Clayton Kershaw and Matthew Stafford: The Wonder Years

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Clayton Kershaw and Matthew Stafford: The Wonder Years
Marianne Kershaw and Charley Dickenson

They looked alike. Two six-year-old boys, roughly the same size and shape, wearing identical “Blue Bombers” uniforms, with sandy blond hair cut in bangs an inch or two above their eyebrows. From the stands, it was hard to tell them apart, even for their parents, as those boys chased a soccer ball around a field at the Dallas Convention Center.

So it was that Margaret Stafford, cheering wildly as her son, Matthew, scored what she thought was his second goal of the game, turned to look at the mom cheering wildly behind her. That’s nice, she thought. She’s really happy for Matthew. But in reality, Marianne Kershaw was cheering for her own son, Clayton, because he, not Matthew, had scored the goal.

Parallel success for the two boys would become a common theme as they grew up. Before they were Matthew Stafford, starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions and first overall NFL draft pick, and Clayton Kershaw, two-time Cy Young Award winner and ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers, they were two little boys playing soccer as their moms and dads cheered and their friends played alongside.

They played on the same youth soccer, baseball, football and basketball teams together. They played freshmen football and two years of varsity baseball together and both graduated from Highland Park High School in 2006 after dominant final seasons. Kershaw compiled a 13-0 record with an ERA of 0.77. In a five-inning mercy-rule game, he struck out all 15 batters.

On June 18 this season, Kershaw threw a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in one of the most dominant performances in baseball history. That game came in the midst of a stretch in which he threw 41 scoreless innings, the sixth longest in baseball’s expansion era.

Stafford led the Highland Park football team to a 15-0 record and a state championship (59-0) by throwing for 4,013 yards and 38 touchdowns. Today, he owns or will own every Lions passing record, and with wide receiver Golden Tate lining up with all-time great receiver Calvin Johnson, Stafford is poised to put up the best numbers of his career.

The best quarterback in America from the 2006 high school class and the best pitcher in America from the 2006 high school class went to the same high school—the odds of that happening are miniscule.

Even the friends and family who were there have a hard time wrapping their brains around what those two young boys have made of themselves. They started their sports “careers” as little boys on a soccer pitch and now have contracts worth a combined $291.5 million.

“It’s still incredible when I really think about it,” says Josh Meredith, who has been friends with both since the Blue Bombers days.

Incredible, yes.

But also true.

 

From the Trampoline to the Roof

“Remember that great movie The Sandlot, about the neighborhood group of boys playing summer baseball together? That’s how my life felt growing up. The community was our playground, and we biked the streets of our personal kingdom.” — Clayton Kershaw, in a memoir he wrote with his wife, Ellen, Arise: Live Out Your Faith and Dreams on Whatever Field You Find Yourself

Kershaw and Stafford were teammates often and sometimes rivals in soccer, football, baseball and basketball. When they got bored of real sports, they made up their own games. At Kershaw’s house, they played hallway hockey, the rare game they played inside. It involved sawed-off hockey sticks, a roller hockey ball, pillows for their knees and chest, and a line of tape strung the width of the hall to mark off the goal.

Stafford’s favorite made-up game was oskie-oskie, in which a ball-carrier attempted to run through a line of defenders who had to stay on their knees. He liked it because he got to hit people.

They also enjoyed a game they called "hot box," which was like pickle but played on a wet trampoline outside Kershaw’s house…when the trampoline wasn’t otherwise being used.

“We would move it close to his house and try to, not really jump from the roof to the trampoline, but from the trampoline onto the roof,'' says Pan Lucas, who played on the Blue Bombers and other teams with Stafford and Kershaw and remains close with Stafford. "We’d probably incorporate a ball with it. Some sort of dodgeball. So many stupid games like that.''

Photo courtesy of Marianne Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw, with trophy, and Matthew Stafford.

 

The Prodigy and the (Comparatively) Late Bloomer

“I heard about this seventh-grader who could throw the ball 70 yards in the air. He was going to be a great quarterback. He was already six feet tall. The first time I saw him throw was out in front of our house. He was throwing the ball out in the street. You could just tell, he was going to be a great football player and a great quarterback.” — Randy Allen, Highland Park High School football coach

“Clayton was always a great basketball player, he was always a great football player, he was always a great baseball player. But being a great athlete and winning two Cy Youngs are completely different. Going to that level, being the seventh player taken in the major league draft, is a completely different level. When did I see him get to that level? Definitely not until late.” — Pan Lucas

Before Kershaw was drafted by the Dodgers in 2006 and Stafford first overall by the Lions in 2009, they were “drafted” in consecutive years by John Calandro, a youth soccer coach in Dallas who selected the two boys to play on the Blue Bombers.

Calandro dubbed Kershaw “The Wall” because when he played goalie, nobody scored on him. He called Stafford “Hollywood” because of his propensity, late in games, to make dramatic shows of injuries. All right, Hollywood, it’s been a minute, you can get up now. The Blue Bombers were together for several years, and Calandro says the team never lost a game against boys their own age.

Calandro recognized that Stafford and Kershaw were good athletes, but he didn’t know he was witnessing the rise of two elite superstars—though he had an inkling while watching Stafford throw a football.

“Matthew would just zing it every once in a while, and it never broke a spiral,” Calandro says. “When he was nine, he was throwing it 35 or 40 yards. ... The dads couldn’t do it. They’d have to move up, or they’d skip it (back to him). It was funny to watch.”

Stafford’s friends joke that he is the only elementary school quarterback who ran the spread offense, only they’re not joking. He really did run the spread offense that young, so advanced was his grasp of the game and the power of his arm.

“In sixth or seventh grade, the head football coach moved in next door to me,” Lucas says. “Matthew would always come over. We’d be playing basketball or home run derby in the front yard. But when Coach Allen came out, we made sure we got the football out and were throwing it in the street, always trying to show off for him.

"Every single time. Someone would see Coach Allen’s car pull up, and someone would run and get the football. We’d run routes in the street; we wanted to make sure the head high school football coach was taking notice of this kid.”

And Stafford was no pawn being moved at the whims of his friends. He was Hollywood, again, putting on another show. “You’re trying to make good impressions on the high school football coach, for sure,” he says.

Allen noticed—and laughed when he was told the lengths the boys went to get his attention. “I wouldn’t put it past them,” he says. By the time Stafford was a freshman in high school, recruiters told Allen that Stafford was good enough to play at the D-1 level.

By comparison, Kershaw emerged as a star much later. Between his sophomore and junior years, Kershaw sprouted several inches, lost his baby fat and gained velocity on his fastball to go with his already excellent control. With more power, he became (and remains) nearly unhittable.

“By the end of his junior year, you could tell he was special,” says Lew Kennedy, Kershaw’s varsity baseball coach. “People were taking notice by then. There were a lot of radar guns in the stands.”

 

To Their Moms, the Boys Will Always Be Boys

“They were just cute together when they were younger. I have so many warm memories.” — Margaret Stafford

From cleaning dirty uniforms together to driving on long road trips to attending hundreds of games, Margaret Stafford and Marianne Kershaw shared many experiences as they watched their boys grow from precocious kids who wanted to spend every waking minute outside to high school stars to elite professionals.

“Marianne and I got together for dinner several months ago, and we just started giggling,” Margaret Stafford says. “Who’d have thought we’d have these famous boys when we were sitting at the laundromat, washing uniforms?”

They got together for dinner again with Bleacher Report—and there was more giggling. While the sports world sees two men with rocket arms, high expectations and thick bank accounts, their moms still see little boys covered in dirt.

Margaret Stafford: “They were just Pigpen for a while. Maybe that’s because they were always in red clay.”

Marianne Kershaw: “I love this—especially Clayton. Clayton was the Pigpen of every team. His shirt was always the one out, his cowlick was always sticking up.”

Margaret Stafford: “There was a time when he was catching Matthew. We were sitting back there together. And he picks up the catcher’s helmet and puts it on his head, and a whole bucket of red dirt went down the back of his shirt. And he was like …”

Marianne Kershaw: “Not to be deterred.”

Margaret Stafford: “He didn’t bat an eye.”

Photo courtesy of Marianne Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw, a middle school center.

 

'He Seriously Belly-Flopped the Whole Pile'

“I remember playing soccer against (Kershaw). You could tell he was, not a nasty competitor, but he wanted it more than every other first-grader out there. You could tell right off the bat. He’s always wanted to win. Whatever you’re doing with him today, he’s going to want to win.” — Josh Meredith, Kershaw’s best man and grandson of Cowboys great Don Meredith

When they played against Kershaw on “rival” elementary school teams, the Dickenson twins, John and Charley, despised him because he was so fierce. He was pudgy and therefore bigger than everybody, but he was just as fast, more talented and more aggressive than everybody else.

Once they got to know him in middle school, they became close friends, because the attributes they disliked in him as an opponent they loved in him as a teammate…though to this day they’d still not rather play pickup basketball against him.

As competitive as he was, Kershaw managed to stay within the rules…except once, when he was the center on the freshman football team and Stafford was the quarterback.

“He was probably the only freshman to get kicked out of a game,” Charley Dickenson says. “This is nice, good old boy Clayton. Once the game has begun, he’s just totally another person, extremely aggressive, wants to win at all costs.”

Someone hit Stafford, too late for Kershaw’s liking. “He wasn’t too happy about it,” Stafford says. “He jumped on top of him and took him down. They ejected him. It was awesome.”

Says Lucas: “He seriously belly-flopped the whole pile. It was incredible. We watched it on film. We watched it and re-watched it, probably 100 times. The whole team was just dying laughing.”

 

Batterymates

"These boys really had it great that they played everything together and had fun.” — Margaret Stafford

When Kershaw and Stafford were 12, Matthew’s dad, John, coached them in baseball. Kershaw had pinpoint control and a filthy changeup. When Kershaw pitched and Stafford caught, they formed a potent combination.

Photo courtesy of Marianne Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw, left, and Matthew Stafford.

“Matthew can call a game great. He’s always been the guy who can understand situations, it didn’t matter what the game was,” John Stafford says. “He would, if you will, quarterback that stuff. He knew when to call the changeup, he knew when to put it inside, outside.”

Equally important to Matthew Stafford’s ability to call for the right pitches in the right spots was Kershaw’s ability to execute them.

“They would get strikes on guys, and both of them would have to control their laughter,” John Stafford says. “Clayton would turn away to second base with a smile on his face. Matthew would put his head down. He’d be laughing. They just baffled the guy. These are select players, damn good players. It was so much fun seeing those guys.”

 

An Ideal Place to Grow Up

“I knew what we had. All along, I knew that I don’t think that a lot of people get to keep the same friends, keep building those relationships. We didn’t lose a friend, ever.” — Pan Lucas

Highland Park and University Park, known collectively as Park Cities, constitute one of Dallas’ most affluent suburbs. It is a destination community, where families move in and stay because the property values remain high, the streets are safe and the schools are good.

But it’s also a place with a restaurant named Bubba’s Cooks Country that sells breakfast for less than $5. Though it is in one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the country, Park Cities feels self-contained, with a handful of elementary schools funneling into one middle school and one high school, which is one of the best in Texas for academics and athletics.

In an era in which families move at an unprecedented pace, the Staffords, Kershaws and all their friends stayed in the same city throughout their K-12 years.

John Stafford had a job offer when Matthew was a freshman at Highland Park High School that would have taken the family away from Park Cities. Though it was a good offer, he turned it down.

“I couldn’t have dialed in a better place for my children to grow up,” he says. “I knew that, and I made the decision to stay. It was a great decision for me to do that because of the environment.”

Stafford’s parents divorced when he was in high school but remain on friendly terms. Kershaw’s parents divorced when he was 10, and his father died in 2013. Marianne worked multiple jobs to make ends meet but never left Park Cities, even though doing so would have made sense economically.

“One time when we were driving down the road, right in front of the YMCA, he looked at me, and he was like 12, and he said, ‘Mom, we’re really rich, aren’t we?’” Marianne Kershaw says. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Just not by Highland Park standards,’ and I said, ‘Exactly.’ And I thought it was so cool that he got that. We’re healthy, and we’re happy, and God provides, versus, you know, a dollar amount.”

Stafford’s and Kershaw’s parents’ decisions to stay in Park Cities paid huge dividends for Matthew and Clayton, in their sports careers and lives in general. How many people can say they are still friends at 26 with the same guys they were friends with at six?

“We all had common interests, which made it that much better,” Matthew Stafford says. “We loved playing the game of baseball, football, basketball, soccer, whatever it was. We played all of them together—and against each other. It was a lot of fun.”

For Kershaw, being stitched into such a tight-knit community proved crucial after his parents divorced. “Though I lived with just my mom, I felt like I had 10 different homes,” he writes in Arise. “We all felt that way. Home wasn’t defined by the walls of a house—home was defined by the people we were with.”

Photo courtesy of Marianne Kershaw
Mattthew Stafford, left, and Clatyon Kershaw.

 

Child's Play

“If Matthew had come to me in his junior year of high school, or whatever, and said to me, ‘Dad, violin is the thing for me,’ we would have had a conversation about why, and are you sure, and are you committed, and then I would have gotten him the best violin teacher I could afford.” — John Stafford

It’s tempting to look at Kershaw’s and Stafford’s careers now and see everything that happened in their childhoods as preparation for a life under bright lights. But that would be taking too seriously what was essentially just kids having fun. All three parents cared far more whether their boys were having fun than whether they were laying the groundwork for athletic careers.

Margaret Stafford laughs when she tells a story of a far-too intense coach who complained when the Staffords went on vacation to Florida and Matthew had to miss games. “I’m like, ‘He’s in second grade. He needs to see his grandmother and grandfather.’”

Everybody in the group of friends fondly recalls a baseball tournament in Atlanta, in which the team entered (as they put it) as the 64th team out of 64 and finished in the top four. They talk about spending two weeks away from home, luring unsuspecting teammates into a darkened hotel room and then pummeling them with pillows.

Also, the games.

“We were playing against the state of California All-Star team, the state of Texas All-Star team,” Matthew Stafford says. “I remember when we played that game, it was the first time I ever played a game with more than two umpires. The bases were painted. You felt like you were playing in the big leagues.”

Even now, when the old gang gets back together, it’s just like the old days. The best example: Anytime push-ups—the currency with which bets are paid off, as the winner gets to demand push-ups whenever he wants. John Dickenson says Kershaw often demands them via text and requires video proof be sent as confirmation.

One day this winter, Kershaw and the Dickensons went to a Mexican restaurant. Kershaw can’t resist chips and salsa, and after devouring some, he said he had to stop. He and John Dickenson made a bet—whoever ate the next chip owed the other 20 anytime push-ups.

After the entrees arrived, Kershaw absent-mindedly grabbed a chip and ate it. John Dickenson called him on it and made a mental note of the debt Kershaw owed him.

AP Photo
Clatyon Kershaw and his wife Ellen celebrate his June 18th no-hitter.

A few weeks later, Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, spoke in front of 500 Park Cities businessmen, mostly about their charity work in Africa. The Dickenson twins, Marianne Kershaw, John Stafford and Josh Meredith attended. As the Q-and-A session after their presentation wound down, John Dickenson raised his hand.

Kershaw called on him and Dickenson said, "‘I believe you still owe me 20 anytime push-ups. How about you give me one right now?’ In front of this big group, in the spotlight, I wasn’t sure if he was going to do it or not. But he got down, and he did it. That’s the kind of guy he is.''

Says Charley Dickenson: “We’re wondering, the next time he gets an award like the Cy Young, do we pull that on him?”

 

Bleacher Report's Ty Schalter contributed to this report.

Matt Crossman is the author of more than 30 cover stories in national sports magazines. He has written for Sporting News, SI.com, CBSSports.com and many others. Read more of his work at mattcrossman.com.

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