The Colts were deep in opponent territory on this cold January day, on the road in a hostile environment in the AFC Divisional round of the playoffs, hoping to finally make it to the Super Bowl this season after years of coming close. The Colts led the Ravens 12-6 with 3:57 left in the game and faced a 3rd and 5. A first down would go a long ways toward clinching the game and sending the Colts to another AFC Championship game, while failing to convert would give the Ravens offense one last shot at pulling out a come-from-behind win in a close, hard-fought game.
Quarterback Peyton Manning took the snap and had to throw the ball rather quickly due to the Ravens pass rush. He looked to a guy who was quickly becoming one of Manning's favorite and most reliable targets, tight end Dallas Clark. Manning threaded the needle with the pass and Clark hauled it in coming off of his break and catching the pass with just one hand. First down Colts. They were heading to the AFC Championship game.
"It was one of those great plays that sent us to the championship game," then-coach Tony Dungy told Colts.com's Craig Kelley recently. "[Clark] made a lot of catches, but that was one that did win a game for us." Clark lists that reception among the favorites of his career, and the same is likely true of many Colts fans when reflecting on the legacy of Dallas Clark, who re-signed with the franchise for one day in order to officially retire as a Colt this morning.
Clark's reception sealed the deal for the Colts victory over the Ravens, and that sent the Colts to the AFC title game - a now legendary game in which Manning led the Colts from a huge deficit to win in dramatic fashion and finally beat the Patriots. A few weeks later, the Colts finally won a Super Bowl, defeating the Chicago Bears 29-17.
Clark's career with the Colts was marked by success - both individual and team success. As a team, the Colts won an unprecedented 12 games in seven straight seasons. They won seven AFC South division titles, two AFC titles, and a Super Bowl. As I wrote the other day about Clark, "In many ways, Dallas's arrival symbolizes the start of the Colts dominant run, and in other ways, Dallas's release after the 2011 season symbolizes the end of that run."
Individually, Clark set Colts franchise records in both career receptions (427) and touchdowns (46) for a tight end, surpassing NFL legend John Mackey in both categories. His 4,887 receiving yards is the second best mark by a Colts tight end behind just Mackey. In 11 years in the league, Clark caught 505 passes for 5,665 yards and 53 touchdowns. He was an incredibly dangerous threat on the field and he was one of the favorite targets of Peyton Manning. In 2009, Clark had a career year in which he caught 100 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. I remember in the Super Bowl that year against the Saints, New Orleans game-planned around Dallas Clark, treating him as if he was the Colts best player - and in many ways, he was (after Peyton, of course).
Clark was a special player on the field and off of it as well. "As great of a player as he was, the person was even greater," Colts owner Jim Irsay said at the press conference this morning. Several former and current Colts were in attendance, and Clark spent time giving them hugs before the press conference. There was Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Adam Vinatieri, David Thornton, Ryan Diem, Rick DeMulling, Hunter Smith. Several others were there in spirit as well as they honored a Colts great.
"Dallas Clark was the epitome of a good human, both on the field and off the field," punter Pat McAfee said in the locker room yesterday. "He was a super competitive guy but off the field he was so gracious. He took me under his wing whenever I got here and kind of taught me the ways of life and everything and family - I couldn't be more thankful for what Dallas Clark has done for me and my career and I think Indianapolis Colts fans feel the same way. If they're anything like me, we're all super excited to see him back in the horseshoe."
Quarterback Peyton Manning expressed his gratitude toward Clark to the Indianapolis Star's Mike Chappell yesterday, emphasizing "what an honor and privilege it was to be his teammate for those years in Indianapolis." Manning also added that, "Dallas is one of my favorite teammates and a guy that truly loved football... Tom [Moore] liked him, and all the players did, too. Dallas was a fun guy to play with and a great guy as well. I am proud of his career and proud that I was part of it and witnessed all that he accomplished.''
Clark got choked up less than ten seconds into his speech this morning and that continued for much of the morning. He thanked everyone from the video staff, the equipment staff, the PR guys, the fans, and even the mailman. He thanked Jim Irsay, mentioning how Irsay changed his life when the owner drafted Clark in 2003. "You are the definition of Colts," Clark told him as he expressed his gratitude toward the Colts owner. He also thanked former general manager Bill Polian, saying that, "On the football side of things, I've got to thank Mr. Polian first and foremost." He said that Polian "saw something bigger in me than I saw in myself." He thanked former offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who he admitted he hasted for around the first three years of his tenure in Indianapolis. He said that he thought Moore and former offensive line coach Howard Mudd drew straws to see who would get to him each day, but Clark added that he grew to really appreciate them because they didn't just pat him on the back but rather motivated him to become the best player he could be.
When he got to his teammates, he had to pause - a very long pause to gather himself. "We were blessed," Clark said, fighting off tears. "We won like it was just what you do... such a great group of men that helped shape me into the man that I am today. So many great leaders." At this point, he looked right at Reggie Wayne, and fighting off tears said, "Thank you so much." He added, "I think Reggie knows it, but he's the guy that I admired so much as a player... he's unique. He's special." Clark didn't mention it in the press conference, but the reason he wore number 87 in Baltimore was to honor Reggie Wayne. "I gotta thank Peyton," Clark also noted," because that was special." He mentioned how Peyton Manning showed you how the game was supposed to be played and how to be accountable.
Clark thanked his wife, Karen, and his two sons, who he said he was glad to be able to take with him into the facility and locker room and that he was able to have that experience with his kids. He thanked his grandmother (who was in attendance today, as were his wife and kids) and his brothers. He thanked his mother, who he lost before his senior year of high school.
"I cannot thank the Colt family, the fans, enough for all their love," Clark said. He doesn't know what's next for him and he wishes he had an answer to that question, though he said that, "I'm really excited to see where God's going to use me." He said that he's thankful to leave with his health mostly in tact.
Today was a special day for a special Colt. He is one of my favorite Colts, and not just because he was a great player on the field but because he was such a great person off of it. His humility was evident throughout his career and again today at his press conference. His impact can be seen not just in the fact that the Colts brought him back to retire as a Colt but also in what owner Jim Irsay said about him and the number of former and current players who showed up and those who expressed their appreciation for him. As Clark and owner Jim Irsay held up Clark's number 44 jersey, Irsay shouted, "Welcome home, Dallas! Welcome home!"
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Irsay shouts, "Welcome home, Dallas! Welcome home!" <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23BackinBlue44&src=hash">#BackinBlue44</a> <a href="http://t.co/7XJ74mkKKe">pic.twitter.com/7XJ74mkKKe</a></p>— Josh Wilson (@Coltsfanwilson) <a href="https://twitter.com/Coltsfanwilson/statuses/479285713423175681">June 18, 2014</a></blockquote>
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"In my eyes, he'll always be a Colt," kicker Adam Vinatieri said yesterday. The same can be said by every Colts fan, and it's clear that Dallas Clark will go down as one of the great Colts in the eyes of many fans. He was a special player and a special person, and Dallas will tell you that he was in a special place as well. He's been a part of two other franchises since he left Indianapolis, and he said today that, "There's not 31 other teams like this. This is special."
"I'm a Colt," Clark said while getting emotional. "I'm very lucky to say that."