Friday, September 07, 2007

Sign of the times: Blue-collar Clark a star

By Ben Smith

September 06, 2007

Colts tight end Dallas Clark came back from a late-season injury last year to have 21 catches for 317 yards in four postseason games.

Pssst. Hey. Tony Gonzalez. Can this guy have your autograph?

Yours, too, Alge Crumpler. And yours, Antonio Gates.

You don’t know it, see, but this guy here – Dallas Clark, that’s his name – is your biggest fan. Why, just look at him: eyes big as saucers, Duke of Dentyne smile, sweating a little now as the noontime sun hammers down and everyone melts, and he goes on and on about what incredible athletes Pro Bowl tight ends are, what amazing specimens.

“Those guys are out there catching 70, 80, 90 balls a year,” he’s saying. “It’s like, I don’t know how they do it.”

He shakes his head. Smiles a little more.

“Those guys are exceptional players, and they do exceptional things for their team,” he says. “You admire that, because it’s a tough position. You gotta block, you gotta catch, you gotta make plays.”

All of which the Crumplers and Gonzalez’ and Gates’ do, in spades.

All of which, for one magical month early this year, their No. 1 fan did better.

Super month

Peyton Manning knows where the credit belongs. And never mind that Super Bowl MVP trophy on the mantel at home.

“There is no doubt in my mind, if he doesn’t get back for the playoffs, I don’t think we win the championship,” Manning says.

He is not talking about Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison or the super rookie, Joseph Addai. He is not even talking about himself in the third person, a popular affectation for mega-stars.

He is talking about Dallas Clark.

Dallas Clark, who raves about other tight ends like they’re on an entirely different plane, like they’re up in first class while lowly old him makes do in steerage.

Dallas Clark, who lost four games to a knee injury in 2006 and still caught 30 passes for 367 yards and four scores in an offense that has more options than Heinz has varieties.

Dallas Clark, who came back from the injury to catch 21 passes in the Super Bowl run (second all time), and who put up yardage numbers that haven’t been seen in the postseason by a tight end since 1970, and who made one big catch after another, including a third-down snag against Baltimore that the Colts still talk about.

“As a good a catch as we’ve seen,” Manning says.

Oh, and don’t forget the nine receptions for 103 yards against Kansas City, third highest in team playoff history. And the six catches for 137 yards against New England, when the Colts came back from 21-3 down.

“He was huge,” Manning says. “Extremely dependable, makes great catches, he is a nuisance for the defense. Who do you put on him? Do you put a defensive back on him and sacrifice your run. We would not be the same offense without him.”

And yet after four years and 121 receptions, Clark can’t see it. Can’t see he’s one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. Can’t see he’s anything but a regular working stiff, lugging his blue collar and lunch pail off to do whatever it is there is to do this week.

“I just like playin’,” he says. “I love playing with high energy, and trying to get an extra block for Reggie or Marv, or to get a big run for Joe. I love trying to do the little things, trying to make a big play for someone else.”

And what about big plays for himself? Can he see more for him this season, as everyone in the organization does?

Clark shrugs.

“I would love to do more of that,” he says. “But in this offense, that’s never gonna happen unless Marv and Reg take a leave of absence for 16 games.

“No, if they call for me to block more or just try to help get Marv and Reg open, I’ll do that. And if I can get some catches here and there, it’s great.”

And if he’s called upon to skip surgery well, … on his knee because the Colts need him for the playoff push he’s your man again. Went down against Tennessee, made it back for the regular-season finale, then went absolutely stone bonkers in the playoffs.

“It’s a true credit to him for sacrificing his body and getting ready to come back and help us,” Manning says.

And help. And help. And never see in any of it anything particularly special.

Overlooked star

Psst. Hey, Tony Gonzalez. Wonder why this guy’s not in the Pro Bowl with ya?

He doesn’t.

“Obviously as a team, you want to win the Super Bowl,” he’s saying, as the sun hammers and everyone melts and talk turns to the Pro Bowl again. “And personally, the ultimate goal is obviously to make it to the Pro Bowl. But I’m not gonna base whether I’m a good player or not on that.”

He smiles again. The sun hammers. And now Clark moves off toward the locker room, and over behind a makeshift barricade, hard by the locker room door, the fans standing 10 deep begin to fill the baking air with Dallas Clark’s name, waving footballs and helmets and any little scrap of anything for him to sign.

Pssst. Hey. Dallas Clark.

Can America have your autograph?

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