DEATH OF A LINEMAN
Thursday, March 2, 2006 - 08:00AM
He didn't drink or take drugs. Yet somehow, Travis Claridge fell asleep and could not wake up.
By Sean Fitz-Gerald,
Officials in Nevada say they will need at least two weeks to determine what killed Travis Claridge, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats offensive lineman who died in a Las Vegas-area hospital after being found unconscious in his home on Tuesday morning.
He was only 27.
"The cause of death is pending toxicology results, and the manner of death is pending, as well," Clark County Coroner spokeswoman Samantha Charles said yesterday. "Getting back the results from toxicology examinations could take anywhere from two to six weeks."
Claridge appeared in two games with the Ticats last season, his first in the Canadian Football League after injuries undercut a promising career in the National Football League. Aside from a knee injury that ended his season last year, the right tackle appeared to be in perfect health. He was expected to be the starter this summer.
"Running toxicology examinations is not unusual at all with respect to the broad picture of what's done with autopsies," Charles said. "So there isn't anything that should be read, one way or the other, with respect to the fact that toxicology exams were taken."
Toronto Argonauts slotback R. Jay Soward played with Claridge at the University of Southern California, and was shocked when he heard the news yesterday.
"The guy was a physical specimen," Soward said. "I know he didn't drink or take drugs -- I know it's no drug thing. If they find drugs in his system, somebody drugged him. And that's what I'm thinking: Somebody killed Travis.
"Travis, just dying in his sleep, I just don't see that."
Claridge's girlfriend called Las Vegas police around 9:20 a.m. on Tuesday, telling the 911 operator her boyfriend was unconscious and could not be awakened. Claridge was taken to St. Rose Dominican Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
"At this point, there are no signs of foul play," Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sgt. Chris Jones said last night. "So, basically, right now it's in the hands of the coroner to determine that cause and manner of death."
The case will remain open, he said, as police await the coroner's final report. Jones also said "there is nothing to indicate" Claridge's death was a suicide.
Claridge was born in Detroit, but moved to California after his parents divorced. His final years of public school were spent in Vancouver, Wash., where he emerged as one of the most coveted high-school football prospects in the United States.
He chose USC, and earned a starting job two weeks after he arrived on campus.
"I take it personally when our quarterback gets hit," he said. "It's like somebody was slapping my mother in the face ... I don't like to see my quarterback leaving the game dirty. I don't like to see him put his uniform away to get it washed."
Claridge became the first lineman in school history to start every game of his collegiate career -- 48, in all -- despite undergoing two shoulder surgeries and an operation on his ankle.
His toughness prompted the Atlanta Falcons to select him with their first pick in the 2000 NFL draft, and he went on to make more than four dozen starts over the next four seasons. A knee strain in 2003 signaled the end of his time in Georgia, moving him along to the Carolina Panthers.
The NFC team gave him a signing bonus worth US$500,000, but cut him in training camp. And then, he was out of football.
"When I was in the NFL I was a pretty serious guy and had coaches tell me to relax," Claridge told a reporter last summer. "But with the time off, I came to a point where I realized all the people who were calling me when I was making big money and starting weren't calling anymore. And when I hurt my knee, no one called except my brother, Mom and Dad and two college buddies.
"So I realized if I got another opportunity I was going to do it up. I developed a different perspective on things, that I was going to have fun with the guys, I wasn't going to stress about things, and just go out and play."
He signed with the Ticats last year, agreeing at first to play for $500 a week on the practice roster. His aggression sparked an angry scrum on the field early in his first workout when he levelled veteran safety Rob Hitchcock during a drill.
Rookies aren't supposed to do that.
But most rookies aren't 6-foot-6, 310 pounds.
"Oh yeah, he crushed Hitchcock," Hamilton slotback Mike Morreale said, chuckling yesterday. "What a way to start off, eh? But you know what? He was trying to identify himself, and that didn't take too long."
Claridge shut down Edmonton rush end Joe Montford in his prime-time debut and seemed destined to prop up the right side of Hamilton's offensive for the rest of the season, until he was felled by his knee injury.
"He didn't want to sit by and say, 'OK, for the next six weeks I'm gonna take it easy and have six weeks free pay,'" Morreale said. "He didn't take it like that. He was like, 'I want to get back on that field.' And he was trying hard to do it."
Hamilton general manager Rob Katz said he spoke to Claridge more than once over the off-season. And Ticats offensive lineman Marwan Hage was planning to visit Claridge in the United States in a couple of weeks.
Claridge's mother was believed to be en route to Las Vegas yesterday to be with her other son, Ryan, a backup linebacker with the New England Patriots.
"They're close, and Ryan is heartbroken," said John Robinson, who coached Travis at USC and Ryan at UNLV. "His family was split up, and so the brothers, I think, identified with each other. Travis kind of took care of Ryan through most of his life."
Indeed, when Travis Claridge landed in Hamilton, he urged the Ticats to place his little brother on their negotiating list, in case the Patriots ever released him.
"As a team, it shakes you to the core," Morreale said. "It makes you realize how tragic life can be sometimes."