It might be hard to imagine a 6’3,” 330 pound defenseman clearing the crease in front of an ice hockey goal, but that was the exact career path that Massachusetts Pirates center Thomas Claiborne was on when he was a youngster growing up in Boston. The former Boston College lineman got his first taste of organized sports on the ice.
“I actually did not start playing football until my ladder part of high school,” Claiborne said. I was a hockey kid growing up in the city. My mom signed me up in the inner city league and I played for about eight years. That’s one of the Massachusetts things; you either play hockey, football or basketball. I was never into basketball and when I tried to play Pop Warner they never accepted me because I was either too big for the kids my age or too young for the kids my size, so I found the passion of playing hockey. I played all the way through high school until I was kicked out of games because I was getting too big for the kids that were on the ice. I was a defenseman. That’s when I went over to football. The varsity coach came to me my sophomore year and said I would be his starting defensive tackle. I didn’t know much about football. My brother played and my dad played. I started playing my sophomore year and it’s been love ever since.”
Claiborne grew up in Boston but went to Wellesley from the fourth grade all the way through high school, bussing about 45 minutes from the inner city to the suburbs. It was there he found the support system he needed.
“Wellesley did a good job of molding me and giving me support in school and on the field to be the player I am now,” he said.
Claiborne still talks with pride when he recounts his last high school game against Wellesley’s arch rival, Needham. The annual Thanksgiving Day game dates back to 1882 making it the oldest public high school football rivalry in the country.
“We won my senior year on a big pick six by our QB who also doubled as a safety. It ended the game. It was freezing cold that day as we played in five or six inches of snow. To be a part of that game is very special. It almost feels like a brotherhood or a rite of passage when you go to one of those schools to play in that game. Those are the games you’re always going to talk about. When you go to that game you see the older alumni that come back to be there because of the tradition. It’s a good game to be a part of and a great feeling to win and to bring the trophy back to the school.”
From there he went on to Boston College where he went to bowl games every year and was a part of two ACC Championship games against Virginia Tech. His mom encouraged him to leave the northeast when it came time for college, but Claiborne had other plans.
“We always talked about me traveling. She wanted me to see the world, but I wanted to stay here so that she could be a part of my world. That was one of the biggest things on deciding to go to Boston College. I promised that it wasn’t going to just be about football.”
“I wanted to get a good education wherever I went and have something that could follow me the rest of my life. I knew that if I stayed home and went to a prestigious college like Boston College that I would be OK. I fell in love with the school and the aura around it. Once I started to walk around the campus I knew it was the right place for me. It was a great choice because my whole family got to back me up and be there the whole time. They didn’t have to worry about traveling far to see games. It was good to have that support of family and friends back at home all the way from my high school career though college.”
After college he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the last cut as the team broke camp for the 2011 season. From there it was on to the Arena Football League with stops in Milwaukee in 2012 and Jacksonville the following season. That’s when Claiborne’s story came full circle. He went back to Wellesley and has been working as a teaching assistant for the last three years.
“I love working with kids; it’s rewarding,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like a job. I’m able to provide some help.”
He enjoys it so much he’s currently pursuing his masters to become a guidance counselor and in the spirit of giving back, he’s also coaching.
“I work with the varsity O line and D line. I enjoy being on the field with the guys and the comradery. I went through the program so I know that the tradition still stands. It’s all about Raider pride. There are life lessons that you take with you when you are going down the road. It’s all about having pride in what you do. Having character, being a team player, buying into that type of program. I was thrilled when the coach asked me to come back and to be a part of it.”
But how receptive are today’s players when it comes to hearing his perspective?
“I think they love it,” he offered. One of the biggest things I try to instill in my players is to let them know that I’m not there just to coach them, yell at them and tell them what to do. I’m there to make a relationship that’s going to last throughout their whole career, be it one week, a whole year, or through college and thereafter. The thing that’s good about being a coach who has done it and been at every level is that it gives you a little clout with the kids and they are really receptive because if I could be a small town kid that went to the same school and succeed, it gives them a chance to shoot for the stars and say if he could do it, I can do it. I remember having to work on and off the field getting my grades right when I found out about Boston College and other schools that were interested. It was deeper than just football. You have to be a well-rounded person and that’s one of the messages I try to pass on. It’s all about building character. Who are you when no one’s looking? What are you doing that’s making you a better person?
It seems that the football and life lessons that Claiborne has endured has placed him right where he wants to be, working with kids and playing for the Pirates. Still, Claiborne admits he would have jumped at the chance to take a skate with the Worcester Railers of the ECHL when he first reported to Pirates training camp.
He laughed and said, “The Railers were not around much at the start of the Pirates season. I would have loved to have been on the ice with them a couple times. I don’t think anyone knows I played hockey.”
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