“He’s a guy who will go down the middle and take the hit. If you drew up the ideal football player in terms of temperament, athletic ability, love for the game and work ethic, it’s No. 44. Central Casting invented guys like that. That’s what real football players look like.”
That’s what former Colts general manager Bill Polian had to say about tight end Dallas Clark on a recent visit to One Buc Place during training camp. After watching Clark play his first nine seasons in Indianapolis and the past month in Tampa, it’s hard to deny Polian’s claim.
One of the most low-profile players on the Bucs is also one of the most decorated. Until the offseason, Clark was a mainstay in Indianapolis; along with the only quarterback he had ever received an NFL throw from before last season, Peyton Manning. In the eight seasons prior to 2011, Clark and Manning combined for slightly under 400 receptions, over 4,500 yards, and just shy of 45 touchdowns. Not bad for a tight end-quarterback tandem that played on a team with so much offensive talent over the years. That is, until Colts owner Jim Irsay decided to let all that talent go.
Manning’s departure from Indy may have been more publicized, but Clark’s release was just as shocking to many Colts fans. One of the most beloved and prolific tight ends in the NFL over the past decade, Clark waited 10 weeks before finding a place to begin the next chapter of his storied career.
“He likes everything about football,” Polian said. “He loves going to meetings, he loves getting his ankles taped, he loves practice, he loves watching film. There is nobody who likes football more than Dallas Clark. He’s got a smile on his face every day and if he’s healthy, he’ll be a great addition for the Bucs.”
Health is one of the reasons Irsay may have chosen to let Clark go in March. Clark has a long history of injuries spanning his career ranging from a broken leg during his rookie campaign to a season ending lower leg injury last year. In all, Clark has played only one full season in 2009, the year the Colts lost in the Super Bowl to the Saints and were two wins shy of a perfect 16-0 regular season.
When he chose Tampa Bay, Clark gave himself an opportunity to be a major contributor in coordinator Mike Sullivan’s offense. A decision he, so far, is incredibly pleased with; especially for his family.
“It’s been great.” Clark said. “Tampa is a great city. Obviously I’ve only been here when we (Colts) play, so you don’t get a good feel for the town and all that. So you obviously don’t know what you’re getting into, but Tampa’s been phenomenal; the organization is top shelf, the coaching staff, the teammates – it’s just been everything I hoped for and more. You always hope for the best, but there’s so many variables that you have no control over. To go from Indy which is everything you hope for in an organization to Tampa, it’s just a mirror image of it.”
Clark had a tie to Tampa in former coach Tony Dungy, who coached the Bucs from 1996-2001 before becoming head coach of the Colts for the first seven years of Clark’s career, but said he didn’t infer with Dungy before he signed with Tampa Bay.
“He just obviously welcomed me to the area.” Clark said. “His family’s heart and everything is - they are Tampa people. You could always tell that they missed Tampa when they’re up in Indiana. I know he’s definitely a resource that I can easily go to, but everyone’s been pretty smooth where I haven’t really had to go to him for any questions or concerns.
Yeah, but you know, it’s been great. Plus, he’s busy. He’s big time. He’s over there at the Olympics jet-setting here and there, just flying around on NBC’s tab. He’s big time now,” Clark said with a smile.
Despite remaining a relatively quiet figure, Clark is light-hearted and funny. The perceived rule than an athlete who has had an elite career is presumptuous does not apply to Clark. Entering his tenth season, the Super Bowl winner and Pro Bowl tight end is still having fun and his passion for football exudes when he talks about it.
“Oh, it’s always fun, yeah.” Clark said. “You wish you could stay young and keep playing, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen that way. That’s why you got to enjoy every practice, as an oxymoron that is, but it’s true. You have to enjoy this. You have to enjoy it, because it’s not going to be forever, it’s not going to be as long as you hoped, or as your body would hope for. So you just got to enjoy it. We’re too blessed and too fortunate to be given these God-given talents to not enjoy or take advantage of it and using them to the fullest potential you have.”
Clark exudes passion when he speaks about football, a benefit for the younger tight ends currently on the roster. Collin Franklin, a second year tight end, spoke about Clark after Wednesday’s shared practice with the Patriots about how the younger players are benefiting from Clark’s presence.
“It’s good to see somebody that remains so committed every day and really recommits himself every day just because it’s a good energy to have around the room.” Franklin said. “Because we’re all at this stage where we love what we’re doing and everybody in the tight ends room really realizes how fortunate we are to have that opportunity. So it’s nice to see somebody that far down the line where he’s still loving what he does, it doesn’t wear off. For us, the novelty is still there so it’s a little reassuring to have a guy like that around.”
Franklin also spoke about Clark as a leader, and how Clark has become the go-to guy in the tight ends room.
“There’s no hesitation coming to him with any kind of issue that we have whether it’s with the playbook or asking about any kind of improvements we need to make individually.” Franklin said. “But what’s cool is that everybody in the room is very similar, everybody is really football smart, everybody has a high football IQ, so everyone is also really willing to make any corrections that need to be made or just give you a tip whether it’s your steps or your hand placement or anything like that but Dallas is definitely – anytime the message needs to come across to the whole group he’s always the one that’s making it happen. He’s the first to point out his mistakes so he gets everybody’s respect because of that. He’s definitely a good person to come to.
"I’m happy to learn anything I can from him. It’s nice because we’re a little different type of player so for me it’s nice to see some things that, see somebody that does a lot of different things really well that aren’t particularly my forte in the game and to take those things he does well and see how he makes them happen, see what his technique is, to see what his fundamentals are and really learn from that.”
Clark has accepted the leadership role and genuinely enjoys working with the younger players, something that has become a lost art in the age of big contracts and even bigger egos.
“It’s not expected.” Clark said. “I've seen a lot of older guys that don’t take those responsibilities. So, it doesn’t just happen, I don’t think. But I embrace it, I enjoy it. Especially with the young group we have. Luke (Stocker) is the next, most experienced then Zack (Pianalto), so it’s just a young group. And it’s so much fun to watch them make mistakes – well it’s not fun to watch them make mistakes, but it’s fun watching them grow. It’s fun watching them when they make a mistake, watching them adjust. They’re growing right before your eyes, and fully understanding when we have a bad day, you’re going to have a bad day, and just helping them adjust to that, helping them get back on track and just kind of trying to be that person they can, I hope, they can come to me with anything I don’t have all the answers, but I've seen a lot. And I hope I can help them as much as possible because they are all, every one of them, are just great, great people and really good ball players.”
Clark is humble, another attribute that has been lost in professional football over the past decade. Clark isn't driven by money or by accolades; he is driven by love for the game itself.
When it comes to football, he is authentic in his compliments of others and doesn't tell you what makes him one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL. Known for his precise route running, Clark opted to talk about the benefits the younger, athletic tight ends have by running clean routes when asked about the importance it has in this era.
“It’s taken a whole new level because I think tight ends are becoming more and more athletic which allows us to run receiver – air quotes – receiver-like routes.” Clark said. “I mean obviously we’re never going to run a route like Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams - those guys do that for a living, but it’s our job to look at them and say ‘Okay, I need to kind of look like that’, obviously with 50 more pounds or whatever and things like that, but you got to run routes. This game is too fast; so with better, more precise routes you run, the more chance you have to get open and the more chance you have of making plays and that’s the bottom line. I think running routes for a tight end has become even more of a challenge and more of a benefit for those athletic tight ends.”
Clark commands respect from his teammates because he is a true professional in every sense of the word. Clark’s presence is immeasurable to the other players’ and the organization especially in these past weeks of impermanence.
“It’s nice to have a veteran keep it loose just because he sort of sets the tone.” Franklin said. “We meet a lot, we’re always around each other, so it’s good to have a guy that’s light-hearted but still takes his job seriously, and still really respects everyone around him and demands respect as well because of it.”
Clark doesn’t shy away from the attention he receives, but watching Clark and being around him, you get the sense that he honestly doesn’t understand why he is a big deal.
Last week, Clark’s wife and two young sons watched the final training camp practice from the section set aside for family and VIPs. When the air horn blew signaling practice was over, Clark, who usually quickly leaves the practice field and heads directly inside One Buc for lifting or other work-related activities, ran over to the fence where his family was standing. He lifted up his two little boys and brought them onto the field. The pair of toddlers didn’t run around in the grass or grab a football – they held on to their dad as if he was the biggest star in their Universe. For Clark, there’s no question that’s the only star he wants to be.
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