Commentary

Tragedy spurs Clark to excel

As he climbs ladder to stardom, Colts TE is inspired by memory of mother

Originally Published: November 12, 2009
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Dallas ClarkDouglas Jones/US PresswireColts TE Dallas Clark, who at one time played linebacker at Iowa, outran the Dolphins' defense -- including linebacker Akin Ayodele (51) -- en route to an 80-yard touchdown in September.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The high-pitched shriek rattled Dallas Clark and sent him racing through that small white house in Livermore, Iowa.

He was only 18 then, a bright-eyed high school senior just three days from graduation and a long way from NFL stardom. But when Clark burst into his garage back in 1998, he saw how fast he was about to grow up: His 49-year-old mother, Jan, had stopped breathing. She had collapsed while cleaning up for Dallas' upcoming celebration.

Clark instantly spun back toward the house. He charged inside to call 911, then returned moments later to try resuscitating his mother with the help of his aunt, Judy Jacobson. Paramedics would tell Clark later that Jan wouldn't have survived the heart attack even if she'd been transported to the hospital located 10 miles away. To this day, Clark figures that's what medical technicians tell teenagers who have just watched their mothers die in their arms.

[+] EnlargeDallas Clark
Courtesy the Clark FamilyDallas Clark, seen here as a youngster with mother Jan: "I keep thinking it would be nice for her to see me doing these things."

That's the first thing to understand about Clark -- the pain of that moment will never pass. It was right there in his face a few weeks ago as he leaned against a wall at the Indianapolis Colts' training facility. Clark choked back tears as he recounted the memories, fully aware that his path to becoming one of the league's best tight ends began when Jan died.

"I keep thinking it would be nice for her to see me doing these things," Clark said.

"She didn't get to see my first game in the league. She didn't get to see my first touchdown. My wife [Karen] and I have a 7-month-old son [Dane], and she never got to see him. You think it's going to get easier, but it really never does."

If Jan Clark were alive, she would be delighted by how far her youngest son has come. Clark has been a key component of the Colts' 8-0 start and race to AFC supremacy, a status that will be tested when the 6-2 New England Patriots visit Sunday night.

This fall, the seven-year veteran has taken his game to new heights. His 60 receptions rank second in the league. Clark's 703 receiving yards put him on pace for his first 1,000-yard season.

For a man who has spent most of his career operating in the shadows of teammates with higher profiles -- and more-heralded tight ends around the league -- this season has been Clark's official coming-out party.

No longer "third fiddle"

His timing couldn't be better, either. The offseason trade that sent Tony Gonzalez from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Atlanta Falcons means 30-year-old Clark has a strong shot at making his first appearance on the AFC Pro Bowl roster.

There also are so many young tight ends on the rise that it's hard for everybody to receive adequate recognition. That group includes players such as Philadelphia's Brent Celek, Seattle's John Carlson, San Francisco's Vernon Davis and Houston's Owen Daniels (although he recently went on injured reserve with a torn ACL).

"There are so many big tight ends who can run that it's easy to overlook someone like Clark," said Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Mike Brown. "He has above-average size and above-average speed, but he's as good as anybody at the position."

Clark has been making life harder on opponents with each passing week. He caught seven passes for 183 yards -- including a first-play, 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown -- in a 27-23 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 21.

Clark added another eight receptions for 99 yards in an 18-14 defeat of the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 2.

And in the 20-17 Week 9 victory over the Houston Texans, he delivered again: a career-high 14 receptions for 119 yards.

Clark should be just as tough for New England to handle.

"He really limits what you do defensively," said Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush.

"You want to cover him with a nickelback, but he's so big that he can push around a smaller defensive back in the run game. And when you try to put a linebacker on him, he can just run by that person. You usually end up playing zone just to deal with him."

What makes 6-foot-3, 252-pound Clark even more dangerous is his versatility. He can line up: (1) on the line of scrimmage next to the offensive tackle; (2) out wide; (3) in the slot; or (4) in the backfield.

Clark is so effective running routes from all those spots that the St. Louis Rams recently paid him the ultimate respect in a 42-6 Colts win on Oct. 25 -- they opened the game with five defensive backs. Although Indianapolis had lined up in its base offense to start the contest, the Rams wanted an extra secondary member available to shadow the tight end.

Those tactics still haven't been enough to slow Clark's production. After years of watching wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne serve as the primary threats in the Colts' system, he's heading toward his first 100-catch season.

"I really don't know why my numbers are up," Clark said. "I don't know if it's because Marvin isn't here anymore or because we have so many new receivers. I get asked that a lot, but my thing always has been to just show up to work and give it everything I have. If the ball comes my way, I try to make a play."

"Dallas has had a great attitude ever since he's been here because he's usually been the third fiddle," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "He was in the game plan, but we always featured Marvin and Reggie.

"And when Brandon Stokley was here [from 2003 to 2006], Dallas really became the fourth fiddle. But now, defenses are giving him a lot of opportunities and we're looking to take advantage of them."

Coping with a crushing loss

[+] EnlargeDallas Clark/Peyton Manning/Reggie Wayne
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDallas Clark (44) is a prime target of Peyton Manning's, as is receiver Reggie Wayne (behind Manning here).

One reason Clark has never complained about his role is that he really doesn't see the value in whining.

As Colts coach Jim Caldwell said, "You always can find Dallas on the practice field because he's the one having the most fun."

The Colts even get a kick out of Clark off the field. When the team traveled to Miami for Super Bowl XLI in February 2007, he was teased for his outfit -- a cream-colored suit with a mock turtleneck that Clark figured would fit in with the South Florida crowd.

Said Colts center Jeff Saturday: "Dallas is definitely a bit of a country boy."

Clark doesn't mind that label. In fact, he still lives in Livermore, a town of roughly 430 people, in the offseason. Everybody knows his family -- he has two older brothers, Derrik and Dan -- and people always make him feel loved.

"I love what you get from being in a small community," Clark said.

"When my mother died, everybody pitched in and brought food to help out. You don't forget that stuff. That's why, even though I'm here doing my thing, I always feel like I'm representing them. I'm always trying to stay grounded."

That's exactly how Clark was raised after Jan divorced Doug Clark during Dallas' childhood. She had two older sons, and they learned the value of dependability from her. She never missed any of her sons' games, and she always was easy to find.

Jan was once so into one of Dallas' childhood basketball games that she literally moved with him down the stands as he dribbled the ball upcourt.

"She raised three of the most ornery boys you'd ever find, and she was always there for us," Dallas said. "She was everything."

Jan's death rocked the entire town. She had worked as the city clerk, and just about everybody knew her. In fact, the Clarks didn't have to think hard about where to have her funeral. To accommodate the huge crowd, they held it right there in the gymnasium at Clark's school, Twin River Valley High in Bode, Iowa.

Clark easily could have drifted after that point. But that's when everything he had learned from his mother and his brothers, both of whom played football in college, made an impact.

Although Clark was going to be a walk-on linebacker at Iowa later that fall, he wasn't going to give up on himself.

As his Aunt Judy said, "You know the saying, 'When a boy becomes a man'? That time was a big step for Dallas."

"The best thing about Dallas is that he wants to compete," Dan Clark said.

"I think that helped him when our mother died. He always had the mental toughness to keep going. And I really think he didn't want to disappoint Mom."

An unlikely, rocky path to stardom at Iowa

[+] EnlargeDallas Clark
AP Photo/Buzz OrrA walk-on at Iowa, Dallas Clark languished at linebacker until a position switch helped him become a star.

Clark's road didn't get any easier in college. After breaking his collarbone playing high school baseball, he wasn't even on the Hawkeyes team as a freshman (he was a "gray shirt" because of his injury). He made money by cutting the grass at Kinnick Stadium. His second year was ruined by an appendectomy.

Once Clark got on the field in his third year of school -- his redshirt freshman year of eligibility -- his shortcomings as a backup linebacker limited him. He played primarily on special teams.

When Dallas asked Derrik to review film of Dallas' defensive skills, Derrik was stunned.

"There was no technique," said Derrik, who played linebacker at Iowa State.

"In high school, all Dallas had to do was see the ball and run to get it. But in college, he was taking so long to see the ball that he was getting gobbled up by the offensive linemen. That's how slow he was at reading the play."

Clark might have remained an unsuccessful linebacker if not for a snowy day in January after his third year at Iowa. When his roommate, then Iowa quarterback Kyle McCann, asked him to play catch in the team's indoor training facility, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz just happened to be walking by during their session.

What Ferentz saw was the prototype for a pass-catching tight end: a big kid with soft hands, surprising agility and a natural feel for running routes.

Although Clark always had wanted to be a linebacker just like Derrik, he was Iowa's starting tight end by the next season. As a tribute to Jan, he wrote "Mom" on the tape wrapped around his wrists for games.

"It didn't take long for us to see he could catch the ball and run with it," said Hawkeyes offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe.

"Dallas would catch a 5-yard pass and go 50 yards with it. He once caught a simple dump-off and went 95 yards for a touchdown. He just had a knack for knowing how to finish plays."

Clark developed so quickly that he won the John Mackey Award -- given to the nation's top tight end -- as a junior. But he still didn't feel like a star when he passed up his senior year to enter the 2003 NFL draft.

After playing a round of golf with his brothers, Clark spent the rest of the day holed up in a hotel room outside Iowa City with a few family members. Even though he was projected as a top pick, he didn't want any reporters or fans finding him. He had watched Derrik go undrafted a few years earlier and feared facing the same fate.

When the Colts selected him 24th overall, Clark still didn't savor his success.

"I don't even know if I believed I was a first-round pick in my first year," Clark said.

"I was totally oblivious to what that meant. Some guys get an ego boost, but I felt like I had to prove myself even more. I didn't want to be one of those guys that the organization is always waiting to develop."

Manning's roommate and go-to guy

[+] EnlargeDallas Clark
Brian Bahr/Getty Images Dallas Clark has paid his dues. In 2005, a hit from Denver Broncos safety John Lynch caused Clark to spit blood.

Still, there was a steep learning curve for Clark.

At Iowa, he often used his natural ability to succeed. In his first few years in Indianapolis, Clark had to deal with the Colts' complex offense.

"I never remember getting a phone call from him where he said he wasn't getting the ball enough," Derrik said. "Instead, he would say things like, 'Do you know how much I screwed up today?' He really had to bust his hump to learn what he was supposed to do."

Clark eventually found his way. He averaged 30 receptions through his first four seasons, then his numbers increased as injuries sapped Harrison's effectiveness.

There was a 58-catch season in 2007, a year when, Clark said, "I finally started feeling like the offense was coming naturally to me, that I wasn't always thinking about what to do."

In 2008, Clark improved again -- he caught 77 passes for 848 yards, although those numbers still weren't enough to put him in the Pro Bowl (Gonzalez and San Diego Chargers star Antonio Gates were selected, and Daniels was the team's alternate).

This season, Clark keeps showing how much his chemistry with Manning -- who rooms with Clark on road trips -- is yielding huge benefits for an offense that hasn't changed much schematically.

"A lot of Clark's success has to do with him having one of the best quarterbacks ever," said Chiefs defensive back Brown, a 10-year veteran and former Pro Bowl selection with the Chicago Bears.

"He knows how to get to the right spot on the field, and Peyton knows just where to put the ball so only [Clark] can catch it. They can just look at each other and know exactly what the other one is going to do."

That was the case in that victory over the 49ers. After catching just three balls in the first half, Clark caught five in the second, including three that resulted in critical first downs in the fourth quarter.

After the contest, Clark met with a collection of friends and relatives who had made the trip over from Livermore for the game. There was wife Karen with a beaming smile and Derrik wearing his younger brother's college football jersey. Jan's old high school basketball coach had driven over, as well.

Of course, there's always one person missing from these special evenings, but Clark realizes his mother would be proud of what he has become.

There was a time when Dallas Clark was merely another talented player in the Colts' high-octane offense. Now, he's taking his rightful place among the elite tight ends in the NFL.

"As hard as it's been, I really do love the road I've traveled to get to this point," Clark said.

"It's made me appreciate all the little things that come with this game. I know it's a blessing to be here. And that's why I'm going to make sure I always enjoy it."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.