EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is published with permission by the Los Angeles Dodgers. It first appeared in Dodgers Magazine in May 2009. Major League Baseball trademarks and copyrights are used with permission of Major League Baseball. Visit MLB.com.
Marianne Kershaw was sitting in the stands watching her 7-year-old son Clayton’s youth soccer team play an exhibition during halftime of a Dallas Sidekicks game in the mid-1990s, when a familiar-looking blonde-haired, mop-topped, gangly youngster scored an acrobatic goal. Thinking it was her son from her distant vantage point, she got up and did what any parent would do.
“We’re sitting up in the stands and I thought I saw Clayton score this great goal. I stood up and cheered, ‘Way to go!’” recalled Marianne. “Then I got introduced to Matthew’s parents. I asked them who their son was, and they pointed at Matthew. I said, ‘Oh, I thought that was Clayton.’ His mom said, ‘I thought you were the nicest person cheering for my boy like that.’ I totally got them mixed up.”
Clayton is known to Dodger fans as the 21-year-old left-handed wunderkind Clayton Kershaw, who burst onto the scene a little more than a year ago during Spring Training and made his big league debut just two months after his 20th birthday.
Matthew is more well-known to college football fans, especially those who follow the University of Georgia and SEC football. Those people have watched Matthew Stafford start for the Bulldogs for the past three seasons before he was chosen first overall by the Detroit Lions in the recently completed 2009 NFL Draft.
But back when they were playing for the Blue Bombers, making it to the highest level in two of the most popular sports in the country seemed worlds away. At the time they were just two kids playing together in just about every sport, having the everyday fun that boys do.
To hear their mothers talk, it sounds the same as any friendship that blossoms through sports or school.
“They always wanted to be outside,” said Marianne Kershaw. “But if it was a rainy day, Clayton and Matthew developed this game called Hallway Hockey. They cut off full-size hockey sticks, and they’d put on football helmets. Then they’d put pillows under their shirts and put kneepads on.
“They’d run tape across doors at either side of the hallway and shoot goals at each other. They’d be goalie of their own door. It was pretty ingenious.”
Margaret Stafford, Matthew’s mother, has some memories of her own.
“They were always goofing around and having fun,” said Margaret Stafford. “When we’d go on road trips with the baseball team we’d go to Wal-Mart and they’d buy costumes and goof around.
“You flash back and think about them growing up. I guess we always do that whenever we run into the other kids who were on the team. A lot of them have changed so much from little chubby-faced boys into handsome young men, like Clayton who is tall and thin. He did have a little chubby face back then. Yes, I always think back. It went by so quickly, but you still can remember it like it was yesterday.”
They may have been very much like other boys, but when a ball was in their hands or at their feet there were signs of future talent that was starting to sprout. Stafford had a flair for the dramatic on the soccer field, earning the nickname “Hollywood” for something beyond the spectacular goals he would score.
“Matthew had the talent for finding the point in time in the game, when it was late enough that you knew we were going to win, but it was still dramatic enough that he always had an injury at the end of the game,” said John Calandro, the coach for those youth soccer teams. “He’d miraculously get up and walk off the field or continue to play. He was very dramatic.
“Clayton had an outstanding ability in soccer and that was that no one could score on him. We labeled him the ‘Wall.’ If I were to go out by the bullpen today and yell, ‘Hey, Wall!’ He’d snap his neck back and say, ‘That’s coach up there.’”
What’s interesting is that these two boys would meet up on a soccer field and end up making their livings with their throwing arms. But there were signs that came up during breaks in the action on the soccer field.
“In between soccer games Matthew and Clayton would throw the football around and they had arms stronger than any of the dads,” said Calandro. “Matthew could throw a straight spiral at 7. At 8 or 9 Clayton could throw a curveball. Their unique abilities at those ages were outstanding.”
Yet the bond that formed on those fields of play was that of a lasting friendship.
“Matthew was the only one who could make Clayton just roar continuously,” said Marianne Kershaw. “Matthew is just funny. He’s delightful.”
“Clayton is smart,” said Margaret Stafford. “He has a more subtle sense of humor. It’s a dry, smart wit. He’s always been such a sweet kid. They always had so much fun together.”
And the fun they had was usually in sports. As they grew, Kershaw and Stafford picked up other sports like basketball before playing organized football and Little League baseball. At age 11 they were even on the Dodgers in baseball, winning the league championship when Kershaw began to pitch regularly.
Kershaw said that even at an early age the athletic path for Stafford was going in a certain direction.
“You always knew Matthew was going to be the quarterback,” said Kershaw.
When they went to Highland Park High School, Stafford indeed became the quarterback on the freshman football team. The center hiking the ball to him? That would be Kershaw.
That arrangement lasted a year, as Kershaw tired of the hand-to-hand combat that comes with playing on the offensive line. So he concentrated on baseball.
On the baseball field both pitched. When they were freshmen Stafford had the more powerful arm and played shortstop or catcher when he wasn’t pitching. Kershaw called himself a “thumber” for the way he would twirl that curveball that would make him a YouTube sensation so many years later.
“It’s always been his out pitch,” said Stafford to David Ching at onlineathens.com. “He grew a lot in high school. He’s always been kinda tall… and I think that helped him out a lot with his velocity. He used to always throw pretty hard, but it wasn’t the 97 that he can hit now. But the curveball has always been his out pitch. He used to drop down a little bit every once in a while, too, to throw them off, but he doesn’t do that anymore. He’s got a good change. He was really awesome, really fun to catch because I could call anything and he’d be pretty good.”
As they went on in high school Kershaw’s left arm turned into a thunderbolt, reaching the mid-90s with his fastball while retaining command of the curveball that still baffled hitters. Margaret Stafford said that the first time she heard the word “sick” as a compliment was in Matthew’s describing a pitching performance by Kershaw.
Their sophomore year on the baseball team would be the last time that the two would play sports together. Stafford decided to concentrate solely on football.
“Football was his sport,” said Kershaw. “He could have played college baseball, but everybody knew that he was one of the best quarterbacks in the state as a sophomore. He had a little more future in football.
“They won state our senior year, 15-0. He was fun to watch, I do admit.”
After that fall semester Stafford graduated early and enrolled at the University of Georgia so he could play in spring football practice. That was a wise decision because he became the starter during his freshman season.
Kershaw literally blew through his senior baseball season, going 12-0 with a 0.77 ERA and striking out an astonishing 139 batters in a mere 64.0 innings. He won many awards and scouts labeled him the best high school pitcher in the country. Then came a June afternoon in 2006 where their families got together again.
“The day Clayton got picked, I was at work and I was watching the draft on my computer,” said Margaret Stafford. “When he got picked, I called my daughter up and said, ‘We’re running over to Marianne’s house!’ It was so fun. Clayton was there and he was as humble and sweet as can be.”
That afternoon the Dodgers selected Kershaw seventh overall, and the left-hander jumped on a fast track to the big leagues that doesn’t happen to too many ballplayers. After reaching Double-A in just his first full season in the minor leagues, Kershaw got called up during Spring Training in March 2008 for what were supposed to be a few “get your feet wet” appearances in big league exhibition games. He ended up dominating some of the best hitters in the game, and as the regular season neared there was very real consideration being given to having him break camp with the big league team. He would end up going to the minor leagues for two months, and less than two years after graduating high school, Kershaw made his big league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 25, 2008.He struck out the first batter he faced, Skip Schumaker, and ended up going 6.0 innings and striking out seven while allowing two runs. It was a whirlwind day for Kershaw, with his mother, girlfriend and a host of friends and family members making it out to L.A. for his first start. When things quieted down and he was on the road trip that started the evening after his start, he checked his phone to find a text message from an old friend.
“Matthew texted me saying, ‘Congratulations. It was fun watching you,’” said Kershaw.
During the offseason Kershaw went to the Georgia-Florida football game and spent time with Stafford’s family. He also sent his own congratulatory message to Stafford upon his being picked in the draft.
Highland Park may be the only suburb in all of Dallas that will have just as many Lions hats as Cowboys hats. There are also a growing number of Dodger hats adorning the heads of the locals.
To many of those people they are still Clayton and Matthew. It’s a pride that is as large as the state of Texas, and the hope is that they are just at the beginning of fulfilling the promise of youth, combined with maturity and otherworldly talent. It may seem like a long time since they were 7-year-olds running around on a soccer field, but those who were there appreciate what they see now very much.
“To see these two little boys’ dreams come true like that, out of a zillion chances, is just phenomenal,” said Marianne Kershaw. “It was really neat to see them grow up like that.”