There is a word for all of us. No matter how meek, no matter how frail, no matter how religious.
There is something that will set us off. Something that makes it go-time. Something that tosses the match into the gas tank, throws the lit M-80 in the urinal. Everyone has that one word that can make them lose their mind, don't they? An insult? A taunt?
"No, I don't think so," said Iowa defensive tackle Karl Klug, who then hesitated. "I guess there's one thing, but I won't share that."
|Adrian Clayborn returns to give Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz one more season of terrorizing Big Ten offenses. (Getty Images)|
Adrian Clayborn, then, is not unique. How Klug's teammate reacted 19 months ago deserves all our sympathy and respect. Sometimes we know we shouldn't go off when our children talk back or when someone cuts us off in traffic. It's called being human. That's why Clayborn was the victim back then when he allegedly punched a cab driver who had honked at him in January 2009.
The case was settled when Iowa's All-Big Ten defensive end pleaded guilty in March to disorderly conduct, a simple misdemeanor. Clayborn was fined $100, a small stain on an otherwise spotless rep. Doesn't sound like a big deal, but it was. It was a huge deal to a large portion of the population.
It was that deal breaker. It's why you couldn't blame Clayborn one bit.
"It was a racial slur," he said.
The N-word, as a matter of fact. Clayborn, an African-American, says the taxi driver shouted it at him during the brief encounter. When the hulking football player got over the shock, something plugged into his pride -- and testosterone -- and sent an electric current to his brain and muscles.
"I regret doing it but I wouldn't take it back," Clayborn said. "It made me a better person. It was the first time I really heard it [in Iowa]. It was a shock to me."
Not that the word is any more or less likely to be uttered in Iowa City than it is in St. Louis but Clayborn certainly didn't expect it. Ever. St. Louis is his hometown. He played for one of the city's best high school programs, Webster Groves. One brother, James Jenkins, was a Webster quarterback. Adrian wasn't able to play organized football until the eighth grade. Too big, they said, at 200 pounds.
Now at 6-feet-4, 285 pounds, he is one of the most talented forces in the nation as a member of the CBSSports.com 2010 preseason All-America team. Some compared him to Nebraska All-American Ndamukong Suh. He was that destructive in 2009, with 11½ sacks, 20 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hurries and four fumble recoveries. But Clayborn quickly quashed that thinking. Apples and oranges, two different positions. Defensive end vs. defensive tackle.
In his own conference, Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
It's hard to ignore, though, how an Orange Bowl MVP and a three-year member of the team's leadership council got his name dragged into the headlines. That's what makes the legal dustup so surprising -- and understandable.
"There were some words thrown out there," Clayborn said. "At the end of the day, I overreacted by the way I reacted. I should have been punished for the way I overreacted."
As far as the N-word?
"Adrian wouldn't hurt a soul," Klug said, "unless you went out of your way to make him really mad."
In the end, that is exactly what happened.
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to get it again being on the stage that I am," Clayborn said.
Too bad that he is resigned to racial insensitivity. It resounds way beyond Iowa City. It is a reminder of the oldest, darkest side of our American culture.
"To me that whole thing was a spit in the ocean, it's hardly representative of who Adrian is," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "The only mistake Adrian made was getting out of the car."
But what would you do? Strange, how strife seems to follow Clayborn around. A brother, Anthony, was murdered when Adrian was 10. Adrian was born with Erb's Palsy, a condition that Clayborn says caused nerve damage to his right shoulder. As a youth, Clayborn had trouble fully extending his right arm but improved with physical therapy. Erb's Palsy can be brought on by a prolonged labor or simply being a large infant. Clayborn weighed 11 pounds, three ounces at birth.
"It restricts my motion as far as in the weight room on some lifts," he said. "It doesn't restrict me on the field."
In July, Clayborn backhanded in-state rival Iowa State in the offseason by saying, "We're the only team in the state as far as I know."
"One of the big selling points we use [is] we are the only game in town, no pro teams ...," Ferentz said. "That's all it was, then it grew legs."
Those legs could be kicking the Hawkeyes in the behind when the teams meet Sept. 11 in Iowa City. As head of the "only" program in the state, Ferentz is 5-6 against the Cyclones.
Clayborn even had a stalker. In December, Brittney Mears was convicted of harassment and sentenced to 30 days in jail. For four or five months leading up to an October home game, Mears had been harassing Clayborn, driving past his workplace and, on one occasion, sending him an improper text message.
"It was scary, dealing with that not knowing what a person wants to do with you," Clayborn said. "It wasn't a fun deal."
The final straw came in that Oct. 8 game against Arkansas State. According to the police report, Mears sat in the first row behind the Iowa bench and called out Clayborn's name for three quarters. Finally, she was removed from the stadium and charged with third-degree assault.
Mears cannot interact with Clayborn for five years. By then, he figures to be in the NFL. Many thought he should be there by now. After a breakout 2009, though, Clayborn didn't even file the proper paperwork with the NFL to find out his projected draft position after his junior year.
"There were some games I left out on the table last year," Clayborn admitted. "I have to be more consistent. I'm realistic with myself. I knew if I came back I knew I'd have a better chance of being ready. I felt for wide receivers and quarterbacks it's easier to make the leap. Once you get [to] a level where you are going against 30-year-old grown men [as a lineman] that's a whole different level for a 19-year-old tackle."
Ferentz is not one to guide his players one way or another, but he does have a bit of experience as a former NFL assistant. The statistics are there: Players who stay four years are more likely to play longer and make more money. In a guarded moment, though, Clayborn says it's about more than draft position.
"He stuck behind me," Clayborn said of Ferentz. "I just know that there are things I have to do in my career. Taking that [cab driver] situation to a whole 'nother level was not smart. It is a deal breaker ... but I know I have to hold myself back. There are places I want to be. Things I want to do."