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WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. – Jimmy Clausen remembers the precise moment he became aware of his stigma. A few months ago, the ex-Notre Dame quarterback was busy preparing for the NFL future he'd been dreaming of since childhood when Golden Tate, his top collegiate receiving target, sent him a disturbing text message.
Tate had just watched an ESPN SportsCenter segment in which Todd McShay, a draft analyst for the network, was highly critical of Clausen's leadership skills, claiming the polished passer was not considered a good teammate by other Irish players.
"He was mad," Clausen said Thursday, recalling Tate's text over breakfast at the Four Seasons Westlake Village, a luxuriant hotel in the Southern California suburb where he became the nation's most coveted high school quarterback. "He said something like, 'If I ever see that Todd McShay … .' – that type of deal. It was crazy. I didn't know where it was coming from."
In a world in which top NFL draft prospects are vetted like U.S. Supreme Court nominees, Clausen understood this was something he couldn't easily shrug off. In the months that have followed, Clausen has answered questions from potential employers about his perceived personality defects over and over again.
He'll do so Friday when he meets with new Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and other team officials at the franchise's headquarters in Ashburn, Va., and at subsequent visits to the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, all of which hold top-10 picks they might use on the most polished pro-style passer in the draft.
"Obviously, there's that perception out there that I'm cocky, arrogant, a bad teammate, a bad leader or whatever," Clausen said between bites of his egg-white omelet. "It's kind of hard answering those questions; you don't want to put yourself at the forefront like that. I say, 'Go ask my teammates why they voted me captain.' I'd rather have them talk about it."
On Thursday, I talked to three of Clausen's former teammates, all of whom adamantly defended the three-year starter who last season led the Irish to four victories on their final drive of the game.
"Anyone who says that stuff isn't seeing the same Jimmy that we see," Tate said of the co-offensive captain. "For me it's kind of frustrating, because what I see is a guy who's very passionate about the sport, who works hard and puts his team in position to win. I see him more as a family member than as a teammate."
Added ex-Irish receiver David Grimes, who played with Clausen in South Bend in '07 and '08: "Seeing Jimmy mature from when he came in as a freshman, it's light years apart. It's sad to hear this stuff that's being said. Jimmy's a great kid. I don't think anybody who played with him would badmouth the guy."
That might be a bit of a stretch – I've been in enough football locker rooms to know that, when you put scores of highly competitive athletes together on a daily basis, some manifestation of creative tension is inevitable – but I don't blame Clausen's supporters for engaging in a bit of hyper-defensive damage control. After all, these days it's not enough to say, "Look at the game tape and draw your own conclusions." Remember, this is an era in which an ultra-talented NFL passer like Jay Cutler(notes) can be eviscerated by analysts for bad body language, whatever that is.
Clausen seemed like a pleasant kid during our meal Thursday, but that's hardly an experience from which conclusions can be drawn. What I can tell you is that Clausen put up insanely productive numbers last season in a pressure-packed environment while demonstrating toughness and poise.
It's also clear that of the four quarterbacks mentioned as top prospects in this draft, Clausen is by far the most NFL-ready. Whereas Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, who the St. Louis Rams may select with the No. 1 overall pick, Texas' Colt McCoy and Florida's Tim Tebow all operated primarily from the spread offense, Clausen played in a pro-style attack for coach Charlie Weis, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator who now holds that role with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Former Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, who spent time with all four quarterbacks for an ESPN draft special, was wowed by Clausen's ability to recognize plays they watched together on film and replicate them on the chalkboard. Gruden's three-word assessment of Clausen: "Love that guy."
Some scouts question Clausen's arm strength, while others believe he's a dangerous downfield thrower. What no one disputes is his accuracy: Last season Clausen completed 68 percent of his throws, throwing 28 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in 425 attempts. The Irish huddle wasn't bursting with a slew of talented NFL prospects, particularly on the offensive line and in the backfield, and Clausen accomplished much of this while playing through a pair of torn ligaments in his toe.
"He might be the most accurate thrower in the draft," said a personnel executive for one AFC team. "I mean, he's pinpoint accurate. He'd be a great West Coast [Offense] guy."
A front-office executive for another AFC team had a different take: "He can throw the ball downfield. He's the perfect Raiders quarterback, what Al [Davis] has been dreaming about for years. I don't want to like him, but I do. I mean, just look at him – when you see that guy, you just want to punch him."
That brings us back to the perception of Clausen as, in that same executive's words, "a punk." It probably was formed back in high school, when he received massive hype while leading Oaks Christian to a California Division III state title. Choosing Notre Dame, where he became a starter almost immediately, undoubtedly expanded the pool of Haterade.
Clausen, who skipped the spring semester of his senior year of high school to enroll early in college, says part of what motivated him to join the storied program in South Bend was that he thought it would prepare him for the transition to the pros.
"That's one of the reasons I went there, to best replicate what it was going to be like playing in the pros as a rookie quarterback," he said. "Notre Dame is one of the top five franchises in all of sports. Just being in the fishbowl, it was a good experience."
One less-than-enjoyable experience occurred late last season outside a South Bend bar, when Clausen, after sticking up for his then-girlfriend while being heckled by a seemingly drunken patron, was, in fact, punched in the face. (There's no truth to the rumor that the previously quoted AFC executive was the perpetrator.)
Clausen, who says he has been asked to recount the incident following the UConn loss by every NFL coach, executive and scout with whom he has spoken, did it one more time for me on Thursday: "… The seniors wanted to go out one last time following a home game with their families, and I decided I'd go out, too. A few hours later I decided to leave and I walked out with my arm around my girlfriend at the time. At the front door a drunk fan recognized me and starting yelling and ripping me about the loss and hassling her. I just laughed it off and walked by him, and he just hit me in the side of the face. That was the whole thing."
Clausen with fellow QBs Bradford (center) and McCoy at the NFL scouting combine.
(Darron Cummings/AP Photo)
Certainly, there are legitimate reasons why players on other teams would detest Clausen. On the field, he's neither the shy nor retiring type; it's fair to say he has some Philip Rivers(notes) in him.
"A lot of [the perception about Clausen] is because he plays with so much passion," Tate says. "It appears he's being an [expletive]. A guy who plays with passion is gonna play with some emotion. If those big guys are out there trying to kill you, and you make a play, you're gonna go talk some crap.
"The guy's getting hit back there, he's under pressure all day. What's he supposed to do, get up and say, 'Hey, you hit me – that's great'? Before one of our games, when he had a bad toe, people [from the other team] came up and stomped on his toe while the music was still playing. So yeah, when he burns you, he's gonna let you know."
One former foe who has recently changed his opinion of Clausen is ex-USC safety Taylor Mays. He and Clausen are both represented by L.A.-area agent Gary Wichard and have been working out together on a frequent basis over the past couple of months.
"I thought he was a little bitch," Mays admitted Thursday. "Before we played him, we watched highlights of him playing in Hawaii in the [2008 Hawaii Bowl], and he [made the aloha sign with his hand]. We wanted to beat the crap out of him.
"He's still got the same personality, but I know him now, and I like him. He thinks he's sweet, but he is good – I can't take that away from him. I can see why his teammates like him. They respect how seriously he takes the game, and they respect his work ethic. I take him seriously, too."
In less than three weeks, an NFL franchise will take Clausen in the first round, stigma be damned. Then it will be up to 52 new teammates to assess his personality traits and leadership skills.
"I can't wait," Clausen says. "Some people told me [the lead-up to the draft] would be the worst time of my life. It really hasn't been that bad. It's a dream come true."
Until then, let's hope Golden Tate and Todd McShay don't end up outside any South Bend bars at the same time.
LIES, LIES, LIES
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Should Roger Goodell start rocking a black robe? As big a fan as I am of the NFL commissioner, I'm starting to think he thinks he's a judge, at least in light of his latest reaction to disempowered Raiders employee Randy Hanson's civil suit against the team and coach Tom Cable. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I find it absurd that Goodell essentially exonerated Cable despite never having bothered to interview Hanson, who claims he sustained a broken jaw and other injuries after being violently attacked by Cable during a training-camp argument last summer. Now, after the Raiders responded to Hanson's lawsuit by asking the NFL to settle the matter via arbitration (as part of the team's claim that a clause in Hanson's contract should override his filing in Alameda County Superior Court), Goodell, via NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash, has informed Hanson's attorney, John McGuinn, that he believes the dispute falls within the scope of his arbitration authority and will proceed accordingly. Given that Goodell is employed by Raiders managing general partner Al Davis (and the league's 31 other owners) and has already decreed that Cable didn't violate the league's personal conduct policy, it's not surprising that McGuinn's reaction was incredulous. “I wonder if he's ever read any works of Franz Kafka?” McGuinn said of the commissioner in an interview Thursday evening. “The actual and perceived bias and prejudice on his part is so self-evident that it's preposterous.” Also, in McGuinn's eyes, the claims in the lawsuit “don't come close to” falling under Goodell's jurisdiction. “These are all peculiarly state of California causes of action that have nothing to do with a contractual dispute between a team in the NFL and any of its employees,” he said. Before too long, we'll see if a real judge in Alameda County agrees.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Kyle Turley(notes), one of the coolest and most interesting football players I've ever covered – and now one of my favorite musicians, too. When I last wrote about Turley seven months ago, he was struggling with the scary aftereffects of head trauma sustained during his nine-year NFL career. Medication is controlling his symptoms for now, and when I saw him Tuesday night at the Grand Ballroom in San Francisco, he was his usual lively and incisive self. Oh, and he played his heavily tattooed torso off – as the singer and rhythm guitarist for his band, Turley, whose impressive debut CD, Anger Management, just hit the Billboard charts. Though Turley has serious headbanging tendencies, virtually all of the songs he wrote for the CD can be loosely categorized as country, albeit with the dark influences of legends like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and the rebellious and eclectic fellow Nashville-area resident for whom he opened, Hank Williams III. “I'm trying to start a new genre,” Turley said. “It's ‘Power Country,' or ‘put a boot in your ass country.' ” The CD is highly confessional, with plenty of lyrical references that will amuse football fans, including not-so-subtle rips on former St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz, ex-Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in the song “Flyin' Helmets.” And for New Orleans Saints fans, there's a hidden track, “My Soul Bleeds Black and Gold,” from the man who spent five years with the franchise and reveled in the franchise's first Super Bowl championship. Yet there's nothing gimmicky about Turley's act. Here's a video of the CD's opening track, "Another Whiskey,” that gives you an idea of what he's putting out there. If you don't like it, I'll put a boot in your. … No, actually, I won't. But Turley might, so watch your back.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
When Cal's freshman-dominated women's basketball team failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in coach Joanne Boyle's five seasons in Berkeley, I was one of many deflated Bear Backers. But after Boyle's team responded in the best possible fashion, rolling off five victories to reach the WNIT championship game, I'm excited about the prospects of her young players parlaying this precious postseason experience into future achievements. Oh, and as I was reminded by the Cal men's team 11 years ago, championships of any kind are cool. Following Thursday's 61-45 thrashing of Illinois State at the Redbirds' home arena in a town called Normal, the proudly abnormal Bears return home to host Miami in Saturday's championship game. I hope Haas Pavilion will be rocking as the fans bid farewell to seniors Alexis Gray-Lawson (one of the greatest players in school history), Natasha Vital and Lauren Grief – and I hope the next time Boyle's team plays there, a banner will be hung. Speaking of achievements, the winningest coach in Cal history is closing in on a big one, something I could never have seen coming as a sarcasm-prone college senior back in the late ‘80s.
As The Daily Californian's sports editor, I liked to poke fun at the Golden Bears' coverage-hungry softball team, and I remember when little-known assistant Diane Ninemire was elevated to interim head coach after Donna Terry became gravely ill. Now I'm an obsessive Cal softball junkie who worships at the altar of Coach Di as she closes in on her 1,000th career victory. She can get it in style at Stanford on Saturday if the 14th-ranked Bears can defeat their 11th-ranked archrivals in the final two games of their first series of the Pac-10 season. The Cardinal prevailed in Thursday's opener, 1-0, in 12 innings, as Cal's Valerie Arioto lost a stirring pitcher's duel to Stanford freshman Teagan Gerhart. (I'll be sure to take this up with her big brother when I dine with the Heisman Trophy runner-up in Palo Alto on Friday.) Finally, I'm fixing to do a few celebratory cannonballs for Cal's awesome swim teams – Teri McKeever's women flirted with a second consecutive NCAA championship before finishing a close third two weeks ago, while Dave Durden's men were edged by Texas last weekend, winning four of five relays en route to a second-place finish that was the Bears' best since winning back-to-back titles in 1979 and '80. Congratulations to all of Cal's amazing aqua men and women, especially individual national champions Liv Jensen (50 free), Nathan Adrian (100 free), Tom Shields (100 fly) and Damir Dugonjic (100 breast) – each of whom returns next season.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
The Reading Football Club remained one of the hottest teams in the Football League Championship over the past two weeks, sandwiching a 2-1 victory at Leicester City around a pair of 1-1 draws (at Middlesbrough and at home against West Bromwich Albion) to extend its unbeaten streak in league play to seven. The Royals earned the triumph at Leicester City on a 90th-minute penalty kick by Gylfi Sigurdsson, whose sweet assist to Jimmy Kebe had given Reading a 1-0 lead early in the first half. Three days later at Madejski Stadium, the Royals took a 1-0 lead over second-place West Brom into the 84th minute before Gabriel Tamas equalized off a corner kick. Now 11th in the Championship table – and with eight games to play, while the teams they're pursuing have just six remaining – the Royals can still make a realistic run at sixth place, which would get them into a promotion playoff for the second consecutive year. Reading plays at Ipswich Town Saturday and returns to Madejski to host Coventry City on Monday.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Breaking up is hard to do, and with longtime advocate Andy Reid having signed off on shipping him out of town – despite months' worth of public denials – Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes) can't help but feel betrayed. I envision him hiding out in a dimly lit room of his desert abode, channeling Soul Asylum and bemoaning his corpulent coach's duplicity. To the tune of “Promises Broken”:
House is filled with old game balls
The big man won't take my calls
Give a dude some piece of mind
Or a bear hug for old times
Take me home
You're gonna deal me? Take me home
It hurts – you feel me? So alone
Don't want to go to war with me
You're sleepin' with the enemy
It's a crime
Standing outside on my Scottsdale porch
Fending off the mob with their gas and torch
You'll never find what you're looking for
Your dim wit shines from so far away
Your big tummy
Is all I see when I say
That every little thing about this tells me
Call me T.O. cause hell, I might as well be
All these words that I hear spoken
Just promises broken now
From the HD satellite
Don't look like you're eating right
It's a deal you can't refuse
But if Kolb sucks then you're screwed
After all that we've been through
Limbaugh is aligned with you
It's all right
And as you watch me walk away
Cast aside like yesterday
It's all right
And every little thing about this tells me
That your big mouth was talkin' some Swahili
All these words that I hear spoken
Just promises broken now