He has now made the full trek from Martinsville, Virginia to being named the 26th head coach in BC Lions history. For DeVone Claybrooks, that journey hasn’t come without a couple of scary experiences; near-death, if you want to be 100 per cent specific. In August, Claybrooks was rushed to hospital after he was found unconscious by a neighbour in his Calgary home. He would spend 10 days in hospital in serious condition after suffering from severe side-effects from previously un-diagnosed diabetes. Today, Claybrooks cherishes his latest opportunity even more.
“When you’re about to die, you’re in the ICU for nine days, it just puts it into reflection because you’re really just laying there by yourself,” said Claybrooks in an exclusive sit down with bclions.com.
“You really get to reflect on a lot of things and that’s what makes this year even sweeter. To be able to come from that near-death experience to be able to win the Grey Cup and then to be able to become a head coach; I grew up in the south and very religious, my mom would say God had a plan for me, wasn’t done with me yet and it was just the next step in the journey. When something bad happens, it’s because there’s a breakthrough or something is about to manifest. I would really trade that. My health is great now. I lost a little weight, looking a little slim I’ve got three abs instead of two now so we’re working in the right direction.”
At least we know he is bringing a sense of humour to the west coast. Claybrooks, 41, was officially introduced as Lions sideline boss on Tuesday afternoon. As an ex-player and the CFL’s youngest head coach, he prides himself on relating to his men. Claybrooks’ on-field journey came with its own set of obstacles. Anyone who bounced around seven NFL organizations in five years with a playing stint in Europe sandwiched in between, would certainly attest to that. But that also speaks to Claybrooks’ work ethic and willingness to get the job done at all costs.
Before reaching the top of the Grey Cup Mountain in Calgary last month, Claybrooks won a Super Bowl ring as a player with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. That winning pedigree was certainly one of the top attributes which made him the front-runner in the head-coach search.
So what kind of a person are the Lions getting to take over the coaching reigns? For starters, Claybrooks says he’s a country boy through and through. The tilted hat? Chewing tobacco entrenched into his lower lip? Shorts on the sidelines? Those are here to stay. That’s the product of his upbringing in Martinsville where he and his two brothers were raised by their mother Sally and grandparents Joseph and Almeta Claybrooks. We weren’t overly surprised to hear that it wasn’t all about football growing up.
“NASCAR country baby, if it ain’t rubbin’ it ain’t racin’,” boasted Claybrooks of his hometown.
“The crazy part is my grandfather was heavily involved in it growing up. We were in the little pits running around and everything. He was just a country boy with a big thing of dip in his mouth and loved racing and rubbin.’ He was a big man, like 6’6 and 320 (pounds) so it was just a ‘yes sir’ or a ‘no sir’ around him.”
But perhaps the most impressive part of that upbringing was the fact his studies always came first. No matter how important his quest to play college football and later graduate to the pros became, that all came second as he approached graduation.
“My grandparents and my mom were able to understand the importance of education,” explained the new head coach.
“I missed a high school playoff game as a senior because I got two Cs on my report card. We do have that high standard. That’s kind of what I bring. You hold them to a high standard. I’ve never seen anybody win anything with low expectations. I get that now: ‘what do you expect from your team?’ and ‘what are your goals?’ The goal is the damn Grey Cup. That’s the goal and that’s what you strive for. The key to it is implementing the plan and taking the steps to get there. That’s how you work and that’s how you’re successful.”
Just how well-served was the Stampeders defence under Claybrooks these past three seasons? Consider the numbers. From 2016-18, Calgary had 12 CFL All-Stars on his side of the ball, allowed the fewest number of points in each year and this past season, the unit ranked number one in nine of 20 statistical categories while finishing in the top three in four others. It’s safe to say he wants to bring a similar identity to his entire new roster.
“Everything starts with getting after the quarterback,” said Claybrooks.
“We’re going to play together as a unit and that’s going to be on both sides of the ball. We’re not going to self implode. We’re going to have a ball control offence, we want to be able to have a vertical passing game, we want to get after people, we want to be able to set the tempo of what we want to do in all three phases. If we’re able to do that, we’ll be able to keep it a high level and play good football.”
General Manager Ed Hervey stated at his season wrap up press conference he was looking for his new head coach to have “cut his teeth” in the Canadian game. After migrating north to finish his playing career with the Alouettes (2007-08) and Stampeders (2009-11), Claybrooks was immediately named defensive line coach in Calgary. He was then promoted to defensive coordinator for the 2016 season. Not only has he paid his dues, but also the Grey Cup success makes him the perfect fit for what Hervey and management are trying to build on the west coast.
“Clearly, as I see it, he was the best fit for our organization,” explained Hervey.
“As I mentioned, he is someone that has cut his teeth in the CFL. We want to give guys opportunities, whether that’s the second opportunity or first. I feel that giving guys their first opportunity is near and dear to me and especially if they’re qualified to do it. DeVone checks all of the boxes. He was bound to be a head coach in this league and I feel that we’re fortunate to get him and excited about that.”
“This is one of those full circles where Ed and I have talked ball and talked shop,” said Claybrooks of his new boss.
“It’s one of those things where you have one beer and look up and it’s four hours later and you feel a connection and it’s just like I’m talking to my friend. That’s probably the best thing, we have that relationship and it’s actually fairly new and in the infancy stages of it, but for us you can just tell (we have) that connection. It just felt like I have known him forever when I’ve just really gotten to know him.”
In a lot of ways this mirrors Hervey’s first head coaching hire as a GM. Chris Jones arrived in Edmonton prior to 2014 with many of the same credentials. At the end of his second season with Hervey, they were Grey Cup champions. Now the Lions are trying to not only build a similar model for success, but also trying to make sure they sustain it long-term. A lot of that will stem from his new squad playing with that blue-collar Martinsville mind-set.
Oh, and did we mention next year’s Grey Cup is in Calgary?