In the cold of an early spring morning, Clayton Weishuhn comes out of his house and climbs into the cab of his big, sod-busting tractor. It's not quite six o'clock and the sun's not up, but in the pale light of the coming dawn Weishuhn doesn't bother with the headlights. He gets the powerful diesel motor running and then heads the tractor out to work in the cotton fields of his father's farm.
Now there is nothing unique about this in the small farming town of Wall. In this west Texas community of about 700 people there are probably 50 other farmers doing the same thing. However, there is one interesting difference: The rest are full-time cotton farmers; Weishuhn doubles as a starting inside linebacker for the New England Patriots.
Make no mistake, though. Cotton farming is not merely a hobby with Weishuhn; it's his first calling. He has been a professional football player for only one year; he has been a professional cotton farmer since he was 15, the age at which he got his first crop loan from the bank. He likes to play football; he loves to farm cotton—loves it to the point that only in his senior year at Angelo State in San Angelo, Texas did Weishuhn decide he would play in the NFL if drafted.
Weishuhn is 6'2" and 220 pounds. He looks much bigger. Maybe that's because he's all arms and chest and thighs and neck, the result of years of farm work. At the moment he doesn't own an acre of land of his own, and the dream of his life is to have a big spread. He helps work his father's 1,000 acres and with his brother Darryl has leased 260 acres near Waco. On this day he plows his father's fields until noon and then comes in for lunch. He and his wife, Diane, live in a white frame house set in the middle of the flat, black lands of the Concho Basin. The fields come right up to the edge of the small yard.
Inside, Diane has lunch ready for Clayton and a visitor. It's Ash Wednesday, and the Weishuhns, who are devout Catholics, are eating fish. Diane has fixed two large T-bone steaks for the visitor, who immediately declines the second. Diane says, "Oh, I guess I'm so used to Clayton and the way he eats."
Like her husband, Diane is 23. They were high school and college sweethearts and were married in their sophomore year at Angelo State. She used to be a gymnast, but now she's well into her first pregnancy—a girl named Brandi Kate would be born on June 3—and has given up the sport for a time.
The house they are eating lunch in is the one in which Clayton grew up. It belongs to his father. It's a comfortable but unpretentious place with two bedrooms and a metal roof. In the living room a gas fire is burning and the TV is tuned to a soap opera. That's for Clayton's benefit, not Diane's. Outside, the cotton fields of the Concho Basin, which was settled largely by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, stretch to the horizon, as flat as a billiard table. Trees are scarce and are to be found mostly around the farmhouses which themselves are far apart, separated by thousands of acres of cotton and maize fields. The area is crisscrossed by a number of dead-straight farm-to-market roads. The village of Wall is little more than a store and a school and a post office. It is a typical farming area, and its life seems an unlikely one for a talented young athlete to choose over a career in pro football.
But Weishuhn almost did. As early as his junior year in college the pros were scouting him, and their most immediate concern wasn't could he make it, but would he sign if drafted. Jerry Vandergriff, who as an assistant coach at Angelo State recruited Weishuhn and is now head coach there, says, "The story was already out on Clayton. The scouts knew he'd come here to Angelo State because it was only 10 miles from Wall. I mean, every big school in the country had been trying to recruit him, but he wanted to come here so he could go home every evening and farm. So the scouts just weren't sure, and they were afraid to waste a high draft pick. And I couldn't tell them what Clayton was going to do because I didn't know."
"We lay awake many nights talking about it," Diane says, "talking about what we really wanted. We knew we loved to farm. We just didn't know about the football and moving so far away."
So what's the big attraction in farming cotton?
Weishuhn, who's specific and articulate when talking about the mechanics of farming, has trouble explaining his feelings for it. After thinking a moment, he says, "Well, farming is outside work and I love that." Then he stops and laughs. "But I guess football is too—except for those domed stadiums."
Cotton farming is strenuous work. From the spring plowing on through the planting, the irrigating, the cultivating and the harvesting, it requires 12- and 14- and 16-hour days. "Lots of nights I've been out on that tractor until midnight," Weishuhn says. "Then up the next morning at six. But I've worked hard all my life and I like it."
He is sitting on the couch in the Weishuhns' small living room. He uses snuff, and he pauses to spit in a plastic cup Diane has brought him. "As a matter of fact," he says, "one of the things that bothered me when we were living up in Massachusetts last year was that I'd be home from practice by six o'clock and then there'd be nothing to do. That's when I'd miss being back here the most. We lived in a little place, a kind of suburb of Foxboro, and there was a dairy farm right across from the house we lived in. Sometimes I'd walk across the road and just look at it."
"Sometimes," says Diane, "he'd go over and smell the dirt in the pasture there."
He'd do what?
Clayton grins. "Aw, I didn't do that but once," he says. "I just wanted to see if they had as good a dirt as we have here in Wall. They don't."
"He's always walking out in the fields around here and on the land we lease up near Waco and picking up a handful of dirt and smelling it and tasting it and feeling it," Diane says.
"Why not?" Clayton says proudly. "Listen, my daddy can pick up a handful of dirt and damn near tell you as much about it as one of those soil analyses they do up there at Texas A&M."
Diane stops on her way out to the kitchen. "See, that's it," she says. "That's what's hard to explain. Farming sort of gets in your blood. It's all that Clayton and I have known. Farming and Wall. And the people around here."
It has turned into a beautiful afternoon, bright and sunny. Weishuhn and the visitor move outside and sit on the front porch. "Hell, we ought to be fishing today," Weishuhn says, "or plowing." He gives his visitor a sidelong look. "Instead of sitting in the house talking."
Then he yells in through the screen door, "Hey, Diane! Hey, honey? How about bringing the two of us a beer out here. Sandstorm might blow up and we could both die of thirst before we could get back inside of the house."
Moments later, sipping at a beer, he says thoughtfully, "Thing I missed last year more than anything else was stripping my cotton. Harvest is the best time for a farmer. That's the payoff. But you strip cotton in the fall and I was busy up in New England then. So my family got my crop in for me." He laughs. "That's why I'm working my daddy's place right now as well as the land I lease, to pay him back for last harvest time.
"You ride along on that combine and look over your shoulder and see that cotton going into the trailer you're pulling, and it gives you a good feeling. You spend the day watching it pile up until that big trailer is full, and you say, 'Hey, I planted those seeds six months ago. I must have done something right because look what I got now.' "
Suddenly he stands up and calls in to Diane through the screen door, "Hey, honey, we're going riding around. Be back in a little while."
"I thought you were going to spade up a vegetable garden for me this afternoon," she yells back.
Weishuhn starts toward the pickup in a hurry. "Let's get gone before she gets serious," he says. Driving away he hits the steering wheel with his big, thick hand and laughs. "Dang, I love it here!"
Football has always taken a backseat to farming for Weishuhn. Says Mike Martin, his linebacker coach at Angelo State, "We had Clayton's academic schedule set up so he only had classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest of the time, except for games, he'd be farming. He'd come dragging in here for practice with dirt under his fingernails and smelling like diesel fuel, and I knew he'd either been under a tractor or on one since dawn."
But then if he loves farming so much, why bother with football at all? Is it just for the money?
Driving, Weishuhn glances sideways at his questioner and his face hardens. "Listen," he says, "don't get me wrong. I love to play football and I dang well meant to prove that I could play football in the NFL."
He laughs and jokes so much and has such a careless air of geniality that when he turns serious his words carry weight. His mouth sets and his eyes narrow, and it's not hard to imagine how he looks when he positions himself to hit a running back coming through a hole.
And when Weishuhn hits a ballcarrier, he stays hit. He's no borderline NFL player. He was a third-round pick of the Patriots last year, and even though his rookie season was shortened by the strike, he made a name for himself with his quickness and aggressiveness and his knack for getting to the ball. Larry Peccatiello, the Washington Redskins' linebacker coach, says, "Clayton Weishuhn. What a player! What a kid! When they first started telling me about him, I thought he was a little light for an inside linebacker. Then I saw him in the Olympic Gold Bowl [a postseason all-star game for college seniors] where he was the defensive MVP. On one play he got knocked down by a cut block on a blitz and still got up to tackle the runner behind the line of scrimmage. I think he's the most exciting young linebacker I've ever seen. I think we're talking about another Lee Roy Jordan."
Speaking of Weishuhn's aggressiveness, Martin, his Angelo State coach, says, "We get a lot of players in here that don't know 'come here' from 'sic 'em.' Believe me, when Clayton got here he sure knew what 'sic 'em' meant."
Among the Pats, Weishuhn was second only to the other inside linebacker, Steve Nelson, in total tackles; he led the New England team in unassisted stops with 48. Against the Steelers he had 25 tackles, 10 of them unassisted and in all but two games he had more than 12 tackles. Says John Hannah, New England's recently retired All-Pro guard, "Clayton's going to be a great one. He's hell to shut out of a play."
Given all that, it seems unbelievable that Weishuhn could have been serious about passing up pro football in favor of cotton farming. But his agent, Joe Courrege, insists Weishuhn wasn't kidding. "He's a young man who knows what he wants," says Courrege. "When I sat down to negotiate with New England I told them that Clayton had certain requirements, and if he didn't get them, he was going to stay down on the farm." He pauses, as if not quite sure he believes what he's about to say. "This was before the USFL came along, so in talking contract you normally would hold the Canadian Football League over the NFL team's head. But I was threatening the Patriots with cotton farming as our alternative if they didn't meet our terms. I don't think that's ever happened before."
Weishuhn was the 60th player picked in the 1981 draft. Courrege says a lot of teams made a mistake in not drafting him sooner. "Oh, there were some clubs who were worried about his weight," he admits, "but I think most of them were afraid to waste a high choice because they feared Clayton wouldn't report. But two months before the draft he was saying in a loud, clear voice he'd play for whoever drafted him, provided they offered a reasonable deal. They just weren't listening."
Even the all-knowing Dallas Cowboy organization admits to having made a mistake. The Cowboys had a chance to draft Weishuhn seven picks before he was taken by New England, but they passed him up in favor of another linebacker, Yale's Jeff Rohrer, who spent most of last season on the sidelines. Gil Brandt, the director of personnel development for the Cowboys, says, "Yeah, we were wrong about Clayton. We can measure height and weight and speed, but we don't have a computer that measures heart and character, and that kid's got a bunch. We should have drafted him."
Of course, it's no secret why Weishuhn is playing pro football. "We thought about it a long time," says Diane, "and we decided that the time we spent away from Wall would be worth it if we could get what we want."
What they want is farmland. Acquiring it isn't easy. Good irrigated land in West Texas goes for about $1,400 an acre. Then there's the expense of equipment. Clayton, his father and Darryl own six tractors among them, and each costs $40,000 or more. The family jointly owns a combine, which goes for $80,000.
So cotton farming is a very expensive business to get into. You either have to inherit the land, which Weishuhn isn't likely to do any time soon, or be able to make a lot of money in a hurry. For Weishuhn, quick bucks constitute the big appeal of pro football. Even third-round draft choices get a pretty good piece of change as a signing bonus; Weishuhn received a reported $100,000 as part of a four-year, $500,000 package. There's no evidence of lavish spending around the Weishuhn house. No Mercedes sits out front, only a 1981 Buick Riviera and a pickup. There's no new furniture, no additions to the house. And in Foxboro the Weishuhns live in a place that's rented right down to the furniture. Clearly, every penny above living expenses is being saved to buy land. "Every farmer wants his own land," he says.
In 1926, Weishuhn's paternal grandfather bought land in the Concho basin and the Weishuhns have lived there ever since. So has Diane's family. Clayton has two other brothers and a sister. Doyle, 17, the youngest brother, is still in high school, but the other two, Darryl, 27, and Carl, 22, farm cotton. (Lisa, 26, works for a steel company in San Angelo.) Everyone in Wall says Darryl would have been a better football player than Clayton, but Darryl quit at Angelo State after his freshman year to return full time to the farm. Clayton almost did the same, but he was talked out of it by then Angelo State Head Coach Jim Hess.
Hess says, "I showed Clayton how he could get what he wanted through football, that he ought not to waste that natural talent."
"What Coach Hess said was right," says Weishuhn. "But football or no football, I'll have me my own farm someday."
Weishuhn is asked if there's any parallel between himself and a black trying to get out of the ghetto by becoming a prizefighter.
Clayton pulls his head back and looks at the visitor as if he's lost his mind. "Ghetto?" he says. "Hell, I ain't trying to get out of Wall, I'm trying to stay here."
He laughs. "Do you know there were better than a thousand people at me and Diane's wedding," he says. "Her daddy is known all over this part of the country as one of the best barbecue cooks in the world. He was barbecuing two days before the wedding. God knows how many pounds of meat. Maybe a ton. And I ain't kidding about that. I don't know how many kegs of beer were bought. But everybody else brought all the side dishes. Potato salad, you know, and beans and cole slaw and bread and pies and cakes. I think the party lasted three days. Diane and I left the first day, but it went on after that."
Weishuhn pulls his pickup off to the side of a country road and points out the windshield. The land stretches black and flat to the horizon. "You see that?" he says, pointing to meticulously plowed fields. "Well, when I was 12 my daddy put me on a tractor and said, 'Go to it.' You got any idea how hard it is to plow a straight furrow in all that out there? I'll tell you. It ain't easy. About two years after I give it my first try I was able to do it. I remember when I come in and my daddy went out and looked over what I'd done. Then he come back and patted me on the shoulder and said he believed I'd make a farmer."
He spits out the window and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'll tell you," he says, "I've had some awards for playing football and I'm dang proud of 'em. But I ain't never been prouder of anything than what my daddy said to me that day."
During the drive, Weishuhn meets a number of neighbors, also in pickups, along the road. He stops to visit with each one. Most of the talk is about farming, but one friend says Weishuhn isn't going to get in shape for next football season riding around in a pickup. "Yeah, I am," he says. "I just put one gallon of gas in, and when that runs out, I pick up the truck and carry it home."
Later in the afternoon, Clayton and Darryl are summoned to their parents' house, which is 2½ miles from Clayton's. The refrigerator is on the blink, and Clayton's dad, Olan, wants his two sons to put it in the back of his pickup so he can take it to the dealer and get it fixed. Olan is a tall, well-built, quiet man in his middle 50s whose physique makes it clear how his boys got their strength. Clayton's mother, Marlene, is a plump housewife who laughs a great deal and is said to be able to dance half the men in the county off their feet.
The refrigerator is the size a farm mother with four growing sons and a daughter to feed would have in her kitchen. It must weigh 350 pounds. Olan has recently had a back operation, so his only role in this task is providing a dolly for moving the refrigerator. As Clayton and Darryl approach the refrigerator, Olan says, with a trace of a German accent, "Now, you boys, you use dat dolly. Don't get down in your back like your daddy."
They ignore his advice. At 6'4" and 235 pounds Darryl is as strong as Clayton, and they simply pick the refrigerator up as if it were a sack of potatoes, walk it through several rooms and out the front door, then set it in the bed of their father's pickup.
While that is being done, Olan is asked if Clayton will change, if the glamour of the NFL will get to him. Olan says, gravely, "I tell dat boy, you let your neck get bigger, not your head."
Back at his house Clayton relaxes on the couch while Diane brings him another plastic cup and says, about the snuff, "He's going to lose his lip one of these days." She asks again when he's going to spade her up a vegetable garden. "Aw, you're pregnant," he says. "You don't need to be working in a garden."
"Some farmer," she says.
It's almost dark, and Clayton is content to sit and talk, resigned now to the fact that he won't be able to get in any more plowing. Besides, he has to fly to Boston the next day to accept a Patriot Rookie of the Year award from the Pats' booster club.
"You know what's funny?" he says. "Sometimes I'll be riding along on that tractor and I'll look down at the cotton and think, dang, some guy in England might someday be wearing a shirt made out of this very cotton I'm growing here. Or maybe it'll be part of a sheet for somebody's bed in Tokyo. I guess they use sheets in Japan."
He wrinkles his brow, still trying to explain the appeal of Wall—why he gave serious thought to passing up pro football in favor of staying down on the farm. "It's not just the farming," he says. "A lot of it is the quality of life here in Wall. And it's not real big things. Just little stuff. Like two or three nights a week people will come by or we'll go over to their house and play dominoes. And these are all people you grew up with. They know you and you know them. So you don't have to do a lot of explaining about yourself, because they already know. Man, do you know that most of those folks in Foxboro never even heard of Moon or Forty-two [which are domino games]? That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about."
And it's other things. It's going down to the cotton gin on rainy mornings and drinking coffee and talking shop with the other farmers. It's the informal life in Wall, where Weishuhn can drive up unannounced in anyone's front yard and the door will pop open and he'll get a warm greeting before he even gets out of his pickup. It's the feeling of knowing exactly who he is and where he is and the importance of what he's doing.
It's little things, like, in the summer, when Weishuhn and his father and his brothers are out in the fields and Diane and Marlene and his brothers' wives bring lunch out to them. And they get off their tractors and gather around the bed of a pickup and eat and laugh and talk.
It's the dances he and Diane go to at the community hall of the Catholic church. It's being able to take off and go fishing of an afternoon whenever he wants.
"It's, well, it's knowing what's important," Weishuhn says. "Not what everybody else might think is important, but what you know is important."
Priorities. When Weishuhn made Division II All-America the people at Angelo State had a hard time locating him. They finally found him on his dad's farm underneath a tractor working on its innards. When he was given the news he said, "Hey, that's good, isn't it?" Then he went back to working on the tractor.
On NFL draft day, when most other prospects were in front of their TVs watching the proceedings on ESPN, Weishuhn was out in the fields. Darryl finally had to run out there to tell him he'd been selected.
Then last season the player strike cost Weishuhn a bundle in unpaid salary. Asked how much, he just ducks his head and says, "Several acres." Clearly, Olan needn't concern himself about Clayton's head getting any bigger. But NFL running backs ought to worry about his neck getting bigger. They could be standing in the way of farmland. And that's not a safe position. Weishuhn still understands "sic 'em."