Why the NFL needs Chase Claypool

The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver outmuscles corners on the field and says what he wants off it. His authenticity sure is refreshing in 2021. Go Long sits down with the rising star.

PITTSBURGH — The great source of hope exits the practice field and takes a seat on a bench along the sideline. As the sun beats down, there’s a cool confidence to his strut.

Chase Claypool is taller than you’d think and loosens the shoelaces on his Air Jordan cleats with freakishly long fingers.

His blond dreads held back in a headband, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver takes off his gloves and cuts to the chase.

“I put myself in positions where I know there’s going to be controversy,” Claypool says. “But I also know you can’t please everybody. It’s not my job to please anybody.”

Which is unbelievably refreshing. Which is a beautiful departure from the new status quo.

To recap, we’re a nation obsessed with feelings and, sadly, it’s gotten out of control. The same charade plays out daily, chip, chip, chipping away at our collective dignity. What a person says, too often, elicits more vitriol than a crime a person actually commits. You know the drill. Act 1: Words offend someone. Act 2: That someone lights a match by complaining on social media. Act 3: The wildfire spreads. Everyone online gets on-board, too. God forbid risk being banished to the cornfield themselves.

What happens next, in Act 4, is always worse than backlash itself.

Whoever incited the riot — no matter how benign, how innocuous the comment — issues a public apology. A video. A note. A tweet of some sort that’s loaded with empty calories. “Teaching moment” blathering. You can’t help but chuckle because it’s not like the offended will then wrap you in a big bear hug, no, they still hate you. They still keep you in that cornfield and then, 24 hours later, move on to someone else. Round ‘n round we go, deeper ‘n deeper into an abyss of insanity. Multi-million- and billion-dollar companies all live in fear of trending on Twitter, thus coalesce with whatever’s deemed hip in the moment.

Ah, 2021.

Of course, sports are forever a microcosm of society, so the NFL is no different. It does not matter that football is the most violent sport on earth. If a player acts like a big meanie, you better believe their phone immediately sets on fire and a crisis management team is assembled. Most players are afraid to be honest and, given how sensitive people are, it’s hard to blame them. Saying sweet nothings into a mic saves the aggravation.

Right here, however, is a glimmer of hope because, guess what? Claypool will not apologize. Claypool will play a game, and have fun doing it. This season, he’s the spicy marinade his team needs. The Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1) are right in the thick of the AFC playoff picture again with a colossal game Sunday night against the Los Angeles Chargers (5-4) at SoFi Stadium. Beyond, hopefully Claypool’s style toughens everyone up.

Lord knows we need it.

“Obviously society has grown very, very soft,” Claypool says, “with what we can and cannot say.

“I always say if the ‘Bad Boys,’ the Pistons, had social media in today’s world, it’d be a world crisis. No one could handle that. So I’m like, if I tweet something or say something that’s not that malicious — and people take it seriously — there’s nothing I can do. You can’t please everyone.”

He was born in 1998, nearly a decade after the Bad Boys’ reign but, of course, Claypool is 100 percent correct. One Bill Laimbeer clothesline would trigger universal boycotts of any business he’s ever supported. One Rick Mahorn soundbite would banish him to the Antarctica Basketball Association.

This receiver is wise beyond his years. We should all listen up.

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On the field, he’s flashing star potential. The Steelers drafted Claypool in the second round (49th overall) out of Notre Dame and his amalgam of gifts — 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, 4.42 speed, 80-inch wingspan — made him an instant success. In his fourth pro game, Claypool scored four touchdowns. He had 13 in all last season and, through injuries, has 29 receptions for 433 yards with one touchdown this season. The 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger may be on his last breath as a starting quarterback but has found success shotputting jump balls to Claypool. This season, the Abbotsford, Canada native has been good for an acrobatic grab nearly each week.

And after a scary toe injury against Chicago sidelined him against Detroit, Claypool returned to practice this week.

Yet, his impact is not quantified in a box score. Claypool gives the entire offense a distinct attitude.

Beloved in Pittsburgh, he’s loathed in Cleveland. After the Browns stunned the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card last season — racing to a 35-7 lead, before winning 48-37 — Claypool said on TikTok that the Browns “would get clapped next week” against the Chiefs, “so it’s all good.” Friends and family texted him. They thought it was hilarious. Claypool then doubled down in saying in another video that “if the Browns had won with more class” then he “wouldn’t have been so salty.”

Browns fans were not amused and neither were players. Adrian Clayborn told him to go on vacation. Myles Garrett said it felt good to hurt the receivers’ feelings.

A new villain was born.

No doubt, Claypool fully expected to hear from fans when the Steelers played in Cleveland this season. He estimates he saw roughly 50 middle fingers through the 15-10 win. And after the Steelers exacted some revenge, yes, Claypool posted the “All bark, no bite” photo of himself flashing a peace sign to a fan flipping him the bird.

“When we lost against the Browns in the playoffs, they rubbed it in our face,” Claypool says here at the practice field. “That’s completely fine. As they should. They beat us in the playoffs, celebrate your win. Do it however you want. Just know, when we win, I will be up in your face, too.”

He pauses.

“In a friendly way.”

He promises to “never give in” and assures the Steelers are letting him do his thing. They don’t act like smothering parents, tisk-tisking him for any perceived indiscretion. When the Steelers stammered to a 1-3 start earlier this season, naturally, the time Claypool tweeted “Losing? Never heard of her” last season went viral. As the receiver points out, the Steelers were actually 7-0 (not 11-0) when he posted that, so everyone clamoring on and on that the Steelers were “2-8 since” were way off.

“Everyone got the facts wrong,” he says. “I didn’t really care because I thought it was a good tweet back then and I think it’s a good tweet now. People still talk about it. If people expect me to be undefeated the rest of my career, you’re kidding yourself. I knew when I tweeted that, it’d come up at some point.”

His response to the uproar was perfect.

And he proceeded to torch Denver for 130 yards and a touchdown.

What he’s most proud of on that list is buying his family a house. When Claypool was a senior in high school, he and his mother moved into a tiny townhome. So, upon heading to Notre Dame, he didn’t think it made much sense for her to live by herself. Jasmine took the spare room at his place and, whenever Claypool did return home from college, he’d stay in one of his mother’s friends’ basements. His Draft Party was held at an Airbnb.

Putting a roof over Mom’s head was as gratifying as it gets.

“She’s always been there,” Claypool says. “We’ve been through a lot. Ups and downs.”

Growing up in the British Columbia, Claypool never dreamt of the NFL. He did karate, gymnastics and BMX’ed until his legs no longer fit underneath the handlebars. When he got into football, the CFL was his goal. Just as Abbotsford feels like a faraway land to us, the NFL was not even conceivable to him as a kid. Claypool always envisioned pro football players below the border as “different animals.”  

Quickly, he became an animal himself.

Claypool played running back for seven years as a youth before moving to wide receiver in high school. How he beat the odds to bust onto the American football scene, to him, is simple: He never makes the same mistake twice. Be it a joke that crossed the line in school or a sloppy route on the field, he says he’s in a constant state of “growth.” On one RPO vs. Seattle this season, Claypool didn’t look for the ball until it was too late. At Cleveland, Roethlisberger went right back to him and he was ready.

The freakish stature doesn’t hurt, either.

Claypool’s size and Combine numbers are strikingly similar to that of Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson. His quarterback at Notre Dame, Ian Book, brings up the “Megatron” comp unsolicited because he remembers Claypool making his life so, so easy. If the Irish had a run play called and Book noticed a single-high safety, he audibled to a deep shot. In the pros, Roethlisberger can now obviously do the same thing as defenses load up to stop rookie back Najee Harris.

There’s a offensive formula that can still work in Pittsburgh.

Maybe Roethlisberger is a shell of himself, but lobbing it up to Claypool is a fine plan.

Says Book: “It was never a 50-50 ball. It was 90-10.”

Further, Book says that Claypool “plays angry, plays mean.” He remembers Notre Dame’s wide receivers coach, Del Alexander, challenging him as a run blocker. Claypool embraced it. Soon enough, he was crushing defensive backs.

“I don’t think he realized how strong and powerful he was until he got on the field and just started dominating everybody,” says Book, now a backup quarterback with the New Orleans Saints. “His run block tape is ridiculous. Some people would draft him just off that alone. The football field is a good place for a lot of people to just… you’ve got to let out anger. And you have to do it in a smart, safe way but, shoot, we’ve got pads on. It’s about running at people at full speed and tackling them. People like that. It attracts people to the game. Chase is one of those guys.

“He drove someone into the end zone and stood over him. It was a pretty good corner he was going against — I think he plays in the league. With Chase, that’s when it really started to peak that he’d be an aggressive run blocker.”

Practices were often more cutthroat than games, too. Specifically, 1-on-1 drills with DBs.

“He didn’t take shit from anybody,” Book says. “He’s so kind and seems so gentle off the field. And then on the field, he changes his mentality.”

And this is precisely why the Steelers’ entire receiving corps is dangerous. It’s easy to see JuJu Smith-Schuster’s activity on social media and think he’s just another soft product of Generation Z. Same for Claypool. Whenever Claypool posts anything, he’s flooded with “Shouldn’t you be at practice?” and “You should be focused” responses from fans.

In truth, the wide receivers aren’t that different than the linebackers in Pittsburgh — they’re tough as hell. They seek and destroy.  

For starters, Claypool doesn’t care what anybody says. It’s amusing to him.

“Social media’s super brave because I’ll never have the courage to hate on someone who’s more successful than me,” Claypool says. “I’m not saying people can’t have their opinions, but I’d never hate on Tom Brady. I’d never hate on Ben. I can’t hate on people who have done more than me. So I don’t let people who’ve done less affect my mental state. Because I’m proud of what I’ve done. But for the players, they perceive me as a goofy guy. So maybe it sneaks up on them.

“All the players I go up against say, ‘I didn’t know you were this big or this tall.’”

Smith-Schuster, who’s on IR, is perceived by many opponents as somewhat of a clown. All of the pregame dancing at midfield came back to bite the wideout last December, of course, when Bengals safety Vonn Bell rocked him to force a fumble — and Bell assured afterward that the dancing was a motivating factor. Still, the Real JuJu is someone who grew up playing rugby and was suspended for the entire regular season after clotheslining a kid… who once was knocked out cold for 30 to 35 seconds with a concussion in high school and played the next week… who Rivals.com once rated as the No. 2 safety in the nation ahead of current Seahawks’ headhunter Jamal Adams… who also rarely ever takes medicine to numb pain. Seriously. Smuth-Schuster only takes ibuprofen in the most extreme cases.

Smith-Schuster believes his Samoan heritage makes him “a more mean, physical person.”

(To learn more, here’s a story from our conversation a couple years back.)

And Claypool? He’s essentially a blood brother. He has played through pain his entire life and, just this season, gritted through a Grade 2 hamstring pull that throbbed far more than anyone in the building knew. It’s no shock he’s bouncing back this quickly from the toe injury.

Like Smith-Schuster, he’ll change for no one, too.

Anyone hoping Claypool transforms into a cyborg that’ll shut up, perform for their fantasy teams and shut up again will be disappointed.

He loathes a world in which everyone operates as a police officer online, waiting to pounce and shame.

In a sport full of opponents exchanging jerseys and posing for Instagram pictures together, he wants more hostility.

“It’s almost like you can’t have rivalries anymore,” Claypool says. “Everyone has to be friendly with each other. Trash talk hasn’t changed too much. It’s just that social media covers it more. If the ‘Bad Boys’ had social media — if they had social media back in the day — I don’t think we would react the same as we are now. Back then. It’s something that is definitely a problem. I hope it’s a phase that society is going through. But it’s not something that will affect me. I’ll never read a tweet and take it personal. As soon as you take a tweet personal, that’s when you have to look at yourself in the mirror — ‘Where did you go left when you should’ve went right?’”

After that Browns slight last postseason, Claypool was advised to backpedal. He did. He regrets it.

He vows to stand by everything here on out.

“If you backpedal,” he explains, “you’ll get more hate for that. And you can’t please everyone.

“I’ll never backpedal.”

We can all fully expect more from someone who — before playing an NFL down — went after Deshaun Watson for ripping Notre Dame. Claypool promised to rush off the edge as a defensive end whenever he faced the QB. Believe it or not, Claypool actually does have friends on the Browns team, training with a few in the offseason. Not that those relationships loosen the tension at all. That playoff loss stung so much that he wants to beat down the Browns the rest of his career.

“I’ll always want to rub it in the fan base’s face because we have that tension,” he adds, “and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And I don’t think Coach T would be like, ‘Hey, man. You’re taking it too far.’ He doesn’t hate that.”

Without question, head coach Mike Tomlin has built his team on such healthy tension. Conversations between players and coaches, here, are just… rougher. Tomlin wants gnarly tough love baked into the fabric of the franchise and, in truth, that’s been the case from Jack Lambert to Greg Lloyd to James Harrison to today. The identity of the team has always reflected the city.

Claypool is not only physically tough.

When he says his family’s been through a lot, holy, he means it. He was forged in (unimaginable) fire when — in October 2011 — his older sister committed suicide. Claypool’s been open on the subject in the past but chooses not to go there today. Simply, he says his goal in life is to make the people around him proud. His Mom. His Dad. His brothers. That whole experience clearly gave him a perspective on what truly matters in life and what does not.

He’s got a shot at a special NFL career. Book believes Claypool could be the next Megatron for one simple reason: “He can do pretty much everything.” Yet, Claypool will never be one-dimensional.

He’s a gamer. He cannot wait to travel next offseason. He relishes a heated card game of Bourré with vets in the Steelers locker room. He’s trying to start his own clothing company with a couple of artists, one that somehow incorporates “storytelling.” Claypool envisions 10- or 15-second videos in which clothing itself tells a story.

Also, one of the main reasons he chose Notre Dame over other schools was to have friends outside of the sport. To this day, his best friends are what he calls “NARPs” — Non-Athletic Regular People. His college roommate is an investment banker in New York. Another friend works in Houston. Another is in New Jersey.

Hanging out with all of them keeps him grounded. More than anything, Claypool hates it when people don’t treat him like a normal person. When others put him up on a pedestal, he says it actually gives him anxiety. From Canada to South Bend to Pittsburgh, he has never viewed himself as anything special. Period. He’s just a 23-year-old buying some milk at the grocery store. Claypool grew up on skim but cannot taste the difference. When he opens that cooler, his choice is simple.

“Whatever has the longest expiration date.”

No amount of shaming on social media will affect him. Expect more fun. After that four-touchdown game, his buddy Hank Assaf made a hilarious, Brady-themed meme that he shared. After an upset win over the Bills, he dropped a “Circle the Wagons” that led to new faction of fans detesting him.

He’ll talk trash on the field, have fun off it and refuse to take himself too seriously. That’s what everyone seems to appreciate most, too. His raw authenticity.

Then again, Chase Claypool is young. There’s plenty of time for him to get jaded. As his star rises, wouldn’t it be natural to… change? To become another watered-down, cliched lemming afraid of backlash?

He cuts in.

“I could have a billion dollars and I’ll never change. I know that for a fact.”

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