Dallas Cowboys

From bust to breaking out: Cowboys’ Claiborne ready to rise again

Cornerback Morris Claiborne appears to be back in the playmaking business for the Dallas Cowboys.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne appears to be back in the playmaking business for the Dallas Cowboys. rmallison@star-telegram.com

Injured and performing badly. Depressed over the death of his father the year before and the pressure of a newborn.

The added challenge of losing his starting job for a second time was simply too much to take for Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne.

So he got up and stormed out of the locker room, missing the walk-through practice.

“That point. That overall. That whole month, the months going into that. Once one thing happened, everything started snowballing from on-the-field stuff to off-the-field issues and stuff like that,” he said. “Around that area and that time was like the lowest for me. I thought I couldn’t shake it. I definitely felt the weight of it.”

That was Sept. 23, 2014.

Two years later, Claiborne’s voice still trembles when he talks about that day and that moment, but the more he talks the stronger it gets, followed by a smile.

All the anger and frustration he felt has dissipated. He no longer questions whether this game is for him.

He’s happy mentally, thanks to the never-ending support and daily motivation from his girlfriend, Jennifer Jones.

And he’s finally healthy after four years of constant injuries.

Not only does Claiborne believe those days are over, but the former so-called draft bust says it’s his time to shine.

“Yes, this is a new beginning, man,” Claiborne said. “I’m just trying to stay on top of this body. Stay healthy. Stay on top of everything. Go have fun. Keep a smile on my face and go do it. It’s just two games. Just trying to make this game better than the last one”

And what a two games it has been.

Claiborne has more than held his own in back-to-back games against teams with two of the league’s most talented receiving corps, the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.

He has given the Cowboys a glimpse of what they thought they were getting when they traded up from the 14th spot and took him sixth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, while fostering hope that he will finally live up to those expectations.

“I’m happy for him,” Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said. “We have always liked him. It was just a matter of availability and staying healthy. The biggest thing for him is confidence. He had his best off-season ever, certainly had a great training camp. He is starting to look like the player we thought we were going to get when we drafted him. It’s only going to get better with Mo.”

It certainly couldn’t get any worse as far as Claiborne is concerned.

He has been to the bottom where he questioned everything.

He will never forget the day he walked out of the Cowboys’ locker room and then had to come back in and face his teammates.

“That was one of the hardest things I had to do,” Claiborne said. “Standing up in front of those guys, apologizing to them for walking out. It didn’t mean that I was walking out on them.”

Claiborne just felt trapped. He was frustrated and angry. He didn’t think anybody understood what he was going through.

He wondered if football was for him because of all the bad luck, but he never wanted to quit.

“It was a tough stretch,” Claiborne said. “I went through some tough times. I had to find a way to shake it. It can get to you. But you have to keep going.”

Claiborne was able to weather the storm and keep going largely because of Jennifer Jones, who propped him up spiritually, mentally and physically.

She fed him. She consoled him. She carried him.

“I thank God for her every single day,” Claiborne said. “When I couldn’t walk around with the two knee surgeries, she was basically my legs. She handled everything. She picked me up if I needed to be taken around the house. She was up late with me, not going to sleep. She never complained. She always had my back.”

It was Jennifer Jones who was with Claiborne every day during training camp, not just on family day like many of the other spouses or significant others. Even though she had to stay in a room on the side of the hotel away from the players and they could only see each other a few hours a day, between meetings and after meetings, Claiborne said it was important for her to be there.

He credits her with keeping him positive and away from negativity, especially on social media.

“She hears all the criticism,” Claiborne said. “I can go on my tablet, my game folder. I probably have a letter or something in there from her. I can be in the meeting room just sitting there, getting ready to flip the page and it’s a note laying there from her. A Bible verse or ‘I love you’ saying how proud of me she is. Something to make me smile or brighten me up.”

Jennifer Jones said the first thing they did was put God first. That included praying day and night and reading scripture together every morning.

“It’s hard. Sometimes you have the world against you,” Jennifer Jones said. “If you not living up to the fans, they will down-talk him on Twitter or Instagram. I will sneak in his note pad and write a note so when reads it in his meeting he can laugh. Or if he is having a bad day he can smile to let him know I’m always behind him, which I am 100 percent. I always cook every day. To make sure he is healthy and eating. If he has had a bad day, I do anything to make him laugh. As long as he has me, he is good. We will find a way.”

Claiborne has seemingly found a way.

He is back in the starting lineup and getting a chance to shine largely because Orlando Scandrick, who replaced him in 2014 resulting in the infamous walkout, has been slowed by hamstring strains to both legs.

But consider that Claiborne has missed 24 games in his career because of injuries: one as a rookie 2012, six in 2013, 12 in 2014 and five in 2015.

The list of injuries he has endured include a fractured wrist before his first minicamp with the Cowboys and a sprained knee, dislocated shoulder and hamstring injuries in 2013. He suffered a separated shoulder and a potentially career-threatening torn left patella tendon in 2014. He had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee following the season, which is why Jones had to carry him around the house. There were hamstring and ankle injuries in 2015.

So when anyone points to his success and confidence so far this season, it all stems from his being healthy and being able to practice every day for the first time in his career.

“There’s no question. His toughness of mind is off the charts,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “That’s hard. Come in with great expectations on you, you don’t meet them early. But he just comes out and keeps practicing, because he’s got talent. He’s loaded with talent and he’s a good guy and he competes. Just keep working.”

Scandrick, tight end Jason Witten, linebacker Sean Lee, cornerback Brandon Carr and receiver Dez Bryant all spoke their praises of Claiborne.

“Experiences can make or break you,” Bryant said. “They made him. They made him a better football player. He could have quit. But he didn’t do that. He has battled from a lot, physically and mentally. When you see a guy do that, you’ve got to give him credit. He is a beast. He wants to be heard.”

Claiborne could have left the Cowboys as a free agent in the off-season. He stayed on a one-year deal because he wanted to start anew here and hopefully earn a long-term contract extension.

“I wanted to come back here,” Claiborne said. “I feel like I owe a lot to this organization. I know I haven’t reached those high expectations yet. But I’m still on it. My goal is to reach those high expectations.

“I know I’m everything they thought I would be. Only time will tell.”

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