Spagnola: Never, Ever Has There Been More Meaning To Mo' Better

FRISCO, Texas – The smile these days is high wattage. Electric, in fact.So gratifying to see if you've taken the time to get to know him just a little bit. So deserving. So refreshing.

Morris Claiborne finally is that Morris Claiborne before the 2012 NFL Draft. That hardworking, talented kid from Shreveport, La., who lit up the SEC while at LSU. Whose talent would cause 102,000 people in Death Valley to rise in anticipation when he trotted out in place to return kickoffs.

Yeah, that guy, the Dallas Cowboys' sixth pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. The same one so many have wanted to pick on over the previous four years, wanted to get rid of, his career seemingly stuck in this valley of mediocrity.

"I feel like that player (at LSU) again. I feel like I have confidence, that I can go out and play with anybody. I feel like I can cover any receiver, and there's not even a little doubt in my mind that I can't," said 'Mo' the other day in the Ford Center.

And he smiles, one screaming of relief, as if to say, well, finally.

Sure, it's only two games into the 2016 NFL season, with the glare of Sunday Night Football coming up at 7:30 p.m. when the Dallas Cowboys (1-1) meet the Chicago Bears (0-2) at AT&T Stadium on national TV. He'll most assuredly be a storyline during that broadcast, and deservedly so. If not for Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee being, well, Sean Lee, leading the team with 25 tackles, the narrative about a suspect Cowboys defense coming into the season would be this:

Morris Claiborne has been the best, most consistent Cowboys player on defense through the offseason, through training camp, through preseason and through the first two games of the season.

Hands down.

"He's a great guy, he's a heckuva guy, and he's smart and he's committed," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said of Mo, having been with him since 2013. "He comes to work every day, so you love to see that."

Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett nearly gets emotional when talking of Claiborne's journey, and those of us who have gotten to know him, do, too, me especially included. Like, who isn't a fan of one of those redemption stories, the guy who, no matter what, hasn't given up when so many have been slinging arrows at him from afar.

"We're all just real proud of him, the approach that he's taken to fight through different adversities," Garrett began the other day. "Guys can go away, say too many injuries, too this, too many that. But Mo has hung in there, he's kept fighting.

"I believe he's gotten hardened – hardened as a player, hardened as a person – in a really good way. He's a tougher guy now than he was because of the experiences he's had, and again, I think that's showing up on the field for us."

With the Cowboys beginning the first two games of this season in nickel defense, Claiborne has started both. And now, with cornerback Orlando Scandrick battling two balky hamstrings in his return from last year's season-ending ACL surgery, Mo is the starting left corner. Played 100 percent of the defensive snaps for the first time in eons this past Sunday in the 27-23 victory over Washington. Is expected to start Sunday against the Bears in place of Scandrick, the guy who took his starting spot late in the 2013 season, a huge defensive test for the Cowboys with electric Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery roaming through their secondary.

Mo played so well against the Redskins, when Garrett awarded his little mind-bromide T-shirts for jobs well done, called "Identity Tees," Claiborne the other day was proudly wearing the one given him:

Physical.

"The coaches saw me as physical in the last game," he said, knowing he had seven tackles against Washington, second only to Lee's 10. "I'm just taking advantage of now. I'm healthy now, and I'm doing everything in my power to stay healthy."

That is the key: He's healthy NOW. He might have said finally. It's almost too painful to even ask Claiborne to recount the trials and tribulations he's been through since he arrived as an early-out rookie in 2012, with high expectations draped over the very humble kid who played his high school ball at Fair Park in Shreveport. Don't forget, Claiborne was a First Team All-America cornerback in 2011 at LSU. He was voted the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Won the Jim Thorpe Award as the country's top defensive back. Was a Nagurski Award finalist.

Darn right the Cowboys traded up eight spots to take him with the sixth pick in the draft. Remember Mo and his family proudly making their way through The Ranch when he came in for his post-draft interview. His dad was beaming. Mo was likeably engaging, just open. So, well, Louisiana, if I may.

Then came the clouds. Almost immediately. Storm clouds. Persistent storm clouds.
First, before even practicing, wrist surgery, and the Cowboys knew he needed that all along before trading up those eight spots to nab Pro Football Weekly's No. 2-ranked player on the board, behind only Andrew Luck. Then came training camp, Mo missing time with a sprained knee. Then a concussion during his rookie season.

The next year, once again robbed of training camp practice time. Sprained knee, missed three full weeks of training camp. Then dislocated his shoulder in the season opener, forcing him to play the entire year with a shoulder harness to keep everything in place until postseason surgery.

But that wasn't all. Missed two games with a hamstring injury, too. Then four more with a hamstring injury, and in the middle of all that was dealt an emotional blow, a broken heart of sorts: Within a week's time his dad, Robert Owens, age 64, passed away on Dec. 4 and his daughter, Madison, was born. Lost his starting job through all that.
The storm clouds would not dissipate.

[embeddedad0]Knee tendinitis in 2014 robbed him of most of training camp and preseason. He knew after the season he would need surgery to help strengthen the patella tendon that was bothering him. Not only that, he suffered an A.C. joint separation. Yet, he started the first two games that season with Scandrick suspended. He closed out the third game, a come-from-behind victory in St. Louis with an interception.

But then he discovered the next week that Scandrick would start again. He stormed out of The Ranch. His emotions were too raw. Told me he had to get away, was afraid of what he might do if he had stayed, yet did the right thing and came back that night to talk with Garrett.
"I was already kind of going through it, my dad passed, I had my daughter, still out with injuries, I didn't know what to do," he said of all that happened 2013, along with the new injuries, everything just piling on what he perceived as his benching in 2014. "I try to forget about it as much as I can, leave it where it's at."

But, it's hard. Because the very next week that season, after the game-saving interception and the raw demotion, Claiborne tore his other patella tendon on a no-contact play against, of all teams, the Saints. Surgery. End of season. And worse, then in December the planned surgery to repair the other tendon.

Talk about a grueling rehab. His was doubled-down. Why, he would tell us how his weight dropped from like 180, into the 150s just from all the inactivity.
The guys on the team have known what he's gone through. Dez Bryant marvels at Mo's heart, his unwillingness to give up. Jason Witten said, "Everybody has a different path; just have to keep your composure." Brandon Carr would lend a broad shoulder.

All this and even more last season when hamstring and ankle injuries limited him to just 11 games.

"A little frustrated, a little anger, and nobody understanding what I was going through," Claiborne said. "And I wasn't going to make excuses."

And remember, with these injuries – all of these injuries – you're aren't practicing like everyone else. Not getting the reps. Not polishing your skills. And in the offseasons, instead of advancing, he was just playing catch-up after all those surgeries.

"Toughness of mind is off the charts," Marinelli said of Claiborne, knowing how much is expected of the sixth pick in the draft and how publicly ridiculed he had become through no fault of his own. "That's hard. You come in with great expectations on you, you don't meet them early, but he comes out and just keeps practicing.

"Because he's got talent, now. He's loaded with talent, and he's a good guy and he hits and competes. … He has showed character. Football character."
Yeah, all of those things.

"I think it's his mental toughness," Garrett said of why Claiborne is where he is today. "It's well documented that Mo has gone through a number of different things since we drafted him – injuries that he's had to overcome. He's had some off-the-field issues he's had to work his way through. He's just done an outstanding job of fighting through it and being tough. I think he's gotten stronger physically with us as a player.

"He's gotten stronger mentally and emotionally. I think that reflects in his play." During our conversation, the entirety airing Saturday night on The Jason Garrett Show (CBS-11 in the DFW area and along the Dallas Cowboys Television Network), I apologized for bringing up all the injuries, and pointing out his good health just two games into the season, not wanting to jinx him. He said, that's OK, after everything he's been through, all the injuries, he doesn't even believe in jinxes or any of that.

And off he went, following a hot, sweaty day of practice. Got that? Practice. Something every football player needs, no matter how good. He's been getting practice reps regularly since the start of the offseason workouts, and even before that, having decided to hook up with a personal workout guy, Ronnie Braxton. Mo talks about getting up every morning at 5 o'clock and getting back home at like 6-7 o'clock at night while working out with Aquib Talib and Chris Harris.

"Just trying to put everything in it, so hopefully the game will give me something back," he said.
So far, the game has. Claiborne is off to the absolute best start of his career. Makes you grit your teeth a bit, hoping his health lasts. He deserves it, much more than the piled-on criticism he's felt for the first four injury-riddled years of his career.
And you just keep noticing, he has his smile back.

"I just feel good. There is no reason to walk around with your head down, get caught up in a slump, no matter how things are going," he said. "I've learned that over the years. Don't let anyone take your smile away. No matter what you're going through, you can make it out of it. Stay positive."

See what I mean? And so sorry if this seems to be overly personal, but man, you can't help pulling for a guy like this.

 
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