The unrelenting grit of Dallas Clark
When he was a high school senior, his mother died in his arms. What happened next defined the tight end position as much as anything. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of "The Blood and Guts."
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 12, “Iowa Made,” in The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football — out Tuesday!
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This is the most relentlessly optimistic tight end on the planet. The man sitting here in his pickup truck — live from Livermore, Iowa (population 381) — tells stories for four hours straight. With a coffee in one hand and a water jug in the other, Dallas Clark rockets from one tale to the next. So, when the conversation shifts to the worst moment of his life, initially, he is a man composed. He reimagines the events of May 14, 1998, with poise.
Until, abruptly, the trauma paralyzes him in his tracks.
His lip quivers. His eyes well. His words come to a screeching halt and he would very clearly like to think about anything else.
On that day, Clark was a senior in high school. He returned home from baseball practice two blocks away to find both his mother, Jan, and his aunt, Judy, cleaning up the garage. In four days, Clark was set to graduate with the other thirty-one seniors at Twin River Valley High, a school that no longer exists. He told Mom about his opposite field home run at practice and headed inside to eat dinner with a pep in his step. The finale of Seinfeld was airing this night, and he couldn’t wait. He can still hear Green Day’s “Good Riddance” playing from the episode because that was right around the time Aunt Judy let out a haunting shriek in the garage.
He sprinted toward the sound and found Mom collapsed on the ground. She couldn’t breathe.
Clark dashed back into the house to call 911, returned, and tried to resuscitate her with CPR. He never took a CPR class in school but frantically tried to remember everything he had seen in the movies and… nothing. Mom was unresponsive. It felt like forever for the medics from the hospital in Humboldt ten miles away to arrive. A doctor told Dallas that his mother had died instantly from the heart attack, that there was nothing he could’ve done. She was forty-nine.
Here, he is skeptical. He still believes they told him this just to make him feel better.
Nothing could change the fact that Mom died in his arms. That PTSD stays with a person forever. Clark, now forty-two, grabs the drawstring of his hoodie with his left hand and stares ahead in a trance. His voice cracks.
“And I just wish I… well there’s a lot of wishes of how… so, yeah. It’s tough.”
That’s when a tear drips down his cheek. It’s too painful to revisit those emotions, so he replays the good times. Her infectious laugh (he can still hear it). Her smile (he can still see it). Her beaming positivity (he’s a spitting image). Clark admits he probably wasn’t the easiest kid to deal with in sports because he loathed losing. Through it all, Mom was solid as a rock. As a parent himself now, Clark has deep appreciation for her way of assuring him everything would be OK without dousing him in what he calls “You’re great! bullshit.” Both his parents smoked cigs. Mom didn’t live the healthiest lifestyle, but how could she? Jan was too busy working her ass off to take care of her three boys.
Dallas chokes up again.
“She had no time,” he says, pausing, “for herself.”
This all happened at a fragile crossroad in her son’s life, too, a few months shy of college.
He remembers the temptation to scream “Screw you, God!” and quit religion, quit believing in anything. Instead, he went the opposite direction. He told himself that we’re all here for a reason and that Mom’s was to get her three boys through high school. Thinking this way gave Dallas peace in his tenuous state. Of course, it doesn’t remove the pain. He still finds himself asking “Why?” and once more thinks of everything Mom missed. How he would’ve given her “every frickin’ dime” he made after becoming an NFL player. How Mom loved Jeeps. Hell, Dallas would’ve bought her fifty of them. That hurt most as he rose from total obscurity. She deserved to tell anyone who’d listen in Livermore and beyond, “That is my son.”
He pauses again.
“She’s doing it in heaven. She has the best seat in the house.”
His spirit could’ve deteriorated for good and, truth be told, he was driven to his wit’s end on two occasions specifically at the University of Iowa. Yet, each time, he pressed on. He felt an indefinable energy source inside. Lawns were cut. Newspapers were delivered. Appendixes nearly burst. Dallas Clark knows better than any tight end that it pays to be brave for everything life throws at you.
When Mom passed, he vividly remembers having a choice. He could continue to chase his dream or pack it in.
“That’s what life is — response,” he says. “How do you respond?”
Before he knew it, there was 3:57 left in the 2006 AFC divisional playoff round. It was third- and-five. Clark lined up in the right slot with his two feet right above the “A” on the Ravens’ logo at midfield and took off on a twelve-yard out. When he stuck his left foot into the ground, cornerback Corey Ivy actually broke before he did to cut underneath the route. Peyton Manning threw the ball anyway.
The living legend trusted his tight end with the Indianapolis Colts’ season on the line.
Thinking back, Clark cannot shake one thought from his mind. He doesn’t bring this correlation up often — to anyone — because it’s a sensitive one. It also opens up old wounds.
“Do I make it as far as I make it,” he wonders, “if Mom doesn’t pass?”
As a teenager, his dream was quaint. All Dallas Clark wanted was a letterman jacket. He didn’t even need to star in the middle of a defense like his older brother Derrik at Iowa State. Dallas was perfectly content walking into a big-time university as a linebacker, emitting endless buckets of sweat and… maybe… one day… if he was lucky… having the opportunity to blast off on special teams. Anything it took to wear that jacket through the quad.
“I was like Uncle Buck,” he shouts, “with the five-year plan!”
He was a talented quarterback and linebacker in high school, but no Division I schools cared. Only one college coach even called Clark through the heat of the recruiting process. For baseball. “My door,” he says, “wasn’t getting knocked down.” Clark didn’t own an email address, so he did the only thing he could. He made a personal VHS highlight tape with the help of his other brother Dan, who played and coached at D-III Simpson College, and hand-delivered it to schools. He was already traveling to all of Derrik’s Iowa State games, so he made a point to get his footage to schools they played.
The only road Dallas saw toward that coveted letterman jacket was the one paved by his older brothers. As a linebacker. The defensive coordinator who originally recruited Derrik to Iowa State and moved on to the University of Pittsburgh was interested in Dallas — this was his only recruiting visit — but Larry Coyer couldn’t get the school’s head coach to sign off on a scholarship. Clark gets it. He jokes that it would’ve been career suicide to give a scholarship to a country bumpkin from the cornfields of Iowa. Dallas didn’t bother sending a tape to Iowa State because he didn’t like how the new staff jerked his brother around as a senior. Holding an emphatic one with his index finger, Clark says the only school that responded to his tape was Iowa. And he’s pretty sure the only reason was to stick it to the in-state Cyclones. One of their assistant coaches wandered into his high school basketball practice and, even then, special teams coach Mark Hendrickson probably only stopped in Livermore on his way to see “a real athlete.”
Clark didn’t care. This was his sliver of a chance. His face lit up at the sight of this man in the black sweater with the tiny Hawkeye logo stitched above the breast. Hendrickson had a briefcase in his hand and his eyes on the court. Where, of course, Clark was a damn maniac.
“That dude, walking into our small gym to see me?! I was just buzzing up and down the court.”
Whatever Dallas did that day was enough to warrant a chance to walk-on. His world was then rocked with Mom’s death in May.
The boys’ parents were separated, so they lived with Mom in town while Dad — “Doug,” they called him — lived on a farm in the country. After the heart attack, Dan came home to stay with Dallas through the summer inside the home Jan had rented. The next domino to tip in Clark’s life actually occurred on the baseball field. He broke his collarbone. While playing shortstop on the school’s baseball team, the 203-pounder bashed into a second baseman. Just like that, he figured his best shot at a letterman jacket was to buy one at a thrift store. As Clark punched in the phone number of Iowa’s linebackers coach, Bret Bielema, he expected the chat to resemble a breakup. Why would Iowa even waste its time with a walk-on who shattered his collarbone? Water coolers were more valuable.
To his shock, Bielema could not have been nicer. He told Clark that the school would take care of him. Clark put the collarbone in a figure-eight brace to let it heal naturally, blasted through thirty or so movies from Blockbuster and — considering it wasn’t healing quickly — Bielema recommended Clark grayshirt that fall to join the team in the spring. Clark obliged. And since he couldn’t do anything with the football team, bored out of his mind, Clark signed up for a Tae Kwon Do class. He loved Bruce Lee movies and couldn’t even touch his toes out of high school so, hey, it couldn’t hurt. Within months, he was doing splits and worked his way up to green belt with a blue tip. “I was like, ‘What the hell is happening here?’”
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Iowa went 3-8. Hayden Fry retired. Kirk Ferentz was hired as the new head coach, and Bielema — “Thank God,” Clark says — was retained. Someone was still on staff to make sure he wasn’t completely lost in the weeds. Still, Clark wasn’t good enough to even warrant his own jersey number the spring of ’99. While all the scholarship kids had fancy screen-pressed numbers, the Hawkeyes held Clark in such high esteem that they wrote “142” in Sharpie on his gear. Again, he didn’t care. Clark was eventually given No. 90 but even this crappy uniform hardly fit over his shoulders. He felt like a second-class citizen. After spotting a hole in one of his socks, he stepped in line to grab a new pair from the equipment guys. The All-Big Ten cornerback in front of him got a new pair, no questions asked, but when Clark asked? One was incredulous. “What?” he sneered. “Just because the scholarship kids get new socks, you think you need new socks?!”
Clark showed him the hole. A new pair was tossed at him in disgust.
“Like he’s reaching into his own dresser drawer and pulling out a pair of his socks. That was the bullcrap you had to put up with.” He threw them at me, like, ‘Here! Ugh. Geez. You pain me. I can’t believe you breathe the same air that I breathe!’”
Not that this walk-on was exactly knocking his coaches’ socks off during practice. That first spring was ugly. One indoor practice, a mammoth Iowa offensive linemen pancaked Clark, grabbed his facemask, and bounced his head against the old-school, concrete-soft Astro-Turf. “Bam! Bam! Bam!” Clark recalls. “Smashing it!” Honestly, this player was simply executing what so many other upperclassmen were thinking. Everyone was fed up with the Rudy-like runt trying too hard every snap. Clark knew he was annoying the hell out of everyone, but whatever. He was wired to go balls to the wall in everything, be it a football practice or a bus stop. When his college roommate dared him to jump a brick wall that was at least four feet high, he drilled his shin and finally cleared it after three attempts. Only later that night did Clark notice he was bleeding profusely. The next morning, he got it stitched up.
Clark had nothing — nothing — to fall back on when the freshman year wrapped up. His mom was renting, so after she passed there was no use hanging on to that house or returning to Livermore. Both brothers were off chasing their own football dreams. Iowa City became home. All summer, for $7 an hour, Clark woke up at 6 a.m. to mow the athletic fields for the school’s grounds crew. His boss, groundskeeper Larry Putney, was the archetypal “old crusty man” spending too much time at the VFW, too. Clark did whatever he said and could give the man known as “Larry Legend” hell right back. “Are you going to be able to get up, old man!” he’d laugh.
This put food on the table. There was also never a dull day.
One morning, a groggy Clark fell asleep at the wheel inside Kinnick Stadium and tore a two-foot rip into the heavy padding that wrapped around the field riiiight where Larry could see. The good news? Larry didn’t stroll into work until 8 a.m. There was time to cover up his crime. The bad news? The padding covered a heavy piece of plywood that was eight feet long and weighed 150 pounds. He needed to drag it across the length of the entire field. Taking several breaks to catch his breath, Clark eventually found a good hiding spot and patched it together with electrical tape that held up for one rain.
“That bitch was so heavy. I was like a mouse, when you lift a bale of hay and the mouse says, ‘Oh shit, the whole world can see me!’ I’m carrying this across Kinnick Stadium. It’s 6 a.m., but in my head I feel like there’s seventy-one thousand there. I’m just, ‘heh-heh-heh-heh,’” he says, panting nervously. “You’re scurrying across like you’re trying to find another bale to hide under. I needed that job.”
It took a full month for Larry to find that damaged pad and, yes, he tore into Dallas good.
Such was walk-on life. He had no choice but to take on every job he possibly could to pay his way.
One winter, Clark delivered the student newspaper, the Daily Iowan. While all his friends slept in, Clark woke up at 5:30 a.m., grabbed the stack of papers outside his dorm room, hit play on his Discman, and traveled all over campus to the beat of Third Eye Blind’s iconic debut album. For a while, he worked in a parking lot booth where people constantly gave him double looks. Not because Clark was a football player, no, he was just far too happy for such a miserable job. People shot him a puzzled glare as if to say, “You’re supposed to hate the world. Why are you saying ‘Hi?’” If there was an ad in the newspaper offering students any amount of money, Clark took it. He was a puppet for dentist students, convenient because he sure didn’t have dental insurance. For $50 and free cleanings, he did whatever they said. Psychology students always needed subjects for case studies, too. For $25 a pop, he’d help them figure out why people pick red M&Ms.
“I had no choice. I needed to eat.”
He didn’t live the Jeremy Shockey life on the weekends, no. He couldn’t afford to let loose. Clark didn’t want to give the new head coach any reason to dump him. Instead, he became obsessed with Iowa’s conditioning program and hit it off with Ferentz’s new strength coach, Chris Doyle. Inside the weight room, each player had an index card with their max lifts written on it. Clark soon lived for seeing that number go up by five pounds on the squat rack. He killed himself in sprints. He says he attacked every day like the crazed Lattimer in The Program screaming “Place at the table!” Gradually, coaches couldn’t help but notice. The best day of Clark’s life, to that point, was when Bielema randomly showed up during one conditioning session and yelled, “Can anyone catch Clark?!”
“I could’ve died,” Clark says. “Stuff like that? That’s it. Making tackles in Kinnick, that wasn’t even… it was THAT moment.”
He took on an obsessive focus with whatever task was directly in front of him. If he was running a sprint, that was all that mattered. Then, the cold tub. Then, the shower. Then, dinner. He didn’t have the luxury of a meal plan like everyone else, so he cooked. His go-to? A big tube of Pillsbury “Grands!” biscuits with a can of baked beans. Then, it was time for homework. Then, sleep.
He woke up, and it was back to following the lead of Doyle and Ferentz. They became his family.
“If those dudes told me to bury a body,” Clark says, “no questions asked. I’ll put my fingerprints all over it. I’ll put my blood on it. I’ll say I did it. I owe them. Football was all I had.”
The fall of 1999, Clark was a seventh-string linebacker. But he didn’t care. Special teams was his ticket to getting that letterman’s jacket, and he expected to dress for Iowa’s season opener at Nebraska. Two weeks before the game, his exuberance backfired. During a walkthrough, Iowa ran an onside recovery drill and coaches warned players not to leave their feet. Nobody was in pads. This wasn’t live. Clark, of course, forever ignored such red tape. He pogoed high into the sky for the ball and crashed hard on his bad shoulder. An X-ray revealed that the collarbone had healed in awkward fashion, as if forming a joint, and it’s curved to this day. Clark missed two weeks, returned and… something wasn’t right. He felt like shit. When starting outside linebacker LeVar Woods — Clark’s idol on the roster — asked what was wrong, Clark admitted he felt terrible but gave Woods strict instructions not to say a word to the trainer. He couldn’t miss one practice, one rep. Keeping a close eye on the kid, though, Woods eventually had no choice and alerted head trainer Russ Haynes, who gave Clark some Tylenol and sent him back to his dorm room.
At around 11 p.m., Clark felt like he wanted to crawl into a hole and die. He headed immediately to the emergency room across the street, where the doctor looked at him with concern.
“Your appendix is about to blow,” he said. “You need to go have surgery.”
Clark had an emergency appendectomy and, even from his hospital bed, he tried to maintain an edge. Determined to put on weight, Clark had Doyle send him cases of protein shakes. He watched Iowa’s lone win that season from a wheelchair in the press box and decided to redshirt. He got the collarbone surgery, once and for all, and another college football season went up in smoke. Just like that.
The kid bursting with positivity was inching closer . . . and closer . . . to a breaking point.
Mom’s death. No money. His own health issues. Stressors were adding up and Dallas Clark didn’t have much support from “Doug,” either, who passed away in 2014. Son doesn’t want to smear the dad who brought him into this world, and true, there are life lessons Clark took from him. As a kid, he actually wanted to play basketball at Indiana University because he liked Bobby Knight, and the reason why was that Dad cussed him out all the time. The three boys always feared the drive home from games more than anything a coach said in the locker room — he means this in a good way, too. “It was, ‘Why weren’t you hustling back?’ It was never about a coach, a teammate, an opponent. It was about ‘you.’” There’s also no denying that Dad’s financial problems became his problems. After Doug’s sports bar (“Double D’s”) failed, he owed a boatload of taxes and ripped through his boy’s graduation money atop the refrigerator (about $1K–$2K) in addition to most of the life insurance money from Mom (about $9K–$13K). Dallas was sent to college with literal nickels. Doug promised to pay his son back, never did, and Dallas can only shake his head today. “What did that buy you? A day? It would’ve bought me a semester.”
If Dallas returned to Livermore, he didn’t visit Doug for long. Once, Son asked for his own Social Security number — he needed the digits to apply for grants and loans to stay in school— and Dad refused because he was trying to stay off the grid. Luckily, Dallas hit it off with who he calls “Angel No. 4 or No. 5” in his life, a man named Bob Upmeyer, who worked in the school’s financial aid department. (“I’d bury a body for that guy, too.”) Back when he was “Dallas Clark Nobody,” he told Upmeyer that his dad wouldn’t give him his Social, and Upmeyer offered him extensions to buy time. Eventually, Dallas pried that number away and stayed in school.
All this weighed on Clark until he finally cracked. Twice. The first time, in Year 1, Derrik came to get him for the weekend. Or, as he puts, his big bro pulled him “out of the tank.” Dallas’s car had broken down, so he couldn’t leave himself.
This transition to college was overwhelming and Clark sincerely began to doubt himself. There were more kids in his freshman class than all of Livermore. He felt alone in every conceivable way. Derrik was still chasing his own football dream with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. Dan, the oldest, was coaching D-III football. All three boys were at critical moments in their lives. All three were still coping with a horrific tragedy. Yet, they weren’t talking to each other, a silence that led to a raw “loneliness.” Dallas wondered if this whole football thing was worth it, if he could keep going. Maybe it was best to just stick with his classes and become a teacher. During that one-hour, forty five-minute drive from Iowa City to Des Moines, he cried and cried and asked questions that didn’t have answers.
Then a discovery: Derrik was hurting just as much as him.
“We were all floating. That foundation was gone,” says Clark, lip quivering. “They were all I knew and could trust and could love. Derrik was pivotal at that moment to lean on, and I’m sure if you asked him, he was probably about as shaken and lost as I was. Being that outlet of support, that will never be forgotten. That’s what brothers do. There’s nothing better than a brother’s bond when it’s met in the middle. That’s really what Mom’s death did. It forged that bond between the three of us.”
The second time he was pushed to the edge, Clark went on a bike ride to an empty Kinnick Stadium. The gate was open, so he walked inside, lay down on a bench in the student section, looked up into the sky, and talked to God. “What am I doing?” he asked. “Does this have a point?” In that moment, he lost his finite focus. He was looking too far ahead.
Dallas Clark needed a break. A sign. A reason to keep pushing. He was No. 44 now, taking linebacker Raj Clark’s old number. Iowa didn’t even need to switch out the nameplate. That third year, 2000, Clark finally got onto the field. The first game of his career was the “Eddie Robinson Football Classic” against eighth-ranked Kansas State at Arrowhead Stadium. Clark was so jacked to play that he puked his lungs out before kickoff, hatching a nasty habit. He’d go on to puke before every game into his rookie year of the pros. Eventually, he realized this “It’s on!” ritual wasn’t healthy. This day, it felt like 110 degrees on the field. As a blocker on one punt return, his adrenaline out of control, Clark mercilessly bench-pressed the long-snapper into the sideline. He’s not necessarily proud of it, likening this to beating up your sister. But, holy hell, did it feel good to unleash two-plus years of patience by taking this poor sap “to the shed.” To Iowa’s sideline, too. Not even his own. “I could’ve been nice enough to drive him into his sidelines,” he says, “so he could’ve gotten up and got a drink.”
The flight home was a blur. Upon returning, Clark vomited again and hooked up to two bags of IVs to return his bodily functions to some sense of normalcy. When he stepped on a scale, Clark was shocked. One game of special teams dropped his weight from 235 to 220. He’s not sure how he didn’t burst into flames. One person ran through his mind that day: Mom.
“I came to life,” Clark says, emotional. “It was a big moment.”
All season, Clark knocked heads around on special teams. He was happy. When it came to playing linebacker, however, he was still a fourth-stringer. He couldn’t read and react, almost always swallowed by the clutter. “I sucked,” he admits. Which made Clark quite a puzzling case for Iowa’s coaching staff because, in the weight room, he was a world-class athlete. Doyle loved calling him “Roy Hobbs” because he felt Clark was just like The Natural. To this day, Doyle believes Clark could’ve become a pro golfer or baseball player if he desired. His explosion. His hand-eye coordination. His cutting ability. “He came out of nowhere,” Doyle says. “Nobody knew about this kid. This is an NFL player that nobody knew about and literally just knocked on our door and walked in.” These three years created a monster. But Ferentz couldn’t understand how the same Roy Hobbs–like athlete who sent other human beings airborne, who latched onto a block forever, who wasn’t merely good on special teams — rather, phenomenal — was so bad on defense.
Says Ferentz: “We’re all watching tape, like there’s a disconnect. I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I was thinking, ‘Maybe we have him out of position.’”
Meanwhile, Iowa was bad again. Ferentz’s record dropped to 4-19 in two seasons. Unable to lure four- and five-star recruits, the head coach started to move players to completely new positions at a rate unheard of for a Big Ten school. At so many of these one-light towns in the Midwest, the best athlete played quarterback out of necessity. Schools like Twin River Valley with thirty-some kids in a class simply give the ball to their best player and get out of the way. Quickly, Ferentz gained a sixth sense for signing these players and finding them a new home. Chad Greenway was a high school quarterback in South Dakota who also played basketball and ran the high hurdles in track. Ferentz made him a linebacker. Greenway would retire as the Minnesota Vikings’ fourth-leading tackler of all time. Brandon Scherff was a 275- pounder who started off as a sophomore quarterback in Denison, Iowa. He also grabbed a school-record 613 rebounds and won the shotput title in track and field in high school. All Ferentz did was mold him into an offensive guard and Scherff became a perennial NFL Pro Bowler. When Ferentz’s Hawkeyes upset Nick Saban’s LSU Tigers in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, seven of his twenty-two starters were former high school quarterbacks.
Ferentz was a realist. He knew the five-star recruit typically takes a flight right over Iowa City. By truly developing players at new positions, he transformed Iowa into a power. No coach has stayed with one school longer through the twenty-first century. This tends to be a hungrier bunch, too. “If you find the right guy,” Ferentz says, “it can be a blessing.” And this magic touch has its roots in that 4-19 start when Ferentz first turned a pair of 245-pound tight ends (Bruce Nelson and Eric Steinbach) into his best offensive linemen… and when he moved a lost linebacker named Dallas Clark to tight end. He’d see Clark play catch with his roommate, starting quarterback Kyle McCann, and he made it look easy. Granted, Clark resisted when Ferentz first approached him about the move. He was still determined to follow his brother’s footsteps. “Stupid,” Clark says, sickened, taking a sip of coffee. “I was stubborn and still that walk-on thinking, ‘I’m calling my shots because you’re really not doing anything for me.’” So, Ferentz was smart. He presented the idea to the Clark brothers and, most important, McCann to get everyone in Clark’s inner circle telling him this was best for him.
It was strange hearing everyone banging the same drum as 2001 spring ball closed in. Ferentz sat Clark down one final time to convince him, Clark caved and Clark instantly realized this was destiny. This was the sign he had been looking for all along. He loved being a Swiss Army knife capable of inflicting damage in an infinite number of ways, just like one of his favorite TV characters as a kid: Angus MacGyver. In the backyard, he was always the all-time receiver for his quarterback brother. And whenever friends rallied together for games of pickup — tackle, never touch — it always took a good two or three bodies to bring him down.
“I loved that feeling of, ‘All right. Try to tackle me,’” says Clark. “That challenge was already engrained in me. Like, ‘You’re not bringing me down. I’m not going to let just one guy bring me down.’ I unlocked all of that into this position. Like, ‘Holy cow.’ I’m back in Livermore. ‘All right! Tackle me! Let’s go!’”
That walk-on mentality now had a new long-term mission: Become the best tight end imaginable.
Everywhere Doyle looked, someone was throwing Clark the ball. Learning tight end consumed Clark “twenty-four hours a day,” the strength coach says. All along, Ferentz could sense Mom was on his mind. “He really wanted to make her proud,” he adds. “He attacked it a hundred miles an hour like he does everything.” In the spring game, Clark caught a touchdown and worked diligently with McCann all summer long to master the playbook. As a linebacker, Clark always wore gloves, but now he hated how sweaty his palms got in the heat. One day, he ripped them off and loved the feeling of that Wilson leather smacking his bare palms. It was beautiful. The ball stuck, he says, “like glue.” Gloves off, he felt like a true receiver. Faster, even. Gloves on, he was back in an “I want to kill somebody” linebacker state of mind. Clark slid wristbands on to absorb the sweat and never wore gloves again.
In 2001, Clark caught 38 passes for 539 yards with 4 touchdowns. Iowa went 7-5. The following year? Both he and the program busted onto the national scene. Clark had 43 receptions for 742 yards with 4 touchdowns as Iowa went 11-2, quarterback Brad Banks finished second in the Heisman voting, and the Hawkeyes earned a trip to the Orange Bowl. One play particularly grabbed the NFL’s attention. Against Purdue, Clark cradled a short pass in the left flat, high-stepped over a defender’s diving fingertips, and tore ninety-five yards to the end zone. On the same field he was mowing a few years prior, Clark held a left arm high into the sky and the home crowd went bananas. Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore recalls general manager Bill Polian watching this exact play on film and declaring, “Wow. That’s our guy.”
Clark had one more year of eligibility but — after everything — it was time. He made a quiet promise to Mom to earn his college degree in the future, held a press conference announcing he was turning pro, and dropped out of school to basically stuff his face with food for two months. At Iowa, Clark beefed up from 203 to 245 pounds. But in his mind, there was no such thing as a 245-pound NFL tight end, so he guzzled NCAA-approved protein shakes that tasted like puddle water and pounded two medium-sized Totino’s party pizzas before bed and ate… and ate… and pounded more weights. In his mind, Clark had no choice but to eat nonstop because (a) he believed all NFL tight ends were 275-pound goliaths, and (b) he had freakish metabolism. “Like Days of Thunder,” he calls it, “stuck in frickin’ high gear.” Even into his forties, when pot bellies are a rite of passage for all dads, Clark is able to polish off a jug of ice cream every night before bed and it turns to muscle. His training, under Doyle, only intensified ahead of the NFL Combine with Doyle dissecting all drills down to a science. The 40. The three-cone drill. There was still nothing Clark loved more in life than having a plan and attacking that plan at full tilt. By the time he stepped on the scale at the Combine, he was 257 pounds.
With the twenty-fourth overall pick, Polian got his man in the 2003 NFL Draft.
Years later, it hit Clark. All the success he had on a football field — in college and the pros — can be traced back to one simple virtue. He needed to trust Ferentz and Doyle.
“That trust is the foundation of making things happen,” Clark says. “Because I never once questioned our workouts and said, ‘This is too much. This is too little.’ I get to the Colts and all Polian preaches about is one voice. He’s like, ‘Listen to Coach Dungy. Don’t listen to the outside world. Don’t listen to your mom, don’t listen to your dad, don’t listen to your cousin, don’t listen to your brother.’ Everybody right here in this room is all it takes.’”
If Clark had stayed stubborn, if he’d told Ferentz one more time he was a linebacker, then he knows he’d currently be an elementary teacher. That was his major. Yet through his education classes, one concept stuck. Clark was fascinated by the psychology behind Nature vs. Nurture. The nature, in his life, is undeniable. All the grit and sacrifice in Mom’s genes were part of Clark’s DNA. But the more he thinks about his rise at Iowa, the more he realizes external factors shaped who he is, from Doug blowing through his savings to mowing Kinnick to all those tubes of biscuits that he swears made for the best possible meal. All these experiences made Dallas Clark, especially the one that started it all: Mom’s heart attack.
“Would I have made it this far if I didn’t do this stuff? If I had my school paid for, if I had a warm meal to go home to, I don’t know. I do know I had a choice. It was either ‘do it’ or ‘get out.’ Get a job, get money, survive.
“If I’m from a home with loving parents and we’re well off, I don’t know. It’s a fair question, right?”