” he told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2018, when asked how long he would continue to cover the NFL. “I love this stuff. What I love is there’s so much more stuff that we didn’t have access to years ago and now we do – salary information , NFL Game Rewind where you can watch the coaches tape. There’s so much information and analytical stuff, it’s phenomenal.”
Clayton is survived by his wife, Pat, and his sister, Amy.