Travis Claridge's mother says they won't be saying goodbye to a professional athlete in Almont, Michigan Monday but to a loved son who just happened to play football.
"Just so that you know, it's of no offence to anybody, it's no offence to anybody in the NFL or no offence to anybody in the CFL, but he was my baby," Denise Kopp said over the telephone yesterday from her Port Huron, Michigan home.
Claridge died in a Las Vegas hospital Tuesday after his girlfriend was unable to awaken him for an interview earlier that same day. He was 27. He had joined the Tiger-Cats last Sept. 16 and started just two contests before suffering a season-ending leg injury.
Tiger-Cat head coach Greg Marshall is expected to lead a delegation of staff and players who will attend Claridge's funeral service in his hometown. That delegation is expected to include teammates Marwan Hage, Wayne Smith and D.J. Flick.
Kopp said her son, a former four-year starter with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL, had felt he had finally found a true football home in Hamilton.
"When he called home and when he came home it was the first time he had used the word 'fun' in the same sentence as 'football' in 14 years. When he would come here to visit, he could not speak highly enough of the organization, of the way he was treated like a human being, of teammates, of the camaraderie," she said.
When Claridge was hurt in his second start in Ottawa, the Cats made sure he was on the phone to his mother and step-dad , who were watching in Michigan, within 10 minutes of the injury.
"Never, ever, ever -- and I had watched my son go down numerous times in the NFL -- had anyone ever treated him that humanely. Travis had nothing but happy thoughts and excitement about playing there."
Kopp and her husband Alfred returned to their Port Huron home Thursday night after spending the past couple of days in Las Vegas looking for answers for their son's sudden death.
She said medical experts in that city believe Claridge's death had something to do with his heart, which was one and half times larger than normal. An autopsy failed to shed any light on the cause of death. Toxicology results won't be complete for another four to six weeks.
"The only thing we know for certain was that his heart was enlarged. That's all we know for certain and the fact that he is dead."
Kopp said that finality renders the ultimate cause of her son's death rather meaningless.
"To be honest with you, it doesn't matter. Because he is dead. It doesn't matter to me. I had two sons and now one is gone," she said.
Kopp said she doesn't believe drugs killed her oldest son.
"I don't personally believe that is what killed him. My own thoughts are it (the cause of death) was stress but I don't know. I'm going to be 100 per cent honest with you, I don't know."
Kopp said her own brother died as a child with an enlarged heart.
"As soon as they said that to me, I thought of my own brother and thought, 'Oh gawd, did I pass this on to my kid.'"
Kopp said her son was also heavily involved in nutritional supplements.
"Not only the power drinks and the protein drinks. As we were in there cleaning up his personal effects, the UPS box came (Thursday) filled with $500 worth of supplements. I guess I'm kind of old-fashioned but nothing goes without a price. So I don't know."
Claridge would have turned 28 on March 23. His younger brother Ryan, who turns 25 in April, lived in his own house just down the street from his big brother. The younger Claridge is a backup linebacker with the New England Patriots.
The two brothers were extremely close.
"Travis had Ryan's initials tattooed on his arm.
"My other son is having a helluva time trying to hold it together. He won't even answer calls. It's incredibly difficult."
Claridge is also survived by a half-sister, Reily.
Claridge was also close to his mother. He told the Spec once last fall that his mother had called to scold him for being too heavy after watching her son make his CFL debut via satellite dish.
The recollection makes his mother chuckle.
"It was a joke between us because every time he had to wear a light-colored uniform he would say, 'Mom, did I look fat?' He always liked dark-coloured uniforms because he felt he looked too fat in the white ones.
"We had a very close and special relationship."