Ask Thomas Claiborne what motivates him, what keeps him going and his answer will be simple: "Winning a championship."
This answer, this goal, is what helped him get through the toughest day of his career: September. 3, 2011, they day he was cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, just five days before the new NFL season started: "It was a hard pill to swallow", Claiborne recalls. "But it also made me understand that as a professional football player, I can never give up. It is all just business and I am happy I made it as far as I did, because most people only dream about it. Those times made me realize I can play at the highest level."
Now, almost a decade later, Claiborne is enjoying a completely different experience as he is back in his home state, continuing his chase after that championship. A standout player in Wellesley High School, just 35 miles from the Massachusetts Pirates' DCU Center, Claiborne went on to play for Boston College, during some terrific times for the Eagles.
In his freshman season (2007), BC, led by quarterback and future NFL MVP Matt Ryan, reached the ACC Championship Game. The next year Claiborne had a bigger role and the team made it all the way to the title game once more. But on both occasions, Virginia Tech was in the Eagles' way. Last year, he and the Pirates entered the postseason with the NAL's best record and lost in the semifinals. Claiborne, as he said, is not the kind of guy who would just give up.
"I still have the drive to play and to do it as a pro, in front of my home crowd in Massachusetts, is something really special. I want to win and I want to do it in my state." He speaks with great passion about his legacy, about the things he wants to leave behind the day he decides to hang up his cleats and the way he wants to be remembered as a player and a teammate: "When you are done playing, nobody looks at how much money you've made or the places you traveled. They only see the things you accomplished."
He always looks at the bigger picture and that is also why Claiborne likes to keep himself busy, extremely busy ("But good busy, the kind that keeps me young and energetic"). Next month he will graduate from UMass Boston with a Master's Degree in Education. Back in his Boston College days, one of the most important lessons he learned was that he must prepare himself for the life that is waiting after the game. He says it is part of the school's culture, next to the techniques and skills that you learn from your coaches on the field: "I faced many tests there, passed them and grew up as a person. I am studying for my degree so I can do the same thing for the next generation. When I am done playing, I want to work in a school and change the life of youth in America."
Actually, Claiborne is already working at a school: He coaches football at his old high school in Wellesley. He loves sharing the knowledge he gained during his long professional career and work with the kids, who see him and dream about the day they will also be playing football for a living: "Football is not just remembering the playbook. It is also being on the field with your guys, going to meetings and camps and creating strong connections. I teach the kids how to appreciate every moment of this and it helps them get ready for their real lives, after high school."
And yes, he is very much able to enjoy the irony of being on the other side of the lines: "Kids… Well, players in general, are knuckleheads and when you are the coach, you suddenly see that. They sometimes drive me crazy, but they are like my kids. I will always love them, no matter what. I am proud when I see them progress."
Claiborne missed the first two games of the season, home and away games against Carolina, but the skilled center was back on the field when the Pirates hosted Orlando in week three. The team needed him very much and he knows that. He feels like a leader and enjoys his role. It is his second season with the team and last year, he was a major force for the best offense in the league and an offensive line which allowed the fewest sacks throughout the season. "I know what is expected from our team by the owners and I can share that knowledge with the younger players and teach them how to have long careers and cherish every moment."
As one of the team's leaders, he has a voice in the locker room; someone who makes sure the coaches' philosophy is understood; someone who is always happy to answer the phone and give a teammate advice about a nice restaurant in the area, or whatever is necessary; a "big brother", as he sees himself. "I want the players to know that they are representing a brand, the Massachusetts Pirates and the owners who really care about us and want us to win every game. I take care of our guys."
He learned that, as well as many more things, from his two role models: Warren Sapp and his brother. He met Sapp at that Buccaneers preseason camp in 2011 and was amazed when the ex-NFL star knew his name and shook his hand: "He was very supportive and said a few kind words. He did some big things on the field."
His brother, a pastor, can be seen (and heard) in the stands during Pirates home games. He never misses one ("Yes, pastors can trash talk too", says Thomas, laughing). They are very close and Claiborne knows that his brother is the one who always kept him in the right direction, in the good and the bad times: "He also had NFL dreams, but got injured. I see the life outside of football through him, and he lives the game through me."
The Massachusetts Pirates are members of the National Arena League (NAL). The Pirates play all home games at the DCU Center located at 50 Foster St. Worcester, MA. 01608. For more information on the Massachusetts Pirates please call (508) 452-MASS (6277), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.masspiratesfootball.com. Single game tickets are available online at ticketmaster.com or the DCU Center Box Office. For group outings please call 508 452 MASS(6277). Follow the Pirates on Facebook at Facebook.com/MAPirates on Instagram @mass.pirates, as well as Twitter @mass_pirates.