Late bloomer Clayborn becoming dominant leader

Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn (94) wraps up Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) for a sack during the first half of an Oct. 24 game at at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn (94) wraps up Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) for a sack during the first half of an Oct. 24 game at at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Adrian Clayborn is 100 percent football player. The monstrous defensive end has everything top-flight players need. He’s big, fast and aggressive. At 6-3, 283 pounds, and with that body, he is beginning to look very, very NFL.

He’s got the body and the mind.

“He’s our undisputed leader,” fellow Iowa D-lineman Christian Ballard said. “We all rally around him. He’s the general for the D-line. We look for him to pick us up. We look for him to get us up when we’re down in the dumps. This guy, he’s a great player and a good friend, too.”

He’s got the body and the mind. Mostly, he’s got that body.

Roll the highlights. The blocked punt at Penn State, bullrushing a blocker and then picking the ball up and sprinting 53 yards to give No. 8 Iowa (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) the lead. The two sacks at Michigan State, one in which he arrived at the quarterback so quickly that he just kind of chest-bumped him to the ground. During the victory over Northern Iowa, Clayborn dropped into coverage and ran step-for-step with a tight end.

You keep coming back to that body. It’s a body that started larger than life and a little bit damaged.

On July 8, 1988, Tracie Clayborn delivered an 11-pound, 3-ounce baby boy.

“He was just a monster,” she said. “He was a big baby. It was like he was six months old at birth. No newborn clothes for him.”

The body was big at birth. Maybe too big.

Clayborn suffered from Erb’s Palsy (also called brachial 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 right side, losing some movement and causing some weakness in his right arm.

Full recoveries are expected in most cases. The palsy may continue in some. If some strength hasn’t returned to the affected muscles by three to six months, surgery on the nerves may be needed.

This sent the Clayborns — Tracie and Adrian’s father, Ricky — on a medical journey.

Adrian spent the first three or so months of his life with his right arm in a sling. He needed extensive physical therapy and made many visits to St. Louis Children’s Hospital and the St. Louis Shriners Hospital. Physical therapy continued through junior high and into the high school weightroom.

It was decided early on that as long as he was diligent with his therapy he could avoid surgery.

“It was kind of scary and it was crazy,” Tracie said. “I had never heard of it until it happened to Adrian.”

Sports weren’t off limits for Adrian. He was able to play baseball and basketball, but, yeah, he was totally into football. His big brother, James, was a rocket-armed 240-pound quarterback for Webster Groves High School. His sister, Crystal, was a cheerleader at the high school. He never had a choice.

Of course, Adrian looked up to his big brother. He hung around the Webster Groves team and served as ball boy. But no, mom wouldn’t sign off on youth football.

His nerves made everyone nervous.

Finally, in seventh grade, mom said yes.

“He lit up,” Tracie said with a laugh. “He kind of knew what was going on with football, so when he started playing he already knew the basics. It was easy for him to catch on.”

Webster Groves varsity coach Cliff Ice noticed the little brother in seventh grade.

“We’d look at Adrian in the junior high program and thought, ‘Good Lord, if that kid progresses ...’” Ice said. “You always talk about kids getting better just by age and the natural process. When he was in eighth grade and ninth grade, we thought, ‘If that kid just develops like a regular kid, how good is he going to be?’”

Ice didn’t wait. Clayborn was thrown into a few varsity scrimmages as a freshman.

“When he was a young kid in high school, to an extent, he was always kind of a one-armed player,” Ice said. “But he was just so darned good and big and strong that he just overcame it.”

Now it’s scrapbook time for Tracie Clayborn. Adrian is filling pages by the minute this season, leading the No. 8 Hawkeyes with 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.

She ran across a letter she received from doctors when Adrian was in high school. He was put through some tests, including nerve conduction. The letter didn’t recommend contact sports.

“I was sitting at the table and it kind of brought tears to my eyes,” Tracie said. “Just reading it and thinking about where he started and where he is now. It’s just amazing. They just kept saying he couldn’t play.

“If he got hit hard ... If his shoulder was hurting him, rush him to the emergency room. We never went through any of that. He never got hurt. They say he’s strong as an ox now.

“I guess he proved them wrong.”

Look at that body, what do you see?

Apparently, you really, really have to know Adrian Clayborn to see any leftover effects.

“To us, his arm is different, but if someone doesn’t know him, you can’t tell,” Tracie said. “You wouldn’t know. We went through it with him. We know.”

Ice sees it only between plays now.

“He always kind of had a way he’d put his hand on his hip when he was standing there,” Ice said. “The arm would always stand at a funny little angle. When I see him on TV and standing there on the field, I can always tell by the way it’s on his hip.”

Mom sees it. She knows the story behind the funny angle. She also sees the beard Adrian’s been growing for a year. That’s what catches her attention these days.

“I told him he looks like Santa Claus.”

And the dreadlocks. Mom notices those, too. How can you miss those?

“I asked him, ‘Why don’t you just cut them off?’” Tracie said. “He said, ‘No, my head’s too big.’ I said, ‘OK, you’ve got a point.’”

Hey, 11 pounds, 3 ounces. She’s allowed to make that joke.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.