IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz is heading into his 16th season as Iowa’s head football coach. That covers a lot of players. But there’s no one who epitomizes the program during the Ferentz era more than Dallas Clark.
Clark came to Iowa City as a walk-on outside linebacker. He left as a consensus first-team all-America tight end and first-round NFL draft pick.
There are similar success stories during the Ferentz era. But Clark, whose humble, small-town Iowa roots remain unchanged, stands out. Like a father who doesn’t want to pick among his sons, Ferentz cautiously spoke to my theory.
“We’ve been really lucky because we’ve had so many guys, and it’s hard to pick one over another,” Ferentz said. “But what can you say bad about Dallas Clark?”
Clark’s football career ended Wednesday, when the 35-year-old signed a deal with Indianapolis and retired as a member of the team where he spent nine of his 11 NFL seasons. He leaves the game with a Super Bowl LXI championship ring, Pro Bowl laurels in 2009 and more catches and touchdown receptions than any other tight end in Colts history.
Clark was firmly entrenched as one of quarterback Peyton Manning’s favorite targets when Bill Polian, then the Colts president, came to Kinnick Stadium to scout an Iowa-Indiana game in 2009.
“He (Polian) came into the locker room before the game,” Ferentz said. “And he’s talking to me and (strength coach) Chris Doyle. And he says, ‘You know, Dallas Clark just loves getting his ankles taped.’ His point was that he loves everything about football and brings energy to everyone around him.”
Not had for a walk-on outside linebacker from a small Iowa high school.
“A, he’s a great story,” Ferentz said. “And B, he’s just a great human being. And obviously a great football player on top of it. Being a walk-on, and then being buried on the depth chart a little bit. When we got here, he was an outside linebacker and Bruce Nelson was like a third- of fourth-team tight end. So it’s funny how things all worked.”
Nelson, from Emmetsburg, was moved to center. He was a captain, an all-Big Ten selection and a finalist for the Rimington Award as a senior in 2002. Nelson was drafted in the second round by Carolina, but hip injuries ended his pro career after two seasons.
“We moved Nellie right away,” Ferentz said. “Dallas took a little bit longer, but we got him over there. Once we got them in the right seats, both those guys worked out pretty well.”
Clark, who enrolled at Iowa as a part-time student in 1998 chasing an opportunity that coach Hayden Fry gave him, became a full-time student in January of 1999. Ferentz had just been hired as Fry’s successor. Clark sat out the 1999 season. He was a special teams player and saw a few snaps at linebacker in 2000. He was moved to tight end before the 2001 season and put on scholarship that fall. He started 10 games at tight end in 2001 and 13 in 2002, with 1,281 career receiving yards. He was also a first-team all-American and an all-Big Ten selection after the 2002 season, and received the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.
Ferentz fondly recalls that 2002 season for another reason.
“He’s the John Mackey Award winner, and he’s bugging us at every turn about playing more special teams,” Ferentz said. “There aren’t many great players who would do that. And he was a great college player. He was the same way as a pro.”
Clark entered the 2003 draft with a season of eligibility remaining. The Colts used the 24th pick in the first round to take the guy who best symbolizes Iowa football under Ferentz.
“The Dallas Clark today is the same guy he was back in 1999, when we first met him,” Ferentz said. “Just a very humble, high-energy, pure, great guy. So yeah, if he’s on the front cover of our 15-year program, that would be a pretty good compliment. He’s as good as they get.”
Rick Brown, a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year, covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.