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Claiborne taking his game to BC

Size, dedication excel on gridiron

He remembers being a little boy watching from the stands, following his father's football moves.

The Charlestown Townies, a semipro team, were on the field, and Thomas Claiborne enjoyed seeing his father play. Then suddenly, the action stopped.

His dad was hurt. Claiborne says he will never forget helping his father off the field with a career-ending injury.

Claiborne was just 7 years old, but he learned in no uncertain terms that the torch was being passed to him.

Today, he's 17 and considered one of the top graduating high school football players in New England. He will go from Wellesley High to Boston College in the fall on a full scholarship, a decision he notified BC of in February. ''I knew that he had a future ahead of him, because he had a lot of heart and determination," said his father, Thomas Claiborne Sr., who recalls telling his son that day a decade ago that he would carry on the family's football tradition. ''I look forward to seeing him accomplish more great things."

The younger Claiborne, a Mattapan native, arrived in Wellesley as he was entering the fourth grade, taking advantage of the Metco program, which buses urban minority youths to suburban schools.

His first football lessons came from his brother David, who played linebacker for Lexington High School. Thomas -- who from an early age was always one of the biggest kids in his classes, too big, in fact, to play Pop Warner with those in his age group -- remembers David running him through agility drills usually reserved for smaller players.

''This is the reason that I am quick and can catch and do other things," said the younger brother, who now stands 6 feet 3 inches and weighs 350 pounds.

''I ended up kicking my sophomore, junior, and senior year," he said, speaking of a position usually filled by smaller, quicker players. ''I even ended up playing tight end senior year."

Still, when his freshman year arrived at Wellesley High, Claiborne was anything but a finished product. He was also coming off a serious injury, having broken six bones in his ankle as an eighth-grader.

''I didn't know if I could play or not," Claiborne said. ''I was scared."

Then came the first day of tryouts.

''It was hot, like 85 degrees," Claiborne said. ''I threw up. I was sweating. I was crying. I was doing everything. I can remember me and some of the other big guys lying flat on the ground."

Painful as it was, Claiborne finished practice that day and every day after that, taking his conditioning one day at a time, with an eye out for the bigger picture.

''Every day you just get better and better," he said.

Claiborne also found a mentor in Ron Slayman, a former Metco student who had moved to Wellesley. Slayman, a senior, helped the freshman adjust to his new surroundings.

''All of the coaches realized that if he continued to improve, he could develop into a special player, which he did," said Wellesley High head coach Bill Tracey.

The first breakthrough came when Claiborne was a sophomore. In his first varsity game, he started at defensive tackle and remembers being surprised at the speed of the action.

''It was so fast," he said. ''I had never seen anything like that before in my life."

Wellesley was playing Newton North, and Claiborne was locked in an intense one-on-one battle with one of the top offensive linemen in the Bay State Conference, Matt Frankel, who went on to play for Brown University. Claiborne held his own and was complimented by Frankel afterward.

''I remember him coming to me after the game and saying, 'What grade are you in again?' " Claiborne said. '' 'I'm a senior, and you're about the only competition I've had in this league.' "

Claiborne's confidence was high, his physical conditioning kept improving, and he began to be noticed. During Bay State League All-Star voting in Thomas's sophomore year, his name was mentioned, though he wasn't named an All-Star, Tracey said.

The next year, Claiborne came back to the field with a vengeance: He captured the league All-Star honors, respect from opposing coaches and players, admiration from fans and teammates alike, and attention from colleges around the country.

He was an All-Star again this fall and was named to the All-State team. He has also emerged as a top-caliber discus thrower.

His father graduated from West Roxbury High School in 1980. While there, he played four years of varsity football under coach Leo Sybertz. He also played in the 1980 Shriners East-West football game, and he finished third in the state shot put meet that year.

''I am very proud of Thomas's achievements," said his father. ''I'm proud that he has surpassed my achievements in football and track and field."

Support from his family, teammates, and classmates, coupled with a propensity for hard work, put Claiborne on a plateau that few ever reach.

''It took a lot of blood and sweat to stick with it," he said. ''But I did it."

Claiborne works part time as a vacuum cleaner salesman and as a tour guide at Fenway Park. He speaks some German and Spanish and has also worked as a counselor at a Boston summer camp. He plans to study communications at BC.

Claiborne has learned about guiding youth and enriching the community that has given him much support.

He feels lucky that people did the same for him, as his brother did in teaching him football or as Ron Slayman did in taking him under his wing.

So Claiborne dedicates himself to doing the same for the next generation.

''To me, it's all about giving back to the community, some way, somehow," he said. ''The minute you don't give back is the minute it will reverse on you."

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