Temperatures were unseasonably low and skies overcast, but spirits were nonetheless high and smiles bright for the induction of Raymond Clayborn into the Patriots Hall of Fame this past Saturday. The 1970s- and '80s-era cornerback had been a finalist three times before, but on his fourth attempt, Clayborn appropriately became the 26th person honored with this annual distinction, as he wore jersey No. 26 during his Patriots career.
At the start of the midday ceremony, a moment of silence was observed for one of the original Patriots, quarterback Vito "Babe" Parilli, who died earlier this month. Then, a few dozen former Patriots, including several Patriots Hall of Famers, joined thousands of fans packing the NRG Plaza outside the Patriots Hall of Fame, as well as the steps leading up to Patriot Place, to be part of Clayborn's long-awaited moment in the spotlight.
Drafted by the Patriots in the first round (16th overall) out of the University of Texas in 1977, Clayborn eventually became one of the game's best at the position, earning three Pro Bowl honors (1983, '85, and '86). A native of Fort Worth, Texas, he went on to set a franchise record with 36 career interceptions, a milestone which fellow Patriots Hall inductee Ty Law tied equaled in 2004. Clayborn also excelled as a kickoff returner during his 13-year Patriots career, something Patriots owner Robert Kraft touched upon during his introductory remarks.
Kraft recalled watching from the stands of what was then called Schaefer Stadium as Clayborn returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his rookie season.
"I can't believe that was 40 years ago, especially since I still think I'm 35," the owner joked.
Kraft also noted that Clayborn started 147 consecutive games over an 11-year span, but none was more memorable than the 1985 AFC Championship down in Miami, where Clayborn helped lead the Patriots defense in shutting down a potent Dolphins offense. New England's victory that day snapped an 18-game losing streak in Miami and propelled the Patriots to their first-ever Super Bowl appearance two weeks later.
"His individual performance in the '85 AFC Championship truly helped to 'squish the fish,'" added Kraft, referencing a popular rallying cry for the team back in those days.
When Kraft called Clayborn earlier this year to inform him that he'd been elected as the 2017 inductee, Clayborn asked if he could officially retire from the NFL as a Patriot, since Clayborn spent his final two pro seasons as a member of the Cleveland Browns. Kraft obliged on Saturday, when he held up a ceremonial one-day contract for the crowd to see and for Clayborn to sign. The owner also presented Clayborn with a modern day No. 26 jersey before the guest of honor tried on his red Patriots Hall of Fame blazer for the first time.
Clayborn then stepped to the microphone to begin his acceptance speech, which he led off by thanking those closest to him.
"Thank God… Without Him, none of this would be possible. To my mother, God rest her soul, who allowed me to play the game of football that ultimately changed my life."
He also singled out his immediate family who were in attendance – wife Kimberly, two daughters, son, and grandson – "all who bring joy to my life."
"To the fans who voted for me," Clayborn continued, "I've always said Patriots fans are the best fans in the world. Y'all were able to finally able to make this happen. The fourth time was a charm!
"To Mr. Kraft and [head coach Bill] Belichick, boy, I wish I could've played for the both of you. I would've won at least a couple of championship rings!"
Like Kraft, Clayborn spent several moments reflecting on his fond memories of that historic victory at Miami's Orange Bowl stadium.
"That was one of my proudest moments as a New England Patriot," he declared.
Clayborn's list of thank-yous extended to his former teammates as well, particularly those with whom he shared that championship season of '85. Those who were able to appear in person for the event were quarterback Steve Grogan, linebacker Steve Nelson, guard John Hannah, linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, wide receiver Stanley Morgan, running back Sam Cunningham, and cornerback Mike Haynes, all of whom are also Patriots Hall of Fame inductees.
"It's an honor to stand on this stage beside my fellow inductees," he said toward the end of his speech. "It means so much to me to enter the Hall of Fame with these particular men. No one gets here alone. It's a team game. Thank you for making my dreams come true."