Raymond Clayborn spent 13 seasons with the New England Patriots from the time he was selected No. 16 overall in the 1977 NFL Draft until 1990 when he departed for Cleveland, ultimately finishing his career under then-Browns Head Coach Bill Belichick. He's been atop the franchise's career-interceptions chart for over 30 years, and only Ty Law has picked off as many passes for the Patriots.
Perhaps it may seem less impressive to know that Clayborn snared 36 passes over a 13-year period, while Law did it in nine, but there's more to that story.
"Ray Clay," as his Patriots teammates called him, was drafted by the Pats from the University of Texas in the first round. An outstanding role player for the Longhorns, Clayborn had played safety and cornerback. He returned kicks and played running back. He was a Jack-of-all-trades, but when Clayborn arrived at his first Patriots training camp, it was time to specialize.
"[Texas] didn't teach the techniques that were taught at schools that ran pro-type defenses," explained Clayborn in a recent interview. "It was a transitional period for me."
In his first-ever professional football play, Clayborn scored a touchdown on a punt return against the Giants. He led the team in kickoff returns that year with three touchdowns to his credit, averaging a league-leading 31 yards-per return. He remains the Patriots 10th leading kick returner of all time with 1, 538 yards, boasting an outstanding average of 27 yards-per return.
In 1978 Clayborn carved out a starting role, and Charlie Sumner, the Patriots secondary coach told the Boston Herald, "The way [Clayborn] hits is definitely a plus. I do worry a little bit; I think he's a little too reckless at times. But I can't call him off. I've got to let him play his game."
Clayborn's game was a ferocious one, and he frightened opponents with hammering hits and thrilling closing speed. He was playing opposite Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes, who had arrived the year before Clayborn to earn AFC Rookie of the Year honors. Haynes was the consummate cornerback and a perennial All-Pro selection.
In Clayborn's first two NFL seasons, Haynes led the team in interceptions and Clayborn let his pads do the work. But then, Clayborn learned to dial it back. He learned to watch the play unfold.
Haynes and Clayborn were arguably the best cornerback tandem in NFL history, with Clayborn the lesser of two threats. Passes came his way regularly.
By 1979, Clayborn was leading the team in picks (5). He did the same in 1980 (5).
Then, in a whirlwind 1983 offseason, Haynes left for the Oakland Raiders, and rookie corner back Ronnie Lippett was left to fill his shoes. The tides turned quickly for Clayborn.
"In 1983 and '84, there were games where I wouldn't get a single pass my way, and there were several where there was only one pass play to my side," remembered Clayborn.
"It's not as easy to pick on one man as it used to be," said Dolphins Head Coach Don Shula after the Patriots first meeting with Miami in the 1983 season, a 34-24 Patriots loss. "But we'd obviously rather throw to Lippett's side than Clayborn's."
Clayborn made his first Pro Bowl appearance at the end of the 1983 season without a single interception to his credit. He intimidated offenses that much.
Of course, like Clayborn, the undersized Lippett grew into his role and, with the help of safeties Fred Marion and Roland James, the Patriots secondary remained formidable until the end of the decade. Clayborn played consistently and notched two more Pro Bowl appearances(1985,1986) before his career came to a close.
Only five players in Pats history were with the team longer, and having played in 191 contests for New England, only five Patriots appeared in more games. Clayborn appeared in 161 consecutive games with 141 consecutive starts before he missed his first game. He loved playing football so much he's now the NFL Uniform Program Representative for the Houston Texans, checking that the players' equipment is properly set up.
Clayborn has pretty much seen it all when it comes to NFL football.
So is there a Patriot he thinks will top his 36 interceptions?
"Ellis Hobbs is a heck of a talent, and a good kid. I hope he breaks [my Patriots record]," he said.
Hobbs has taken records from Clayborn before.
Remember last year when Hobbs broke an NFL record with his 108-yard kickoff return? Before that, the record for longest kickoff return in Patriots history belonged to Raymond Clayborn (101 yards).