After his latest injury, Adrian Clayborn was ready to retire.
He suffered a torn biceps in the Falcons’ 36-20 win over Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs Jan. 14.
A one-time first-round pick, Clayborn’s career had been marred by two other season-ending injuries and that led to him being shunned by the team that drafted him. The injuries stunted his growth in the NFL and altered his trajectory toward stardom.
All of the rehab and time on injured reserve had taken its toll.
“I came to that point last year, but my wife, fiancée at the time, convinced me to give it one more shot,” Clayborn said while relaxing at his locker Thursday. ”It’s tough, but you have to put your head down and keep working.”
Clayborn had to watch as the Falcons made quick work of Green Bay and then went onto the Super Bowl.
He was going to retire.
“I have no idea,” Clayborn said about what he’d do in retirement. “I was seeing red. I was pretty mad.”
But he listened to Shannon, who he married in June.
“She just told me that this is what I love to do, and she didn’t want me to go out like this,” Clayborn said. “She wanted me to go out feeling good about my career and feeling good about what I did. I guess that she was right.”
There would not have been a six-sack performance or a place in the Falcons’ record book, which Clayborn accomplished in the 27-7 victory over on the Cowboys on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Clayborn, 29, was All-American defensive end at Iowa. His bumpy NFL career started in Tampa Bay after he was selected 20th overall in 2011. His first NFL coach was Raheem Morris, who is the Falcons’ assistant head coach/wide receivers.
“It was a can’t-miss pick for us,” said Morris, referring to himself and then-Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik. “I just love Adrian.”
Things got off to a good start. He started all 16 games as a rookie and had 7.5 sacks. Stardom was in his future.
“We thought about his authentic toughness,” Morris said. “I loved his demeanor and how he played the game. Everything about him.
“He’s a quiet leader. He leads by example. He’s not a real boisterous guy. But I loved everything about his game tape. How hard he played and how he went for it.”
In 2012, Clayborn suffered a knee injury and played in only three games. In 2013, he played in 16 games and recorded 5.5 sacks.
Before the 2014 season, the Bucs, with a new general manager in Jason Licht, announced they wouldn’t pick up Clayborn’s fifth-year option. They signed former Georgia Tech standout Michael Johnson in free agency and moved Clayborn to left defensive end.
Clayborn played one game before suffering a season-ending biceps injury and was placed on injured reserve.
He had played four seasons, but two were spent on injured reserve. He wasn’t mad at the Bucs for cutting him. He knew staying healthy is part of the NFL game.
He signed a one-year, make-good contract with the Falcons in 2015. He was re-signed to a two-year, $9 million incentive-laden deal in 2016. Another $5 million is available through incentives, $750,000 was triggered by Clayborn reaching eight sacks.
“I wish my financial stuff wasn’t public, but I guess that it is,” Clayborn said.
That he thought about retiring did not surprise Morris.
“AC wants to be at his best self all the time,” Morris said. “I used to tell him that your mentality will be your reality. I think he has that tattooed on his body at this point. He plays that way. He lives that way. He does everything that way.”
After Tampa Bay elected to move on from Clayborn, Dan Quinn, the newly named Falcons coach, was interested. While in Seattle, Quinn and Pete Carroll signed Michael Bennett away from the Bucs and turned him into a force.
“I knew we needed pass rushers,” Quinn said. “When I first saw him, I knew he had toughness. We saw him not only at Iowa, but at Tampa, too. … I knew he had battled through some injuries. But I thought he may have the versatility to play both nickel tackle and defensive end.”
The tackle thing didn’t work out so well, although Clayborn doesn’t mind playing inside in pass-rushing situations. He split the right defensive end spot with Dwight Freeney last season, but missed three games after needing knee surgery.
He played in 13 regular-season games and made seven starts. He finished last season with 4.5 sacks.
“Coming to Atlanta has really allowed him to be able to express himself and become that guy that he wanted to become,” Morris said. “This year has really worked out well for him.”
Quinn reflected on Clayborn’s record-setting game and how happy he was for him on his ride home from the game.
“(When) I was driving home and thinking about him and where he was last year, he was in a really dark (place)” Quinn said.
After Shannon’s kind words, Clayborn worked to rehabilitate his bicep and came back determined to help the Falcons maintain their newfound status as title contenders.
“He’s a very consistent player, one of our most consistent I’d say,” Quinn said.
Clayborn enjoyed his big day.
“For sure, a lot (of satisfaction) after being injured a lot and finally getting to make the plays that you think you can make,” Clayborn said. “I think I have been (making those plays) this season. It’s good to finally have it come around.”
He believes the defensive line is coming together, too.
“It happens every season,” Clayborn said. “You start off with new guys at each position. It takes a while to gel, but once you get gelling you really come together.”
“I’m always hungry to get after the quarterback,” Clayborn said. “We are as a (defensive) line. It’s another game that we’ll have to do it.”
Bennett was in touch after the game.
“Just hearing from my former teammates because they were happy for me because they know what I’ve been through.” Clayborn said. “That was pretty cool.”
However, Clayborn’s dogs, Ace and King, a pit bull and a French Mastodon, were not real impressed. He tweeted about getting on the floor to play with them, and they wanted to play with one another.
“Where is the love,” Clayborn tweeted.
“My dogs don’t like me very much,” Clayborn quipped. “Nah, I’m just kidding.”
So, now Clayborn’s ready to get seven sacks in a game?
“I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “I wish I was that good. I don’t think so. It’s not like I’m Von Miller or anything. Let’s not go too far. Von is a beast.
“I’m not downplaying what I did. It was pretty awesome, but let’s be realistic.”