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Jim Thorpe award winner Morris Claiborne takes his job seriously -- even on his birthday

The Jim Thorpe Award winner woke up early to work out on Tuesday morning. Never mind that it was his birthday. The LSU defensive back, and future NFL Draft pick, had to get to the gym.
by Jenni Carlson Published: February 7, 2012

Morris Claiborne woke up early to work out on Tuesday morning.

Never mind that it was his birthday. Or that he was staying in a fancy-pants hotel. Or that he was in Oklahoma City to receive the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the best defensive back in college football.

He had work to do.

“You've got to know what you want to do, you've got to set that goal, and you've got to do the things to reach that goal,” Claiborne said. “Most guys set goals, but they don't do things to try to reach those goals.”

That isn't the case with Claiborne. He went from lightly heralded recruit at LSU to the best defensive player in the SEC.

Now, he's widely considered among the top-five players in this year's NFL Draft.

And here's the thing — whatever team plucks him out of the Green Room on draft day is going to get not only a stellar player but also a character individual.

“He's just low-key, humble,” said Ken Prude, who coached Claiborne at Fair Park High School in Shreveport, La., and is now training him for the draft. “He's just a good guy.

“Character issues? Nothing.”

There is no official “character clause” in the selection criteria for the Jim Thorpe Award, but it is definitely an unwritten rule. Every candidate considered for the preseason watch list is screened. Do they have an arrest record? Have they been suspended for any reason?

A speeding ticket in high school might not be a red flag, but anything more than that might be.

Then, the behavior of the players on the watch list is monitored the rest of the season. They are also interviewed by selection committee members.

Bravo to the Thorpe Award.

There aren't enough places where people say character counts, and then, they stand by it.

I mean, LSU's Tyrann Mathieu and Oregon's Cliff Harris were two of the best defensive backs in college football, but neither was among the 15 semifinalists for the Thorpe. Both had off-field issues — lots of them in Harris' case — and that meant they weren't Thorpe Award material.

That's how Mathieu, who served a one-game suspension for violating LSU's team drug policy, became a Heisman Trophy finalist but wasn't a Thorpe Award finalist.

Of course, for as spectacular a return man and as stellar a defensive back as the Honey Badger was, he wasn't the best defensive back on his team.

Claiborne was.

Question: Why do you think Mathieu had all those chances to score highlight-reel touchdowns and make jaw-dropping plays?

Answer: No one wanted to throw at Claiborne.

In the national championship game, Alabama threw exactly zero passes to Claiborne's side of the field. The Crimson Tide learned its lesson; Claiborne's interception in the teams' regular-season game set up a fourth-quarter field goal that sent the game to overtime and helped the Tigers to victory.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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