The morning of the AFC Championship Game, a reader sent The MMQB an email about a story we’d published a few days earlier, “The Tale of Tom Brady and Johnny Foxborough.” The piece detailed the relationship between Bill Belichick and Brady, and how Belichick has coached his star quarterback harder than anyone on the Patriots’ roster over the past 16 years. One of Belichick’s favorite motivational tools is to announce in team meetings that he could find Brady’s replacement at the local high school. “What kind of throw is this?” Belichick will gripe during film sessions. “I can get Johnny Foxborough from down the street to make a better throw than this.”
Cathy Roche, a Massachusetts native who teaches nursing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, had something to add to the story. “My nephew Mark Clagg,” she wrote to us, “is Johnny Foxborough.” She even passed along a highlight reel of the Foxborough Warriors’ 5-foot-10, 170-pound quarterback throwing touchdown passes and scrambling for big gains.
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Did we want to talk to him, she wondered?
Turns out, Johnny Foxborough has a story of his own.
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Foxborough High is less than five miles from Gillette Stadium, through a state forest and down Main Street. Its proximity to one of the most successful sports franchise makes for atypical small-town New England living. Eight Sundays a year, you don’t venture outside the neighborhood because of stadium traffic. And students who go door-to-door selling school fundraisers often find a willing buyer at Julian Edelman’s house. A whole generation of teenagers can say their sports idols work just up the road.
Mark Clagg started out as a lineman at the Pop Warner level. During his freshman year of high school, one of his coaches moved him to quarterback. His mechanics were a little rough that year, so he spent the next summer being tutored by Tyler Grogan, the son of former Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan. The Claggs and Grogans were neighbors and friends.
Mark never missed a football practice during his four years at Foxborough High. When he applied to colleges this year—he wants to major in business and maybe play Division III football—the district’s superintendent wrote one of his recommendation letters. His senior year, he was unanimously voted captain of the football team, in large part because he never loses his poise. During his junior year Thanksgiving game against rival Mansfield, Foxborough trailed 12-0 at the half. Clagg led the comeback, scoring through the air and on the ground. Late in the fourth quarter, he lobbed a touchdown pass to a leaping receiver to secure the win—it’s the first play on his highlight reel.
“If something didn’t go right,” says Foxborough coach Jack Martinelli, “he would make sure the next two or three plays went perfectly. He held everything together, and I think that’s part of how he grew up.”
When Mark was 4, his father, Jack, instituted a motto in their household: You can’t control the things that happen to you in life, only how you react to them. That was in 2002, the calendar year when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl and when Mark lost his mother, Nancy, to breast cancer.
Jack Clagg had met Nancy met in the sixth grade in Mansfield, Mass., the town next to Foxborough. They started dating their junior year of high school. Jack played football, baseball and basketball; Nancy played tennis and was a cheerleader. They married in their early 20s, eager to start a family. Patriots season tickets have been in Nancy’s family since the 1970s and were passed on to her and Jack. The two of them would go to home games at the old Foxboro Stadium, and Nancy would refuse to leave until the end, no matter the score. “The last game she went to,” Jack says, “was the Tuck Rule Game.”
That was on Jan. 19, 2002. Two weeks later, they screamed their heads off at a neighborhood party for Super Bowl 36. Seven months after that, Gillette Stadium opened and Nancy had planned to be in their new seats—13 rows behind the Patriots’ bench, near the 12-yard-line—but she wasn’t strong enough to go.
She had beaten cancer once before, in 1995, when she was already a mother of three. She was young, a marathon runner, with no family history of breast cancer—but she found a lump in her breast. She had a lumpectomy and radiation treatment and went into remission. A few years later, in October 1998, she and Jack welcomed a fourth child they weren’t sure they’d be able to have. They named him Mark.
Over Labor Day weekend, in 2002, Nancy and Jack were out for their usual three-mile morning walk with their two Labradors when one of the dogs yanked on the leash. Nancy thought she pulled a muscle in her back, but the pain wouldn’t go away. She saw a doctor, and that’s when she found out: The cancer was back, and it had metastasized to her liver, brain and lungs.
When she began going to chemotherapy treatments, Jack says his wife looked like the healthiest person in the waiting room. As the weeks passed, that changed. The cancer was too aggressive, too widespread. Eleven weeks later, on Nov. 19, she died at 40.
Mark wasn’t old enough when his mom passed to have his own memories of her, but he’s watched family videos and seen countless pictures. He’s her spitting image, right down to the shape of his nose and his friendly eyes. In every football game Mark has ever played, his mom’s initials, NAC, have been written somewhere on his cleats. Now that it’s hoops season, the same goes for his basketball shoes. “So I can always think of her,” Mark says, “and have her driving me every game to do my best.”
Jack, a general manager for an auto group in New England, raised their four kids on his own. His neighbors, including Steve Grogan and his wife, Robbi, helped with meals and rides to practices. Sports, which had been central to the Claggs’ life before Nancy’s passing, were even more important afterward.
“There was nothing that we liked doing more than going to our kids’ sporting events. She was there every game as they were playing,” Jack recalls. “We used competition and athletics to kind of get us through everything. The greatest joy in my life has been to watch these kids compete.”
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A few weeks ago, Mark was playing a road basketball game against a school they’d beaten in football last fall. He’d also recently put up a career-high 32 points as Foxborough’s shooting guard. The opposing crowd heckled him whenever he touched the ball, trying to get in his head. Another parent in the stands turned to Jack and said, “Doesn’t he want to go up and punch them?” Jack told her, “Tom Brady is his role model.”
“Just seeing how he handles adversity, and how he always approaches it in a positive way,” Mark says. “Like when he got the suspension this year. He didn’t complain; he put his head down, worked in silence and let his greatness speak for what he really has to say to Roger Goodell.”
To idolize a pro athlete is one thing, but imagine being the motivational tool for your role model that Bill Belichick references on a constant basis. “It is funny,” Jack says. “I wonder, do they even know who the kid is down there at the high school?”
A week before the Super Bowl, the Claggs got an answer. The Patriots had heard about the real Johnny Foxborough and reached out to Mark’s football coach. A week before Super Bowl 51, on the Sunday afternoon before the Patriots departed for Houston, Clagg and his coach were invited to Gillette Stadium.
Robert Kraft greeted them in his office and the Patriots owner told Mark that he knew his story, and that he was proud of his resiliency. They visited the trophy room where, at the time, there were four sterling silver footballs waiting for a fifth, and they toured the locker room. The Patriots were out on the practice field, completing their final session at home, so Clagg didn’t get to see Brady, who was embedded in his preparation routine. But they ran into Rob Gronkowski, the star tight end on injured reserve. When he learned the identity of the visitor, Gronkowski chuckled heartily and said, “Wait until Tom hears Johnny Foxborough is here!”
To the Patriots, the nickname is an anonymous metaphor, but for the actual quarterback at the high school down the street, it’s much more.
“I find it funny that Coach Belichick would threaten Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, with a quarterback with as little experience as me,” Mark says. “I dream of Coach Belichick coming down to the high school, and bringing me over to the stadium, and me practicing with the team. It is only, like, a five-minute drive.”