Johnson: Memories flood back as longtime Stamps medical director retires
Pat Clayton stepping back to take time for his family and to travel
Pat Clayton has been at his craft for a long time, helping countless players work through injuries. He retired from the Calgary Stampeders on Wednesday.
Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, Calgary Herald
Pulling into the McMahon Stadium parking lot Wednesday morning, as he had done for so along, almost by ritual, Pat Clayton instinctively knew something was not quite right.
The 1 p.m. official announcement was still a ways away but already his name had been removed from his customary parking spot in front of the clubhouse.
“That,” joked the long time Director of Medical Services for the Calgary Stampeders, “just shows you how fleeting professional sport is.”
Ah, but nearly 30 years of dedicated service can never be wiped out by a few strokes from a paint brush.
For that astounding length of time, in this town, Pat Clayton was a football player’s best friend. Hundreds and hundreds of players. The man who helped them perform at top level, got them back on the field as quickly as possible, became the dispenser of good news and the authoritative voice on tough decisions.
They relied on him for truth. They trusted him with their careers, their livelihoods.
“The one thing that Patty is,” said his sidekick for all 29 years, equipment manager George Hopkins, “is brutally honest. That touched a nerve with me early because that’s the way I approach things. We were two peas in a pod from that standpoint.
“You’re very professional in what you do, but at the end of the day you can still kick back and have a beer over it. That’s never gonna change. But you work hard and you take pride in what you do.”
After closing in on 30 years here, seven earlier on the staff of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and another seven before that working practices, Clayton’s leaving the Stamps and the CFL to spend more time with family, enjoy being a granddad, go on a cycling trip to Italy, find out what life is actually like without working from 7 a.m. until midnight every day for seven months of every calendar year.
Michael Gudmundson, his assistant the past seven years, takes over from the master.
“The fact that I’ve been able to help some people, that’s what my profession is all about,” said Clayton, who will continue to work in his chosen field, just not at McMahon. “Being able to to try and keep people doing the things they like to do. Whether they’re a high-school kid or a professional. That’s what’s important.
“A lot of times, after games, I couldn’t even tell you the score.
“I’ve never looked at these guys as players. I’ve always looked at them as my patients and my friends. And I’m going to treat them that way because I want them to be healthy 25 years from now, not just for this coming week.
“The long-term is what’s important.”
The landscape for dealing with injuries has changed drastically since he arrived from Winnipeg in 1984.
“When I first started, if anybody tore an Achilles tendon,” recalled Clayton, “that was a death knell. Everybody said ‘They’ll never play again.’ I never accepted that.”
The individual players he helped are legion. Just a few that popped to mind Wednesday: Wideout Mike Holmes, who returned from an ACL injury to in the NFL. Receiver Eugene Goodlow, who broke his neck here in Calgary and also later went on to play down south. Doug Flutie, who tore a major ligament in an elbow and the rehabilitation protocol was so successful the prestigious Kirwan Clinic adopted the protocol. Jeff Garcia, who blew out a knee, then came back with Clayton’s help to play his trademark brand of swashbuckling ball and soon become an NFL star.
Ken-Yon Rambo. Aldi Henry. Marc Calixte.
So many, many others.
“Pat’s been here forever,” said coach/GM John Hufnagel, who was actually quarterbacking the Blue Bombers (“That shows you how old Pat is”) back in Clayton’s Winnipeg days. “He’s been a tremendous asset. He will be missed. I know his family means a lot to him.
“(The job) is a workload. But Pat’s a worker. That’s what you need from someone that mans that job. He’s always been very well respected.”
When asked if last season’s avalanche of injuries might’ve tipped the scales on Clayton’s difficult decision, Hufnagel smiled.
“That might’ve chased him off . . .”
When asked what he’d be doing game-days this summer, Pat Clayton replied: “I’ll probably go for a bike ride.
“You miss the people. I’ve met so many great, great people over the years. The John Heltons of the world. The Spoletini boys. Kent Warnock. You can go on and on and on. I do reflect on that and so many of those people are still my friends. And I consider that to be THE most important thing.”
His association with Hopkins stretches back the furthest, to the beginning. Back then, they were on their own. No assistants. No help. A two-man show.
“When he told me originally (about his plans),” mused Hopkins, “it was kinda like ‘Damn! We’ve been together a long time.’ Then you start to look back on it. But I’m happy for Patty and what is ahead of him.
“When he first came on board I was a wizened old vet, I think I was 24. Crusty as hell. I’d already been doing it for six or seven years. The one thing that Pat taught me very early and right until the very end was how to be a professional. That I’m gonna miss.”
The landscape down at McMahon has changed in subtle ways with this decision to step away. A constant, through good years and bad, four Grey Cup runs, through Wally Buono’s dynastic era and the F-Troop comedy act, was the familiar image of Pat Clayton, racing onto the field, whatever field the Stampeders happened to be playing on, to tend to the wounded.
So while he might lose his parking spot, but the contributions of nearly 30 years can never be painted over.
“I just felt the timing was correct for me,” Pat Clayton said in summation. “I wanted to some other things that were important. I might have a little control over my own time now.
“And maybe even have a summer. You never know.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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