The former cornerback was as nervous as I had ever seen him. He sat, he stood, he walked around the conference room, never comfortable. He smoked one cigarette and then another. I didn't remember him smoking at all.
"Is this something new, the cigarettes?" I asked.
"Yeah," Raymond Clayborn said in a cloud of smoke. "Just about."
I met him when he was a rookie with the New England Patriots in 1977. He was a first-round draft pick, the 16th player chosen in the country, Earl Campbell's former roommate at the University of Texas. In 13 seasons with the Pats and one more with the Cleveland Browns, he developed into a Pro Bowl performer. He became the cornerback the Pats' coaches left alone on one side of the defense, playing single coverage against the game's best receivers, no help needed.
He needed help now.
"This assistant district attorney," Clayborn said. "She's tough. You can see that all she wants to do is win. You go to court, you think they're looking for truth, but that's not it. It's all about winning and losing."
He was charged with attempted murder and assault. The longest afternoons of his life against a Jerry Rice or a Mark Duper or a Steve Largent were nothing compared to this. Attempted murder? He could go directly from this courthouse in Dedham, Mass., to prison for the next 10 to 14 years. There were reasons to be nervous.
"I'm glad you came," he said. "If the situations had been reversed, I would have come for you."
I did not know what to say. I was one of four witnesses called in his defense. How do these things happen? On the night of Nov. 5, 1992, I had run into Clayborn at a nightclub. I knew him in a business sort of way, reporter and athlete, questioner and questioned, but nothing more. I figured later I might have talked to him 100 times during his career, but always in a locker room or parking-lot setting. That night was the first time I had ever seen him outside those areas.
The time was approximately 10:30 at night. I bought him a beer or he bought me a beer. I can't remember. We stood and talked for 20 or 30 minutes on several subjects. He said he was living in Texas, hoping to get into coaching. He was back in town on business. We talked about football and family, about kids and about being divorced. We had a normal, amiable conversation, and then he went one way and I went another.