The former cornerback was as nervous as I had ever seen him. He
sat, he stood, he walked around the conference room, never
comfortable. He smoked one cigarette and then another. I didn't
remember him smoking at all.
"Is this something new, the cigarettes?" I asked.
"Yeah," Raymond Clayborn said in a cloud of smoke. "Just about."
I met him when he was a rookie with the New England Patriots in
1977. He was a first-round draft pick, the 16th player chosen
in the country, Earl Campbell's former roommate at the
University of Texas. In 13 seasons with the Pats and one more
with the Cleveland Browns, he developed into a Pro Bowl
performer. He became the cornerback the Pats' coaches left alone
on one side of the defense, playing single coverage against the
game's best receivers, no help needed.
He needed help now.
"This assistant district attorney," Clayborn said. "She's tough.
You can see that all she wants to do is win. You go to court,
you think they're looking for truth, but that's not it. It's all
about winning and losing."
He was charged with attempted murder and assault. The longest
afternoons of his life against a Jerry Rice or a Mark Duper or a
Steve Largent were nothing compared to this. Attempted murder?
He could go directly from this courthouse in Dedham, Mass., to
prison for the next 10 to 14 years. There were reasons to be
"I'm glad you came," he said. "If the situations had been
reversed, I would have come for you."
I did not know what to say. I was one of four witnesses called
in his defense. How do these things happen? On the night of Nov.
5, 1992, I had run into Clayborn at a nightclub. I knew him in a
business sort of way, reporter and athlete, questioner and
questioned, but nothing more. I figured later I might have
talked to him 100 times during his career, but always in a
locker room or parking-lot setting. That night was the first
time I had ever seen him outside those areas.
The time was approximately 10:30 at night. I bought him a beer
or he bought me a beer. I can't remember. We stood and talked
for 20 or 30 minutes on several subjects. He said he was living
in Texas, hoping to get into coaching. He was back in town on
business. We talked about football and family, about kids and
about being divorced. We had a normal, amiable conversation, and
then he went one way and I went another.
Two days later I read in the newspaper that he had been arrested
and charged with the attempted murder with a knife of his
estranged wife and her boyfriend at her suburban home at 1:30 in
the morning on Nov. 6. I did the simple arithmetic in my head.
This was no more than three hours after our conversation. The
news was startling.
"I went back to my hotel after I left you," Clayborn said that
day in the courthouse. "I called my wife again. I had been
trying to get in touch with her all day. There still was no
answer. I went to the house, rang the bell. No answer. I let
His story was that his estranged wife's boyfriend had jumped him
and a fight had ensued and he'd picked up a knife in the kitchen
to defend himself.
His wife's story was that he had attacked the boyfriend and
picked up the knife and was going to kill the boyfriend and her.
The fight had ended when he threw the knife. He said he was
throwing it to the ground in disgust. His wife said he threw it
at the boyfriend. One story was matched against the other.
From the witness stand I recited for Clayborn's lawyer my memory
of the conversation that now was 2-1/2 years old. I suppose I was
there to testify to Clayborn's state of mind on the night of the
incident. The scene was eerily familiar--a former football player
and his estranged wife, and something with a knife--but it was
far, far away from the celebrated proceedings in Los Angeles.
While his lawyer talked, Clayborn sat by himself at a long
wooden table. The assistant district attorney sat at another
long table by herself. There were no more than six spectators,
one of them a local reporter taking notes. No glitter, no flash.
This was the normal, stripped-down hum of the American judicial
The assistant DA asked her questions. I gave my answers. I was
finished in 20 minutes. The trial, start to finish, took five
days. I read in the paper, two days after my testimony, that the
jury had acquitted him of attempted murder charges, finding him
guilty of assault for kicking and punching the boyfriend. The
story said he would receive probation, but no jail time.
"How do you feel about this?" someone asked. "Are you happy for
"Tell the truth, I don't really know him," I said. "I just wrote
a lot of stories about him a long time ago. Stories about
I wonder if he will ever give up smoking.
COLOR PHOTO: MICKEY PFLEGER [Raymond Clayborn]