Last week, the New England Patriots signed 29-year-old St. Louis native Adrian Clayborn, a veteran defensive end who was never supposed to play football.
Doctors dismissed his dreams of playing competitive sports from the moment he was born, when he suffered a birth injury known as Erb’s palsy, and throughout his childhood years in physical therapy. Clayborn told his mother he didn’t care what they said. He joined the college football team, was drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft, and reached 30 sacks in the past 7 seasons without full use of his right arm.
Even now, despite several other debilitating injuries, Clayborn shows no signs of slowing down.
The Hurdle Most Players Never Encountered
Clayborn started his career at the University of Iowa, where in his 4 years he sacked opposing teams’ quarterbacks a total of 19 times. He was drafted 20th in 2011 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, logged his first NFL sack in week 3, and reached 7.5 total sacks as a rookie.
But the next year, only 3 games in, a knee injury ended his season. In 2014, when another injury ended his year prematurely, his future with Tampa was uncertain.
Clayborn signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an unrestricted free agent in 2015, beginning a much more successful 3-year stretch – before a torn bicep placed him on injured reserve in January 2017. He missed the rest of the playoffs and watched the Falcons lose the lead, and then the Super Bowl, to the Patriots from the sidelines.
Football players get injured. But Clayborn’s story is different: The injury that sets him apart is of the type the sports industry never guessed he could overcome.
What Is Erb’s Palsy?
Clayborn described his condition in an essay he wrote for The Players’ Tribune back in January.
“The best way I can explain it is that when I was born the doctor had to pull me out by my neck. In the process I suffered nerve damage on the right side of my body – basically in my neck, trap, and bicep. So I’ve always had limitations in my right arm as far as strength and mobility. […] All throughout my childhood, as far back as I can remember, I was doing physical therapy to strengthen my right arm.”
Clayborn noticed he was different in elementary school when classmates singled out his smaller arm. He was “always a big kid,” and noticed other children were picked on worse; he also recognizes greater limitations in others with Erb’s palsy, which manifests in varying degrees of severity. However, at Clayborn’s age, persistent complications are not to be taken lightly.
Erb’s palsy, also called brachial plexus palsy, affects about 1 in 1,000 newborns in the U.S. Most suffer mild nerve damage and recover within 6 months. However, severe cases cause permanent, partial, or total loss of nerve function, and worse, could have been prevented. Many cases arise from careless or improper medical care – a doctor’s or nurse’s overuse of force – and require lifelong treatment.
A Testament to Perseverance
Some say Clayborn’s injury limits his defensive versatility, or “pigeon-hole” him as a third-down player. He does play almost exclusively on 1 side of the defensive line.
“I play the right side. That’s where I’ve been playing for most of my career,” Clayborn said in a conference call with New England reporters on Wednesday. Yet does it impact his performance? “It doesn’t really affect me, besides in the weight room with doing some stuff. But on the field, it doesn’t really affect me. I’ve learned to compensate when I have to and I do what I’ve got to do to make the plays.”
With so many injuries stacked against him, Clayborn considered retiring after the 2016-2017 playoffs. But he didn’t. He came back to lead the Falcons in sacks and quarterback hits, recording a career-best 9.5 sacks and franchise-record 6 sacks in week 10 of 1 of the best seasons of his career. When the Patriots signed him to a 2-year, $12 Million contract, he was considered the best pass rusher remaining in free agency.
An inspiration to survivors of birth injury everywhere, Clayborn’s secret is simple: “I like to play every play like it’s my last.”