FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As the Falcons prepare for their playoff opener Saturday night in the Georgia Dome, a point of emphasis will be slowing Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who ranked fourth in the NFL with 13.5 sacks.
Atlanta did an excellent job in a 20-17 victory over Green Bay on Nov. 28, holding Matthews without a sack and limiting Green Bay to two overall. Particularly impressive was right tackle Tyson Clabo, who prevailed in several one-on-one situations with Green Bay's golden-maned standout. Matthews entered the showdown with sacks in three straight games and five of six overall.
Outsiders may have been surprised at how well Clabo performed. Despite being a fifth-year pro, he remains largely unknown because he was undrafted out of Wake Forest, spent a season in NFL Europa and played on practice squads with the Chargers, Broncos and Giants before sticking with the Falcons.
However, those close to Clabo knew he would come through. His nature is to protect those around him, just as he did last summer when he adopted his only brother's young son and daughter.
According to Clabo, the kids' parents had issues with drug use and the law. When Tennessee social workers threatened to put the kids in foster care, the 6-foot-6, 331-pound Clabo extended his long arms and pulled them to safety.
He and longtime girlfriend Kendra married in the spring, and two months later they officially adopted Allisa, who was 3, and Ethan, who was 2.
"We had talked about adopting them and taking care of them even before we had really seriously talked about marriage," says Kendra. "We knew at some point they were going to be with Tyson."
During an off day earlier this season, Clabo leaned back in a recliner in his two-story home near the team's training facility and chuckled when asked how being a parent has changed his life. It used to be that he and Kendra could do things on the spur of the moment, such as go out to dinner or take in a movie. And sleeping in on Saturdays was a given.
Not so now.
"I don't want to say it's turned our lives upside down, because they're amazing kids and we love them to death," says Tyson, 29. "But things are certainly different."
Talk about understatements. Before marrying, Kendra was living and working in North Carolina. She had a career and a plan. Marriage and kids were in it, but not in the immediate future. Today ... she is living in Georgia, a stay-at-home mom.
Clabo's house may as well have been a storage complex before he became a dad. Many of the rooms were empty and lifeless. The only thing in the living room was a table with no chairs. Today ... it is not a house, but a home. The walls are painted, furniture fills each room, pictures of the kids hang on the walls.
"As soon as we got married last February , we started decorating the kids' rooms," says Kendra. "We took our two guest rooms and bought children's furniture and Bed-in-A-Bag type stuff. When we finished, we sat there and said: 'This is the last night we're going to be able to sit and drink a glass of wine like this. We joked about it, but we had no idea."
They had no idea that potty-training would be so challenging, or that coming up with meals that everyone would like would be so time-consuming, or that Ethan would throw up in his bed his first night in his new home, or that Allisa would do the same the next night.
"That first weekend, I said to Tyson, 'Tyson, we are not cut out to be parents. Why did we do this?' " Kendra continues. "These kids are already throwing up. They had only been here two days. We knew we were getting ourselves into a lifetime commitment, but that first weekend was a wake-up call. But we couldn't be happier. They're such great kids."
As difficult as the adjustment has been, there also have been priceless moments that bring long, wide smiles to their faces. Such as when they think about Allisa donning a princess outfit each day after school, even though it's two years old and so small she can't zip it completely; and Ethan wearing a football uniform for Halloween. There also was the time Tyson got to take in Ethan's penultimate soccer practice because the Falcons were on their bye week.
Clabo's desire to provide a safe haven for the kids caused him to speak out in the offseason about the NFL's uncertain labor situation. He was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2010, which would have allowed him to hawk his services on the open market. However, one of the rules for free agency in the final year of the collective bargaining agreement required six years -- instead of four -- so Clabo was forced to play for a one-year tender at $2.5 million.
With the possibility of a owner-mandated lockout on the horizon if the sides fail to reach an agreement on a new labor deal by March 3, Clabo, who has started 59 consecutive games and was voted a first alternate to this year's NFC Pro Bowl squad, could have to wait even longer for the financial security. It likely would not have bothered him as much a year ago, but he now views the world through the eyes of a husband and father.
"I don't know if I was ready to be a dad -- I don't know if anybody is," he says. "When it comes to which is tougher, being a dad or playing in the NFL, being a dad is probably harder. But it's also more rewarding in the long run.
"They call me dad because I'm the only dad they've ever really known. But in my mind I really don't feel like I did anything that most people wouldn't do. They're my niece and nephew. I had the means to take care of them, so that's what I did."