Heart of the Lions: Chris Claiborne Has It All

Because of a combination of factors, amongst them injuries, salary cap concerns and the issue of speed (or more accurately, the lack thereof) on defense, Stephen Boyd might no longer fit into the future plans of the Lions. Last Sunday, Marty Mornhinweg and Vince Tobin got their first look at the possible Detroit middle linebacker of the future in Chris Claiborne.

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Playing the middle linebacker position requires skill. Smarts. The ability to read and react. The middle linebacker is often referred to as the quarterback of the defense. If a defense has a leader, this is where you'll usually find him. The list is endless. Ray Lewis, Junior Seau, Zack Thomas, Brian Urlacher. Until a little over one week ago, the Detroit Lions had a rock of their own at middle linebacker. Pro Bowler Stephen Boyd has held down the position admirably since taking over full time in 1997. Lacking the prototypical physical traits generally preferred by NFL coaches, Boyd has combined intelligence and work ethic to maintain his standing as an asset to the Detroit Lion franchise. Oh yeah, he also used a lot of heart, as well.

Now, because of a combination of factors, amongst them injuries, salary cap concerns and the issue of speed (or more accurately, the lack thereof) on defense, Boyd might no longer fit into the future plans of the Lions. Last Sunday, Marty Mornhinweg and Vince Tobin got their first look at the possible Detroit middle linebacker of the future in Chris Claiborne. For the first time since his college days at USC, Claiborne stepped in at middle linebacker in place of the injured Boyd. He is bigger than Boyd, thus more difficult to block. He also has a slight advantage in terms of speed and agility. Against the Titans, he took a step towards alleviating any concerns regarding his ability to handle the position mentally. Oh yeah, in case you haven't been paying attention, Claiborne, too, has a lot of heart.

Chris Claiborne came to Detroit from California, where he playing middle linebacker for the USC Trojans. Accompanying Chris in his move was his father, Emmit. New town. Father and son. The son living out his dream, now a first round draft pick and immediate starter in the NFL. Life was good. Then, before the 2000 season, something happened that would forever nix any chance for a storybook ending. Late one Detroit spring night, Emmitt was shot and killed. Just like that, probably the result of a simple, but gruesome, random act of violence, Chris was on his own. Same new town, same exciting professional prospects, but things were now very different. Realizing the magnitude of this traumatic event, and taking into account what has happened since, that Claiborne even took the Silverdome turf last Sunday at all is amazing in itself.

Following his father's murder, it would have been understandable if Claiborne had asked out of Detroit. Such a request wouldn't have been an indictment of the city, its fans, or his teammates. A change of scenery would have, at least temporarily, made life a little easier for Chris Claiborne. However, with this life altering incident barely in the rear view mirror, no such request was made. Chris Claiborne had Bobby Ross, the 60-plus year old head coach who had leaped for joy in the Detroit Lions draft day war room when the Lions were finally on the clock with Claiborne still available. Although never revealing the details of their conversations, Ross admitted that he had counseled Claiborne several times in the aftermath of his father's death.

Still, everything is Detroit must have been a reminder. Most of his experiences in the new city, after all, were likely shared moments with his late father. The story, including the ongoing investigation into who committed the crime, promised to be in and out of the news for quite some time. Each time he glanced up at the scoreboard on gameday at the Silverdome, there was a chance he would see the flashing notice of the scholarship fund established in his father's name. Every time he looked into his teammates eyes, at least in the near future, he would know what they were thinking. Same with the coaching staff. How could he get on with becoming a better pro linebacker if all of his coaches were more concerned with his well being and state-of-mind than with making him a better player? Yes, getting out of Detroit would have had its' share of advantages.

Yet Claiborne stayed. Claiborne improved. Then, in the midst of an up and down 2000 season, while in the thick of the playoff hunt, Bobby Ross, the man who made Chris Claiborne a Detroit Lion and offered his ear and advice during the worst period of Chris' life, resigned as head coach of the Detroit Lions. That could not have helped things. Ross' replacement, announced one day later, was Claiborne's position coach, Gary Moeller. Obviously a player favorite, especially to his group of linebackers (evidenced by their lining up to offer congratulations following Moeller's first win as head coach), Moeller initially led the Lions to a run of victories before a late season collapse that left the Lions 9-7 and out of the playoffs.

That poor finish prompted William Ford to finally make changes at the top, bringing in Matt Millen to take over as team president. One of Millen's first moves was the hiring of Mornhinweg to be the first head coach of the "new era" of Detroit Lions football, leaving Moeller out of a job, out of Detroit, and like Ross, out of Claiborne's life. Another in the long list of blows. Millen, Mornhinweg, and Vince Tobin (the new defensive coordinator) made clear their belief that the Lions lacked playmakers. They needed more speed. Unfortunately for Claiborne, he was at that time trying to shed a label professing that he had underachieved, never living up to his lofty draft status. What Millen and Mornhinweg wanted were players similar to what Claiborne was supposed to be coming out of college. However, it turned out that he probably never had the explosiveness that Ross had anticipated, and as a result it would not be a given that the new regime would be smitten with Claiborne.

Claiborne's performance in his debut at middle linebacker revealed how valuable he can be to the Detroit Lions in the future. He was disruptive, he created a turnover and nobly handled all of the duties that come along with playing middle linebacker. Sure, there is much more to prove and much more to learn... but if what Millen is looking for when filling out the roster in future years is heart, character, and determination, he need look no further than Chris Claiborne. He is, after all, a mere 23 years old. On the one hand, he still has much room to grown, both mentally and physically. On the other, he has already proven capable of taking a horrible situation and putting it aside when taking part in his profession. That's what it takes to be a middle linebacker. If something goes wrong, move on and continue to lead. Make a mental note, don't fear being changed when things don't go as planned, but keep your sights on what is ahead. If Stephen Boyd's days as a Detroit Lion are numbered, it appears as though they have a man more than ready to take over. His name is Chris Claiborne.


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