‘A Walking Miracle’: Claybrooks opens up about brush with death

Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

“They say I’m a walking miracle. The doctor said, ‘In 40 years of being in the ER and ICU I’ve never seen someone come out with no problems, no (issues with) kidney, liver, feet, vision’. The doctor said, 35, 40 minutes more later and I wouldn’t be here.”

DeVone Claybrooks

Sally Claybrooks knew that something was wrong.

It was going on a full day in mid to late August and she hadn’t heard from her son, DeVone, the defensive coordinator of the Calgary Stampeders. At home in Martinsville, Virginia, she couldn’t go looking for him herself. So she went to the phone.

“I had been trying to reach him. I couldn’t catch him in his office so I called (Stampeders d-line coach Corey) Mace and asked how was DeVone, where was my son, had he talked to him?” Sally says from that same phone in Martinsville.

“He told me he called in sick, I was like, ‘What?’ DeVone never, ever, ever called in sick at work before, no matter what. He always reports to work.”

Of course, she was right. When DeVone looks back, all of the symptoms were there. The blurry vision he’d been experiencing? He assumed it was due to smoke from forest fires this summer. That he was constantly having to get up and go to the washroom? It was summer and he was drinking a lot of water and Gatorade. He was trying to stay hydrated.

“Really, those are two telltale signs of being a diabetic,” he says.

That day he called in sick he felt too tired to even drive, so he knew something was wrong. He just didn’t know what it was. While Sally wondered what was going on with her son, he had given in to the exhaustion he felt.

She kept scrolling through all of the 403 area code numbers she had in her phone, trying to get someone to get to her son.

“So I had called one of his friends, his neighbours and I asked if they could check on him because I was calling his phone and couldn’t get him,” Sally says.

“She put him on the phone and he said, ‘Mom, I’m OK, I’m going to be OK.’ I said, ‘Oh Lord, he’s not OK, he’s not.’ I told her to call 911 and get him to the emergency room ASAP and I’d be on the next flight out there.”

DeVone doesn’t remember his neighbour finding him in his home, unconscious. He doesn’t remember that initial conversation with his mom on the phone, the ambulance ride or how he was administered into Foothills Hospital in Calgary.

He woke up in the hospital 18 hours after he’d passed out to find his mom, the doctors and a diagnosis that would change his life.

Photo: Calgary Stampeders/David Moll

. . .

Sally gave birth to DeVone 41 years ago, on Sept. 15, 1977. She was 17 years old. Her life and their relationship would have hurdles but as they both learned, the bond between a mother and her child endures and runs deep.

“I’m a recovered crack addict. I am 23 years clean,” Sally says proudly.

“So, the bond that we hold is very, very close. Even during my addiction he never turned his back on me. He was there to support me. We’ve always had that bond. I have it with my other two sons as well but DeVone and I just click. He can know when I’m going through something.

“I got so pissed off at work the other day and he called me and said, ‘Mom what’s going on? I just had a feeling that something ain’t right with you, something’s going on with you.’

“He can tell when I’m in pain, when I’m really happy, when I’m trying to cover up and going through something, he always knows. And it’s same with me and him.”

That bond saved his life.

It took about three and a half days for DeVone to be fully awake and cognizant, Sally says. While doctors worked with him, they told her how close of a call her son just had.

“They told me that DeVone was very, very sick and if he would have been a day late that he would not be here today,” she says.

“They told me that his sugar was up extremely high and that his sodium was as well and that his sugar had been high for about three months. They were surprised that he was able to walk, talk or anything and that his organs had not shut down. They had no idea how he was living.”

“They say I’m a walking miracle,” DeVone says. “The doctor said, ‘In 40 years of being in the ER and ICU I’ve never seen someone come out with no problems, no (issues with) kidney, liver, feet, vision.’

“The doctor said, 35, 40 minutes more later and I wouldn’t be here.”

“I felt like I was a 10-year-old kid. She wouldn’t give me no breaks. I came home, the whole cupboard, all the sugars, the candy and snacks that stuff was gone.”

DeVone Claybrooks

DeVone was in and out of consciousness in the first few days of what turned out to be about a 10-day stay in the hospital. Sally, a diabetic herself, spent three and a half weeks with him making sure he was acclimating. With a history of diabetes in their family, the cause of DeVone’s hospital visit wasn’t a complete surprise, but they all felt like it came out of nowhere.

“To see him come from being near death to back to being revived to himself, it was so amazing,” Sally says. “I’ve seen my mom pass, I’ve seen my father pass, but never once did I ever think I’d see my son lay there helpless under somebody else’s hand, to take care of him.”

While DeVone, the defensive guru recovered, Sally played quarterback. She set up rotations for visitors from the Stamps, so that DeVone wasn’t overwhelmed. When she wasn’t at the hospital she was at his home, gutting it of anything that wouldn’t fit the new lifestyle he’d have to start living.

“I felt like I was a 10-year-old kid. She wouldn’t give me no breaks,” he says.

“I came home, the whole cupboard, all the sugars, the candy and snacks that stuff was gone.”

“I took everything out of there,” Sally says. “I took whatever sweets he had in the refrigerator. I didn’t really pour the booze out, because sometimes I take a drink myself, but everything he had in there that I didn’t think he needed to have, I got rid of it. Every little thing he had in there.”

. . .

Corey Mace is talking about what it’s like to be a part of the Stampeders organization, the only one he’s ever known. He played defensive line for Calgary from 2010 to 2015 and has spent the past three seasons at the team’s defensive line coach.

“Anybody who’s been in this organization under Huf (John Hufnagel) and Dickey (Dave Dickenson), we’re very family-oriented with what we do here. I’m sure it’s like that with many other teams,” he says.

Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

It’s what every team and organization strive for, but the Stampeders have shown that behind their 143 regular-season wins, five Grey Cup appearances and two wins since 2008 is a structure, a system. While every organization in the league wants to get there, only one team is there. When Claybrooks woke up in that hospital in August, incoherent and scared, he saw the same faces he’s seen at McMahon Stadium every day since he came to the club as a player in 2009.

“Judging by looking at our staff, a lot of these coaches are ex-players on this team, we like to keep it in house,” Mace says. “We’re very familiar with everybody’s families, everybody knows everybody. That’s what we preach around here and it shows in the good times and the bad times.”

When the nurses needed to move a man that’s roughly 300 pounds out of his bed, or help him get back into it, the Stamps were there. The worst part of DeVone’s hospital stay, Sally says, was that he couldn’t be in meetings with the coaches. So they came to him. Sally recalls Mace and linebackers coach Brent Monson stepping in for the nurses and lifting DeVone, taking care of him. Hufnagel told Sally whatever she needed, to call or text him.

“Dave, Huf, the whole Calgary Stampeders staff is so amazing. It was just like intimate family, just like…his brothers and sisters his aunts and uncles,” she says. “They were all there to support him. That was amazing, the love that was shown to him.”

As a means to control the demands of having a football team and its office trying to check in on one of its own, and to protect DeVone’s privacy, there was password access to his room, Sally says. Every day the password changed.

“The people, the chaplain, everybody that was trying to get back there to see him, it was crazy,” she says.

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We’re about 90 seconds into discussing the future when Claybrooks is distracted by George Johnson.

He’s discussing what’s becoming an annual winter passage — a team with a head coaching vacancy trying to woo him into taking the role on for the first time in his career — when Claybrooks catches sight of the familiar face.

Claybrooks, six-foot-three, makes a joke about being substantially taller than Johnson, the longtime Calgary Herald columnist that now writes for Calgary Sports and Entertainment, covering the Stamps and Flames.

“He was asking me the question of next year,” Claybrooks tells Johnson.

“Already?” Johnson asks, then points at Claybrooks.

“You think this guy can’t dance around that?”

“I gave him the tango. I just gave him the tango,” Claybrooks says. “And he didn’t have to buy me a drink.”

He thanked Montreal for the dance last winter, but wanted to try and get the Grey Cup that has eluded him as a coach in Calgary the last three years. There will undoubtedly be offers for him this year, with BC and now Toronto looking for a head coach.

He admits that he is getting questions about his future, but at this point it’s not from GMs in need.

“I get the questions from family and friends on the daily,” he says. “Someone asks me or calls me and says, ‘Which job are you interested in? Which one are you leaning to?’ I haven’t really thought about it.

“I don’t want to do a disservice to my guys or this organization. The reason you would want me as a coach is that I’m committed to the job that I’m doing. I can’t be committed to the job if I’m already thinking about the next job. All I really do is focus on the point and the moment at hand and dealing with all this stuff when the season is done. That’s how I try to do it.”

Photo: The Canadian Press

Sally doesn’t know when it’ll happen, but she knows her son will be a head coach.

“DeVone has always loved the game of football. When he was 13 he said, ‘Momma, when I get grown I want to be a professional football player and drive a Cadillac Escalade.’ And he did that,” she says. “His other dream, ‘When I get through playing football I’m going to be a coach and one day I’m going to be a head coach.’

“All of that is right around the corner.”

She watched her son chase quarterbacks and now she watches the sidelines. She cooks for him and his coaches and players when she comes up to Calgary for games and she sees the little things. When the players make tackles, or sack the quarterback and they run off of the field, she watches how they run to DeVone. They dap, hug, and she says she sees a sparkle in their eyes.

“DeVone is my family,” says Brandon Smith, an 11-year Stamps defensive back.

“He’s been my roommate when he was playing and now he’s my coach as well.

“We definitely promote a family atmosphere to where guys stand up for each other, guys play for each other, guys lay it on the line for each other. And it goes past football.”

. . .

The word that DeVone uses, miracle, echoes throughout our conversation and well after. How does a mother know that her son, 3,700 kms away, is in a life and death situation? How does the neighbour get to him just in time to get him to the hospital, where a doctor tells him upon leaving that he’s shocked that it’s happened like this?

“I felt it in my spirit,” Sally says.

She saved his life.


It sounds like you’re really close, I say, lobbing what has the makings of an all-time understatement to her fairly early into the call. You can hear the love in her voice the entire time she talks about her son.

“We are just like peanut butter and jelly. Ice cream over cake that’s melted and runs together, if that makes sense,” she says.

“I could be sitting at home, right, and this is no lie. I‘m way in Virginia, I could be sitting at home and be like, ‘Man, DeVone didn’t call me all day. I haven’t talked to DeVone.’ And all of a sudden the phone will ring, that’ll be him.

“We could be sitting at his house and we could just be watching TV and the next thing I know, I look and our feet are crossed exactly the same way. We can talk to each other without even speaking. That’s how close we are.

“We’re only 17 years apart, so we have a very, very close bonded relationship. I’m his mother, I’m his best friend, I’m his confidante. I tell him when I think he’s right and I tell him when I think he’s wrong and he does the same for me.”

He almost died once when he was playing in Europe in 2002, she says matter of factly. A brown recluse spider bit him and he had to be flown back to the States for treatment. He was told he’d never play football again. At one point, she says, they considered amputating his leg. He came back, made the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster and was a part of their Super Bowl-winning team. He’s one of a very select group of people in football to have a Grey Cup and a Super Bowl ring.

Defying the odds on the football field is a success story. Defying doctors’ odds is overcoming science, staying alive. He’s done it twice now.

“I just can’t wait to see what 2019 holds for him. I know it’s going to be something spectacular,” Sally says.

“Whatever decision that he makes, he’s probably pondering on it, praying on it. I tell him when you let God lead you you’re going on the straight path and you’re headed for right where you’re supposed to be.”

When DeVone talks about his future and how he handles everyone — media, friends and family — that asks him daily about what he’ll do next, he tells them what he’s focused on and he’s thinking about his mother. She very well might be mouthing the words herself in Virginia as he’s saying them.

“My mom’s like, ‘I did a good job. He’s a good kid.’”