TAMPA — A playful smile spread across Dallas Clark’s face as he decided to work a shift as the fashion police in the Bucs locker room following practice last week.
Pulling his shorts low around his hips and trying to mirror the just-below-the-boxers look of linebacker Dekoda Watson one cubicle away, Clark sought approval for his new, casual style.
“Whaddaya think?” Clark said.
Watson quickly got the attention of running back LeGarrette Blount and receiver Mike Williams, who turned to face Clark as all three burst out laughing.
“I just don’t pull that look off very well,” Clark said.
For his first nine seasons, Clark was a huge part of division titles, conference titles and one Super Bowl title with the Colts, a wingtips-and-briefcase franchise led by quarterback Peyton Manning. He averaged 59 catches during the five seasons he played at least 15 games, including 100 for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2009.
But injuries and salary concerns conspired to make him part of the same Colts housecleaning that swept Manning to Denver.
Now starting over at 33, Clark is fitting in nicely with a young Bucs team that can use his playfulness and play-making ability.
After catching only nine passes through the first five games, Clark has 18 for 174 yards and three touchdowns over the past five, including the overtime winner last week at Carolina.
“No one here really cares what you’ve done or where you’ve done things and things of that nature,” Clark said. “You’re here to help your new team, and that’s what you’ve got to do.
“It’s been a lot of change; a lot different. But you knew where ever you went, it was going to be like that. You’ve just got to take it in stride and understand it’s never going to be the same … and understand this is the new normal.”
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Shortly before the Bucs traded tight end Kellen Winslow to the Seahawks on May 21, they worked out Clark, who had been hampered the past two seasons by knee and wrist injuries.
“It was one of those great workouts where you just say, ‘Wow!’ ” said general manager Mark Dominik, who signed Clark to a one-year, $2.7 million contract. “The ball was so soft on his hands. He can really adjust to the football and make some great plays.”
There has never been another time in the NFL when the tight end position produced more big men who can affect the game at so many different spots on the field. Clark credits the Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez and Chargers’ Antonio Gates for ushering in the era of players physical enough to hold up as run blockers but with enough speed, supple hands and body control to be targets in the passing game.
No longer are tight ends just next to tackles. They are split wide, lined up in the slot or lined up in the backfield.
“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have a job because there’s no way I could line up and block power or lead run (block). I’d be horrible at it,” said Clark, drafted 24th overall in 2003 by Indianapolis.
“You’ve got to have a sprinkle of everything. You’ve got to have some toughness. You’ve got to have some ability. It’s not all glamorous out there catching balls when you have grown men trying to kill you.”
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Clark’s failure as a walk-on linebacker at Iowa changed his life.
Three days before graduation from high school, his 48-year-old mother, Jan, collapsed and stopped breathing in the garage of their home in Livermore, Iowa. Clark ran inside to call 911 and attempted CPR.
Paramedics told him she would not have survived the heart attack even if the nearest hospital wasn’t 10 miles away. At Iowa, Clark wrote “MOM” in block letters on his wristbands.
“Your family is always there for you,” said Clark, who’s father, Doug, died at age 65 in August, one day before the Bucs’ final preseason game. “They’re your No. 1 support system. They’re there the whole way; for your ups and your downs. They’re critical when you go through different things in your life.”
Clark redshirted after missing the second half of his freshman season because of an appendectomy.
Meanwhile, he took out $15,000 in student loans and mowed the grass at Kinnick Stadium. It wasn’t until Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz saw him playing catch with a quarterback that he decided to move him to tight end.
“I was a horrible linebacker,” Clark said. “I’m a great backyard linebacker, where you just go tackle the ball. But when you have rules and jobs, I don’t like that. I was holding third-string linebacker down pretty good. But (Ferentz) said, ‘Let’s try something else because you’re wasting your time and our time.’
“(Tight end) was more natural. It just felt right. Tell me to run 10 yards and not get covered by a guy, back to the backyard type of stuff. I like that type of football.The more I can do that the better.”
Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud @tampabay.com and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.