Boozer remembers Clarence Clemons

That's Clarence Clemons (50) as a senior at Maryland State College in 1964 with two teammates. Courtesy of University of Maryland Eastern Shore

Emerson Boozer knew Clarence Clemons. They were college football teammates for two seasons at Maryland State College (now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore), lived in the same dorm, shared a lot of laughs and bumped into each other occasionally after college, like that memorable night in the mid-1970s.

It happened at a Wall Street restaurant in Manhattan. Boozer had finished a 10-year career as a running back with the New York Jets, and Clemons, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound lineman who blocked for Boozer in college, was trying to make it in the music business. They talked football and, of course, music. Clemons always loved music and his saxophone.

"I'll never forget what he told me," Boozer recalled Monday. "He said, 'I found me a soul brother that's going to make me a lot of money. Write this name down -- Bruce Springsteen.'"

Boozer, a member of the Jets' Super Bowl-winning team in 1969, laughed over the phone.

Some guys get stock tips on Wall Street; Boozer was tipped off to what would become one of the most popular musical acts in history. He saw and heard it for himself on a later trip to Asbury Park, N.J., where his old friend played with Springsteen. Clarence was right, Boozer thought to himself.

Millions across the world would agree. Springsteen and Clemons, the most prominent member of the E Street Band, made a great team for decades. Those fans are now in mourning, as Clemons, 69, died Saturday of complications from a stroke he had suffered six days earlier.

"The Big Man," as he was affectionately known, will be remembered as a great saxophonist. Boozer knew the other sides to Clemons, whom he considered a terrific football player. He believes Clemons, who played center and guard on offense and tackle on defense, had pro potential. He was scheduled for a tryout with the Cleveland Browns, but he was injured the day before in a car accident.

"In those days, it was very difficult for blacks to make pro teams," said Boozer, who played with Clemons in 1963 and 1964. "Had the AFL been in full swing, he certainly would've made somebody's club. He was a nice specimen. Good speed and a big man. He could move. He was a player, no question about it, but he loved the sax."

Clemons attended Maryland State on a football and music scholarship, and spent his weekends -- when he wasn't on the field -- playing "juke joints," as Boozer recalled. Boozer said he made many trips to nightspots on Maryland's eastern shore to watch Clemons and his sax.

"He was into his music, no question," Boozer said. "He dropped out of school, chasing his music. You knew he was serious about his music. He was always looking for that sound. He basically played for nothing. He made a buck or two, 10 or 20 bucks, to play in these little joints. He played somewhere every weekend, and we loved to watch him."

Boozer recalled one show that came to a shockingly abrupt ending. There was an altercation while Clemons was on stage, and one of the fighting patrons left the bar for a minute and returned with a chain saw. He started cutting up a table, and the place cleared as if it were being raided by police.

"Clarence picked up his sax and said, 'Let's get out of here,'" Boozer said with a laugh. "We ran through the back door. I don't think he got paid for that gig."

Boozer's fondest memory occurred in 1964, when he, Clemons and Bob Taylor (who would later play for the New York Giants) took a weekend road trip to New York to check out the World's Fair at Flushing Meadows Park. They packed into Clemons' beat-up car with only enough money for gas and tolls.

The plan was to stay and eat at Clemons' aunt's house in Jamaica, Queens, but when she got a look at the size of the visitors, she said there wasn't enough food and bed space for everyone. So Boozer and Taylor slept in the car, and pooled their nickels and dimes to buy a box of saltine crackers and a quarter-pound of balogna.

"That was our dinner for two days, but it was fun times," Boozer said. "We were lucky that we got there; that car was in such bad shape."

Asked whether Clemons was fun to be around, Boozer laughed.

"Are you kidding? He was a laugh a minute," he said. "He always had some story to tell."

Boozer last spoke to Clemons last year, when Clemons received an honorary doctorate from the University of Maryland -- "a very special moment in my life," he tweeted at the time.

News of Clemons' death hit Boozer hard, like a middle linebacker crashing in for a tackle. Boozer's wife, Enez, also attended Maryland State, and she, too, knew Clarence and his music.

Boozer immediately thought of that conversation they had at the place on Wall Street, how Clemons seemed so confident he had something special with Springsteen.

"He was 100 percent right," Boozer said. "Hearing Bruce, I thought, 'This guy is talented.' He could hit the notes, and he could grunt, groan and growl. I drove to Asbury Park to see them play, and the place was mobbed. It was raucous and jumping. After Springsteen went on, you could just feel the vibe."

And there were no chain saws.