EDEN PRAIRIE -- Chris Claiborne is trying his best this week to downplay the Minnesota Vikings' visit to Detroit, where the linebacker began his career in 1999.
"It's just a game, man," said Claiborne, who signed with the Vikings in March after four productive but below-potential seasons with the Lions.
That's not what he was telling teammate Henri Crockett last Sunday night after Minnesota beat Chicago.
"As soon as the game was over, we were walking off the field and he says, 'Detroit!"' Crockett recalled. "He's ready, man. I think he feels like he's got a lot to prove, that they gave up on him or whatever."
Claiborne was named Detroit's most valuable defensive player in 2002 after totaling 145 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks, but the Lions were lukewarm about bringing him back because of concerns about his attitude and commitment to conditioning.
Jumping at the chance to join the Vikings and play for linebackers coach Brian Baker, Claiborne signed a modest two-year deal with Minnesota for $5.5 million. Now he looks like he's writing another chapter for the thick book on players who've enjoyed fresh starts with new teams.
Through two games, Claiborne leads the Vikings with 18 tackles, two sacks and one fumble recovery.
He compared the possibility of a breakout season with Minnesota to someone in the music industry going unnoticed with a particular record label.
"You sign with another label and you blow up," Claiborne said.
Claiborne has accepted -- and benefited from -- Baker's aggressive coaching style.
"I'm not being Knute Rockne or anything like that, but certainly my personality is not one to go, 'That a boy,' unless it's deserved," said Baker, who was in charge of Detroit's defensive line from 1997-2000.
"His awareness and understanding of the game is night and day from what I remember."
Claiborne won the Butkus Award in 1998 with Southern Cal, skipped his senior season and was drafted as a 20-year-old by Detroit with the ninth overall pick.
He made an immediate impact as a rookie, starting 13 games at the weak side position and totaling 97 tackles, and improved statistically in the next three seasons. Claiborne had 125-plus tackles in each of them, but he played overweight and didn't become the Pro Bowler he and the Lions hoped he would.
His stay in Detroit was made more difficult by the death of his father, Emmitt, who was shot outside a bar in April 2000. It was part of the past best to leave behind, but Claiborne has drawn on the advice his father gave him growing up to get around the obstacles he's faced.
"A lot of things he taught me in the past have come back," Claiborne said.
Claiborne struggled picking up the strong side position in training camp, so he moved to the weak side and switched with Crockett. The two spots are similar, but Claiborne is best-suited for the weak side where he can rush the passer or cover a tight end downfield.
"I think he's a guy that probably has the ability to make plays, whether on the line or off the line," said defensive coordinator George O'Leary.
Claiborne has previously criticized the Lions, who went 5-27 over 2001-02 but have experienced a renaissance under new coach Steve Mariucci -- even if it won't show in the standings this year.
On Wednesday, he was diplomatic about Detroit, revealing that president Matt Millen recently sent him a letter congratulating him on his performance with the Vikings.
I'm not mad at them for anything," Claiborne said. "I have no hard feelings. I'm here now. I'm very happy to be here."
He's not sure how he'll be received at Ford Field on Sunday afternoon.
"I guess I'm not really worried about it," Claiborne said. "I think that if I get a lot of boos that means I'm doing good. So I'm looking forward to the boos."
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