A framed photo of Muhammad Ali hangs on a wall in the Calabasas High football coaching office. Head coach Chris Claiborne says the photo reminds him of “how you’re on the earth to serve. He inspires me every day.”
Claiborne, 41, was once known as the best high school football player in California. He graduated from Riverside North in 1996 as an All-American linebacker, then was the Butkus Award winner as the best college linebacker while at USC in 1998, becoming a first-round draft choice in 1999.
Twenty years later, Claiborne is proving to be an inspiration by deciding to return to classes at USC to obtain his bachelor’s degree in sociology.
“I just wanted to get it done,” said the husband and father of three children. “I knew there was an invisible ceiling on me by not having that degree. I wanted to get it off me.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he travels from USC to Calabasas with a backpack that holds his books. His players marvel at his commitment to finish what he started and to balance many responsibilities.
“Seeing him get his degree is inspiring,” quarterback Jaden Casey said. “It’s fun to see him going through what we have to do.”
On Monday morning, Claiborne was doing homework for a political science class. He’s also working on two research projects. He played for eight years in the NFL and said he invested well, but he has aspirations of coaching at a higher level. He doesn’t want someone to look at his resume and find he never graduated from college.
Also, he said, “I wasn’t doing it for me anymore but for my family, and showing the kids how to finish.”
His mother and father are deceased, but he said they would have been proud. His mother was a mathematician and his father was in the Marines for 30 years.
Three years ago, Claiborne took two classes at Fullerton College to show USC he was serious about earning his degree. Then he started taking classes at USC last year.
“Me and the teacher were the oldest in the classroom every day,” he said. “When you’re talking about social issues in class, some are oblivious to what led up until now. They don’t have a clue what’s going on in the past, and it’s important that they understand the past so they understand the future.”
Claiborne said, in class, he’s just another student.
“I just wanted to learn,” he said. “I wanted to contribute in class my ideas. No one knew who I was.”
He has used his return to college as a learning experience for his players.
“There’s two lessons in it,” he said. “I went to the league but still had to come back and get the education done. Guys will go to college and maybe have the chance to make that choice but understand I could have taken care of it earlier.”
He tries to pass along his experiences to players, such as a recommendation that they enjoy what’s happening in high school instead of being in a hurry to get to the next level.
“Enjoy the moment,” he said. “Enjoy high school. They’re so looking forward to college, they don’t understand when you get there, it is business. Some of the things you’re able to do in high school you won’t be able to do in college. We just want to build good dudes. It’s very important to be a good guy. When you leave, if you’re not a good guy, you won’t survive anyway.”
One of Claiborne’s assistant coaches, Curtis Conway, married Muhammad Ali’s daughter, Laila, so Claiborne gets to hear stories about the heavyweight boxing champion.
“Just a great man,” Claiborne said.
Calabasas is 5-2 and has a bye this week. The Coyotes are in the running for a Division 1 playoff berth. Claiborne, a former assistant at Long Beach Poly and Westlake Village Oaks Christian, said he didn’t know whether he’d be coaching in high school, college or the pros this time next year. But he does know what he’ll be doing in December.
“I’m excited about graduation,” he said.
He plans to flash the two-finger USC “Fight On” salute. And purchase a USC license plate.
“I never put a USC license plate on my car because I never deserved it,” he said. “I had to earn it.”