"Sometimes, you just don't know what you've got until it's gone." Chip Douglas
With the NFL season (arguably) upon us, and the first annual sighting of Puxatony John Clayton behind us (he didn't see his shadow, by the way), I thought I should share a recent account.
During the past 2-6 (laziness) NFL seasons, you couldn't watch SportsCenter without seeing one or both of John Clayton and his nemesis, Sean Salisbury, solo or pitted against each other in a showdown, debating trivial, which-number-three receiver-to-start-on-your-fantasy-team issues.
I hated the broken-recordness of it all, and never cared to hear what either one of them had to say. I'd quickly change the channel when I felt it coming on. And you really could feel it, just like looming storm clouds or a rabble-rousing shot that refuses to sit down in your stomach.
I absolutely hated these guys. Clayton for his eagerness to prove his football mettle. We get it, man. You don't look it, but you're an NFL whiz. I guess I should never think to peg a guy who looks like you before I watch your TV show. I've learned my lesson and don't at all think your entire adulthood was one giant attempt to compensate for people's misconceptions about you and your unjockly appearance. Can we hang out now?
Salisbury for being TV's Biff Tannen. The least charistmatic and likeable person on ESPN (due to forfeit, you now take the title, Bayless), it was an absolute mind-bottler that this guy had kept his job for as long as he had.
NFL season 2007 ended like any other, and I had just assumed, as I had at the ends of the previous NFL seasons, that the annual hibernation period for Clayton and Salisbury, during which they'd be forced to donate plasma and pick up babysitting gigs to make ends meet, had begun.
I thought that, like clockwork, Salisbury would resurface sometime in the summer triggering the usual rise in headache-related doctor visits and shoe-related TV destruction.
Then just the other day, I was shocked to see, five months after it happened, that Salisbury was actually let go in February, dismantling what could be considered one of the least memorable but more inflammatory ESPN, NFL-analyst rivalries of our time.
I don't know exactly how this bit slipped by me when it happened. But needless to say, I was quietly ecstatic with the prospect of watching SportsCenter with a clean mind and no threat of bad TV.
I got to thinking about how happy I was that there would be no more that night as I was watching reruns of Golden Girls. I fell asleep with a feeling of contentment I hadn't felt since I was a little kid rolling down a hill in a refrigerator box.
And then that night, I had a dream. I dreamt that, as in the zany 1988 father/son flick Vice Versa, a "mysterious oriental skull" had transformed Sean Salisbury into John Clayton and vice versa, voices included. I dreamt that Clayton now had the horse voice and the talk-over-you-to-get-my-point-across attitude, and he was now bullying a proper Salisbury, who was channeling Louis Skolnick.
The whole exchange was really amusing with the physically little guy now commanding the conversation instead of the mentally little guy. It was as if there was now a balance of power. Things had evened out.
But there was something wrong. It wasn't the annoying, petty bickering I had been conditioned to over the years. It was bizarro world, and it was foreign and scary.
I don't know exactly why, but when I woke up, I felt a sense of nostalgia for the useless debates, insults and bullying. Had I taken these guys for granted all these 2-6 years, or was I just happy to be awake and in control again? It got me to thinking about Clayton and Salisbury and their ultimate split.
After some deep thought, I came to the conclusion that no matter what, without Salisbury, Clayton going forward will never be the Clayton of yore, the Clayton with a purpose.
Without Salisbury, Clayton, as we knew him in the past, ceases to exist. Their primary purpose as ESPN had envisioned it had been to create awkward tension, not, as commonly misconceived, to update viewers about the league. Not being able to fulfill that purpose, the existence of either one is meaningless.
My guess is Clayton will soon realize this when his first post-Salisbury NFL season goes by refreshingly assault-free. And he may enjoy it for a while, but eventually, he'll realize that he never truly appreciated what he had in his relationship with Salisbury.
He will become a broken man (?). He'll quit his job at ESPN and become a recluse, locking himself in his totally dark apartment for months on end. One day, he'll open the blinds to find a little bird at his window. The bird, repulsed more by Clayton's appearance than by the odor emanating from his tomb, will dart off into the distance.
This is John Clayton's past, present and future as I see it.