IOWA CITY — Mom sits close to her son. Sure, the chairs are positioned that way in the lounge area of Kirk Ferentz’s office, but mom is close.
That’s the theme.
It’s a rainy Wednesday in the Hayden Fry Football Complex. The Clayborns arrived in separate cars, but their drives were similar.
Tracie Clayborn moved to Iowa City this summer from the south side of St. Louis. The idea was to be close to her son, Adrian, and enjoy his senior season as a defensive end for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Right here, right now in August, it sets up to be a fantastic season. Clayborn is everybody’s preseason all-American.
“She comes over a lot . . . No, no she comes over sometimes,” Adrian said. “She brings food. That’s always a plus. Cleans up every once in a while, which is also nice.”
You can see it. Mom moves up to Iowa City to soak in her son’s senior season for the Hawkeyes. Makes sense. It’s been a sweet, sweet love affair for the Clayborns and Iowa fans.
In January, during a Hawkeye Huddle before the Orange Bowl in Miami, Tracie Clayborn was announced as Adrian’s mother. The fans went wild. Long, long raucous applause. Brought tears to Tracie’s eyes.
“I expected something, but the way they just went crazy and wouldn’t stop, that’s what made me cry,” she said. “It was just a good feeling, to know that all these people love my son.
“It didn’t take me by surprise that she cried,” Adrian said with a laugh.
When Tracie is recognized before Iowa games, she’s often asked for hugs. During a recent trip to the doctor, she was asked, “Are you ‘the’ Clayborn’s mom? Can I touch you?’ She didn’t, she just said that.”
Adrian won’t reveal the strangest something he’s been asked to autograph. You’ll have to let your imagination run wild on that one.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a place where you’re asked for hugs and autographs? And we’re still talking about Tracie Clayborn, by the way.
“The people who live here are genuinely caring people,” Tracie said. “There’s nothing phony about them. They really do care. It’s not just because your son’s a football player and he’ll be gone and they won’t speak to you. People here aren’t like that. There’s a lot of love here.”
Sets up for a beautiful fall for the Clayborns, mom and son riding a wave of adulation in a bucolic college town where he’s the most recognizable person in the city.
It’s nice, it’s great and it’s only part of the reason Tracie Clayborn moved to Iowa City this summer.
Last October, Adrian Clayborn was involved in a stalking incident where a woman was eventually charged and convicted of third-degree harassment after the Arkansas State game last October. Earlier this year, Adrian pleaded guilty to an assault charge after he struck a cab driver in 2009. Racial slurs triggered that incident.
So, Tracie Clayborn lives in an Iowa City apartment, just a few minutes from Adrian’s place on Van Buren.
“When you’re miles away and something is going on with your child in another state and you can’t just hop in a car and
get there, you panic,” she said. “When I hear stories, I’m calling him every five minutes. I just want to make sure he’s OK.
“That’s part of the reason why I came here, the incident (the harassment) that happened. I just wanted to be here to make sure everything was OK with him and he had a smooth senior year.”
Truth is, it’s always been like this with Tracie Clayborn.
If you follow Iowa football at all you know the story behind Adrian Clayborn’s birth. He was an 11.5-pound baby. Being so large, he suffered from a mild case of Erb’s Palsy. His head and neck were pulled to the side as his shoulders passed through the birth canal. He suffered some nerve damage in his neck and on right side, losing some movement and causing some weakness in his right arm.
Adrian says it affects flexibility some and some overhead lifts in the weight room are difficult. He knows the NFL, his next destination, spends millions on dissecting talent. He knows he’ll be asked about it next April, though his thoughts are firmly in today’s first practice of fall camp.
“I don’t think they’re (the NFL) going to question it,” said Clayborn, who had 11.5 sacks while earning all-Big Ten in ’09. “(Iowa strength) Coach (Chris) Doyle, he knows my body pretty well. (Head) Coach Ferentz would back me up. Some teams would probably be scared away, but there are 32 teams. Somebody will like me.”
Adrian was lucky. He had a mild case that never needed surgery. He went through physical therapy none of which he would describe as “grueling.” Tracie pointed out that kids in a lot of cases lose all feeling and need several surgeries.
Since the story became public last fall, Tracie Clayborn has heard from parents whose children have Erb’s. One woman contacted her on Facebook after reading Adrian’s story in a magazine.
“She was asking me for suggestions on what to do,” Tracie said. “Her son had been through a lot of surgeries. I told her just to keep up with the program, the physical therapy. I said, ‘Let him play.’ She was scared to let him play. I said start with baseball, let him strengthen that arm up.”
Because of the nerve damage, Tracie wouldn’t let Adrian play football until seventh grade. But he was on lockdown long before that.
The Clayborn’s family path changed about 12 years ago, when Anthony, Tracie and Richard Clayborn’s oldest son, was murdered in North City, a hard neighborhood in St. Louis.
Tracie and Adrian readily admit Anthony ran with the wrong crowd. It happened in a group setting, with people, Tracie said, Anthony thought were his friends.
“They set up him, robbed him and shot him,” she said. “These were his buddies he hung around with everyday. He probably didn’t expect it. He had some money on him. They took his tennis shoes. He had some tennis shoes that only
two people in the neighborhood had. They took his shoes and left him there. It’s hard to see that people can be that cruel.”
Adrian was 10, an age where you remember just about everything. He vividly remembers the funeral. He remembered being woken up in the middle of the night and not being told about his brother’s death until the family arrived at his grandma’s house.
“I don’t want to relive that night,” he said. “I feel like when I got older, it really, I don’t know, think about not living that life, not getting caught up in it. It made me want to be involved in sports.”
Tracie called it a “wakeup call to reality.”
“After that, I basically promised myself I wouldn’t lose another child to something that tragic,” she said.
At this point, Adrian lightened the mood in the office lounge of the head football coach of the University of Iowa, which includes a glass case stuffed with bowl watches and a Big Ten championship trophy in the corner.
Adrian smiled and said, “We were in lockdown.” That “lockdown” included constant cell phone surveillance.
“Once I got that cell phone, just checking in at certain times, all the time,” Adrian said with a laugh. “Stuff like that. Just checking in and having her know where I was at all the time.”
Tracie begged to differ on the term “lockdown.” She thought it was more guidance and, really, love.
“It’s hard for them to understand, when you lose a child, that’s something you never get past,” she said. “It made me overprotective of the other three (James, 26, and Crystal, 25). I always wanted to make sure they were OK. They were looking at it like, my mom is trying to keep up with me. I just wanted to make sure they were in the right place doing the right things and everything was OK.”
Tracie Clayborn had some help here via St. Louis public schools. As part of a desegregration program, Adrian Clayborn bused 15 minutes from his South City neighborhood to Webster Groves in suburban St. Louis. This is where Adrian went to school from first grade through high school graduation. Webster Groves also was where he did all of his socializing and spent nearly all of his time, either in sports or with friends.
“They didn’t have too many friends in the city,” Tracie said. “They were out there (Webster Groves). As long as I knew where they were, I was fine. I could rest. Like I said, losing a child is something that you’ll never get over. With them losing a brother, that’s something they’ll never get over. I think that kind of bonded us after that happened.”
It’s probably too much of a sweeping generalization to say the “lockdown” period worked, but here are some of the results:
James Clayborn, who played quarterback at Webster Groves, is studying for a master’s degree in Christian ministries in St. Louis. Tracie describes him as a “big kid’s kid.” Crystal works at Macy’s also in St. Louis.
You know Adrian the football player. They don’t keep a stat for the outreach portion of the program. If they did, Clayborn and quarterback Ricky Stanzi would likely be neck and neck.
In May, a friend of Clayborn’s asked him to visit an elementary school field day — in Albia, which is west of Ottumwa in Monroe County and more known for deer hunting than anything else. He met up with a whole grade of kids, spent the day there and had fun. Ferentz said he got a thank you note from a teacher in Albia and really didn’t know why until he talked to Clayborn about the trip.
“Mapquest, directions and phone calls,” Clayborn said of the two-hour drive from Iowa City. “Yes, I got lost.”
Clayborn opened an e-mail from a stranger last month. He ended up visiting a 16-year-old boy who was in the UI hospital facing a painful hip procedure and probably two months of being off his feet. There’s another story where a young dude downtown bothered a couple women. Clayborn asked him to stop and then apologized to the ladies.
“Albia’s just not around the corner, I’m not sure what got him there,” Ferentz said. “That was a little random, but he does so many things. Loves kids, loves dogs. He’s got his dog, Ace. He’s a tremendous human being. I see the impact he has on our football team and the care that he has. He’s a stellar guy.”
Stories of engaging grade school visits ring out in eastern Iowa.
“It’s good to know that he’s respected and he gives respect,” Tracie said. “All three of my kids are the same way in that aspect. They’re people persons. They love kids. I’m proud of everything they do.”
Tracie’s move to Iowa City was perfect timing. Adrian really needs her now. He needs her to block for him, almost literally.
Agents have been a hot topic all summer with the NCAA taking a look at North Carolina and a few SEC schools. Don’t kid yourself, with six players in the NFL draft last April and at least another six next year, agent activity in Iowa City is like bees to a dropped lollipop.
Clayborn, who might’ve been a first rounder last season, is in the crosshairs.
Adrian knows all the rules. Meet, listen, learn and don’t accept anything, not even a complimentary pen. Clayborn has taken his cues from former Iowa running back and New York Jet Shonn Greene.
“You get people trying to be your friend, people you’ve never talked to and all of the sudden you’re buddy-buddy,” he said. “That’s kind of weird. You have to be realistic about it. You know they’re not trying to be your buddy, so you keep it on the professional level and tell them you’re not looking for a buddy, you’re looking for someone to represent you.”
Adrian, who’ll graduate in December with degrees in recreation management and entrepreneurship in business, has steered a lot of the agent activity toward mom. Good luck to even the slickest agent or runner trying to get past Tracie Clayborn.
“At the beginning of July, it was getting kind of hectic. I just typed up a letter and sent it to all of them, telling them to back off,” she said with a laugh.
Did it work?
“It did, but just the ones who had been calling. Now, there are new ones calling,” she said. “I think I’ve got it under control.
“At first, I was a little nervous. I don’t like to just ignore people, so I was answering every call. But now, it’s like you have to play hardball with them. You can’t be nice to them because they won’t respect you. If you tell them to call only on Monday, they call on Wednesday and Friday. So, that means they don’t have respect. That means you have to be firm.”
That means you have to be firm. Tracie Clayborn knows firm, right Adrian?
“She can be very firm.”