A visit with ESPN's John Clayton

Even in the off-season, thousands of football fans get giddy on Saturday mornings in the Seattle area. As it nears 9 a.m., they tune their radios to KJR to listen to John Clayton and his show called Sports Saturday. Clayton, known amongst his colleagues at ESPN as "The Professor", has few peers when it comes to holding court on the NFL.

As an analyst and commentator, he is featured on SportsCenter, Sunday NFL Countdown, NFL Live, and the NFL Draft. He also regularly contributes to ESPN.com, ESPN Radio and ESPN the Magazine.

On KJR, Clayton engages his listeners with a laid-back and friendly style, while serving as a beacon for even the most obscure information. If some guy named Joe in Burien calls to ask what the hell is wrong with Miami's backup right guard, Clayton produces an accurate answer-- and does so with the rapidity of a Peyton Manning slant pass. While baseball and basketball consume some air time, football always reigns supreme on Sports Saturday.

Recently, Dawgman.com spoke with Clayton - not about football - but primarily about his KJR radio show. We began with his childhood, asking him if he was a stats junkie while growing up in Pennsylvania.

"I was definitely a stats junkie," he said. "I have studied and kept track of rosters since I was about eight years old. I used to keep a little book each year of all the transactions of the Pirates and Steelers, and all the teams in their respective conference and division. I was always current on transactions and keeping track of stats. I always had a passion for studying that stuff. And to make it worse, I was into Strat-O-Matic Baseball. I would play 130 or 140 game season with buddies, and we would keep season-long stats on that. So I was big on that stuff."

As for early influences, Clayton was seventeen years old when he suddenly found himself covering the 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers for a small paper called the St. Mary's Daily Press. He mimicked two men in particular.

"I have always been a Will McDonough guy," said Clayton, referring to the Boston Globe sportswriter. "Because I was impressed by the way he presented the NFL and by the percentage of sources he had on the NFL. He had a major influence on me. Also, the way Peter Gammons (of the Boston Globe) weaved notebooks and understood rosters, he always seemed to have a mental organizational chart on everybody in baseball, and he incorporated that into notebooks. So for me, it was a combination of McDonough's presentation and sources, and Gammons' organizational structure. That's what influenced me."

Clayton was a beat writer for several years with the Pittsburgh Press before crossing the country to cover the Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. ESPN hired him in 1995. Despite how much he loved his job, he also yearned to get back on the radio.

"I was always doing stringer stuff on radio throughout college and the first seven or eight years of my professional life," he said. "But during my last couple of years at the Pittsburgh Press, we had a stronger type of management that prohibited me from doing any radio without their approval. And they were rejecting almost everything, so I wasn't on the air. When I arrived in Seattle in 1986, I wanted to do radio. I started doing stuff on KIRO, on a taped notebook thing with (late Seahawk announcer) Pete Gross. We would tape during the week and they would run it during pre-game. I was just waiting for a chance. Then I started with KJR when KJR started doing sports. Kevin Calabro and (Bob Blackburn) started a show from 6-7PM called Calling All Sports. I wasn't doing the hosting, but I was a co-host, and a regular NFL guest. I kept on waiting for the chance to host on my own. Then in 1991 I got that chance-- and I have been doing the Saturday show ever since."

Clayton devotes hours and hours to crunching numbers. This unseen leg work leads to his polished analysis in print and on the air. Clayton was asked about the massive NFL database in his brain.

"I not only have a database in my brain, I have an actual database on a computer," he said. "It has every salary of every player in the league. Back around 1989, I just thought that NFL free agency was going to change the whole tenor of the off-seasons. I kept building it up, to the point now where I can break down team salaries and make roster evaluations constantly. I am constantly inputting all the roster changes, studying the rosters, and trying to figure out where that next starter or free agent is coming from and who's going to be cut. Every year I always do a cut list of who is going to be a cap casualty. There's usually about eight or nine (NFL) teams who want to know what I'm doing. I'm usually about 95% efficient on that.

"And I keep depth charts," Clayton added. "If you ever watch me doing the show, you will see that I don't have the notes in front of me. It's my job to know it. Not only do I have to know who the left tackle for Minnesota is, but who the backup left guard is, and who the fourth wide receiver is. The time I am not on the phone gathering that information, I am inputting it into the computer or I am looking at it on paper and studying it."

Clayton was asked what aspect of his radio show would surprise his listeners.

"They would be surprised how active I am during the show," he said. "Sometimes I will be doing a puzzle while I am on the air, because the information is in my head. They would be surprised by how I'm multi-tasking, studying rosters, but also letting the callers know that I am enjoying their call, because I don't bash callers."

As Sports Saturday thrives into its fifteenth year, some regular callers provide the show with continuity and vitality. Clayton was asked about three of the most colorful - starting with devotees known as 'Commando Dave' and 'Raider John'.

"Commando Dave has passion," said Clayton. "With him, it started with the move to get the (NFL) blackouts changed. It didn't work, but it served to get his name on the map as somebody that really would go in there to take on causes. He is a great fan of KJR, a great fan of sports, and I just love the guy. He even builds a website that has me on it. He's a great person with great passion.

"Raider John is great—but he's always calling up and saying I am too critical of the Raiders. I'll say what's wrong? Because I am one of the first to jump on the Raider bandwagon when they're doing well. It's interesting, because he'll agree with me on most of my points that I bring up. But he still thinks I'm too critical. But the Raiders have had their recent struggles, just like the Huskies. With many Raider fans, the team may be 5-11, but they're 11-5 in their minds. But Raider John understands that the team is going through a transition right now. You now, when things go bad with their team, a lot of callers will go and hide. Raider John doesn't. I really like that about him."

In conclusion, Clayton was asked of one other caller. What would happen – horror of horrors—if Clayton was trapped for six months on a desert island with that Notre Dame lovin' blowhard known as 'Irish Menke'?

"Let's put it this way," said Clayton. "If the six months was a football season, I know at the end of it I would win. Because every time Irish Menke's Notre Dame team plays you, you always know you're going to get a win in the end. Notre Dame hasn't won a post-season game since Ara Parseghian or maybe Knute Rockne. Oh, they might be tough for the first six or seven weeks of the season, but once you get into late December or January, you'll get off the island because Notre Dame will always lose for you."
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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