Call Imoan Claiborne a mama’s boy, and he won’t bat an eye. Honestly, he’s just as likely to use the label on himself.
Even at age 22, Claiborne, a senior cornerback for Northwestern (La.) State, remains ultra-tight with his mother Stephanie. Family bonds have always meant something in the Claiborne household, and that hasn’t changed just because Imoan has reached adulthood.
In fact, Stephanie, a nurse and social worker, has delayed having a necessary heart surgery procedure until after this fall, in order to watch Imoan play out his senior season for the Demons.
“You can really tackle it two ways,” said Imoan, pronounced EH-mon. “From an emotional standpoint, it’s tough. But that’s just the kind of load-bearing way my mother is. You can’t duplicate a mother’s love. I can’t even explain what it means.”
Growing up, Claiborne always knew he could count on his family. His hometown is Alexandria, some 55 miles from Northwestern State’s campus in Natchitoches. Imoan was the third of six kids, and from as young as he can remember he latched onto his older brother Billy’s hip, shadowing him from one ball game to another. Billy’s influence is what directed Imoan to football.
“I mostly played baseball, didn’t really get into football at the start,” Imoan said. “The only reason I started playing football is because that’s what my brother loved. My first year of football was basically my freshman year of high school.”
Before long, Claiborne had developed his own passion for all things pigskin. He matured into an all-district receiver and defensive back at Alexandria Senior High, and made all-state as a kick returner. Several colleges took notice, and Claiborne narrowed his choices to Northwestern State and Louisiana-Lafayette, but found the family atmosphere he was seeking with the Demons.
Claiborne redshirted his first college year of 2011, but he still managed to take home a rather prestigious award. That year he won the athletic department’s Academic Trailblazer honor, given to the student-athlete who shows the most positive improvement in their academic approach over the year.
“Lots of people are named all-conference or preseason this or that, and I’ve had those too,” Claiborne said. “But this is an award that sticks with me the most, because it’s something I can show my daughter. Being voted as an academic trailblazer or being selected team captain, that means more to me than being an All-American, because it’s about character, dedication and work ethic.”
Imoan and his fiancee Ashlee England, a former Northwestern State softball player, have a 2-year-old daughter, Addison. Just like he grew up a mama’s boy, Addison is very much a daddy’s girl, Imoan said, and she may be the Demons’ most vocal fan.
“She knows I’m a football player,” Imoan said. “She tells her mom when I’m at football practice how much she misses me. But she definitely knows where I am when I’m gone.”
That said, Claiborne saves his tightest hugs for the receivers he covers. He has a reputation as a lock-down corner, embracing the arduous assignment of trying to shut out his charge. Last year teams rarely threw his direction, at least until the season finale, when he made two interceptions against Stephen F. Austin. Last week in the season opener, Missouri State challenged him, and Claiborne came up with another pick.
“Sometimes you want more action, but I would say if they’re not throwing at you, it’s a good thing,” Claiborne said. “People love stats, and I’m not going to lie, I love them too. I want to get those pass break-ups, those interceptions. But you can’t get frustrated. You’ll get your chances. I’ll come. I know it’ll come this week against Baylor.”
The idea of drawing an NFL paycheck after this year tantalizes Claiborne. “I love football, and if I could support my family doing something I love, I’ve got to pursue that,” he said.
But he’s also got a backup plan in place. He’s already been admitted to attend graduate school at Northwestern State, and he and Ashlee have talked about opening up their own gym some day.
“It’s a challenge, juggling family with football and school, but everyone has issues that challenge them,” Claiborne said. “When I picture my daughter, that’s what gives me the motivation and energy to keep moving forward.”