CASTLE PINES, Colo. — When the greatest living players in NFL history converge at the Super Bowl on Sunday, they will be joined by two brothers from Colorado who saw a call from the league office last fall and didn't recognize the number.
Earl and Tim Clark never played a down of professional football, nor do any of the legends in Miami likely know who they are. A few might also not know much about their father, Dutch.
But a trip to Tim's basement in Castle Pines shows just how much Dutch Clark is ingrained into the history of professional football. His Pro Football Hall of Fame ring and bust sit inside glass casing. Pamphlets from his playing days in the 1930s — a Thanksgiving Day game against the Bears, an all-star game against the Cleveland Rams — hang side by side. Newspaper clippings comparing Clark to Jim Thorpe and Red Grange are framed on the wall.
This past season, another honor was added to Clark's legacy when the NFL unveiled the league's all-time Top 100 team on the 100th anniversary of the league's founding. Earl and Tim missed a couple calls and emails from the league when the team was announced, but eventually got word: Their father, who died in 1978, was named one of the 12 best running backs of all time, alongside names like Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.
The NFL invited the Clark brothers to the Super Bowl in Miami this week to take part in honoring the team.
"It's a great honor," Tim Clark said, "and if he was alive, I think he would go. But he'd probably be a little embarrassed because he wasn't looking for the recognition."
Clark's selection among the running backs — though he mostly played quarterback and kicked and played defense, too — represented the early days of the NFL.
In Tim Clark's trove of memorabilia, his father was featured in a brochure written by the old Lions coach, Potsy Clark, detailing the nuances of the game. The brochure featured a picture of Dutch, in full uniform, a football reared back, ready to fire "a fast one."
In the next few hundred words, Dutch's coach explained what was then a foreign concept: "How to forward pass."
The "galloping ghost of the gridiron"
Earl "Dutch" Clark was born in the Pueblo area in 1906. His sister, the story goes, heard what sounded like an accent in her brother's voice and they took to calling him Dutch. The nickname stuck.
From Dutch's early days at Central High School, he was an athletics phenom, starring in both football and basketball. Tim Clark has the old newspaper clips to prove it, too.
In one article about the Central High basketball team, Dutch was described as "the galloping ghost of the gridiron, the phantom of the hardwood." In a basketball win over Canon City, Dutch scored 19 of the Tigers' 27 points.
On the football field, Dutch carried the ball six times in one half against Littleton and scored four touchdowns, leading Central to a 58-3 blowout. After graduation, Dutch headed to Northwestern University in Chicago, his sons said. He lasted a week. A thief swiped his trunk of belongings and Dutch, homesick for Pueblo, returned to Colorado.
The move back home didn't hamper Clark's football prospects. At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, he played quarterback and became one of the first All-Americans west of the Mississippi River. The Associated Press touted Dutch's ability "to tote the ball," including long touchdown runs against Wyoming, and also his success as a defender in an era when most players played on both sides of the ball.
Dutch began his pro career for the Portsmouth, Ohio Spartans, in 1931, when professional football crowds were often only a fraction of those at bigger colleges. He was named All-Pro his first two seasons, but quit to return home to Colorado and coach at his alma mater.
When Dutch returned to pro football in 1934, the Spartans had been bought and moved to Detroit, and renamed the Lions.
Dutch picked up where he left off. He led the young NFL in rushing touchdowns in three of the next four seasons and led the Lions to an NFL championship in 1935. In 1937 and 1938, Dutch also coached the Lions — another relic of history being the player-coach. In a win over the Chicago Bears, a Lions' drive had stalled on the 11-yard-line. Clark, the coach, trotted onto the field and kicked a field goal.
"It was a lot different football back then," Tim Clark said.
For Dutch's stardom as a player — and his services as coach and general manager — he was paid a salary of about $7,000, Tim Clark said.
"I asked him if that was a lot of money back then. He said, 'It was a job, I got paid.'"
"He never talked about himself"
The Clark brothers don't remember their father's playing days. Earl, born in 1934, was too young, and Tim wasn't born until the 1950s, long after Dutch retired.
And as the boys grew up, their dad's fame remained a mystery.
"He never talked about himself," Tim said.
But his mother and sisters kept hundreds of newspaper clippings from Clark's career, dating back to high school. The Clarks discovered the clippings in scrapbooks and had the archives laminated.
Tim Clark keeps some of the clippings on display but dozens more are stored in drawers in his basement. One article framed on Tim's wall said Dutch lived "in virtual anonymity, and he liked it fine."
This weekend, Dutch's sons will brush shoulders with living legends. Earl Clark joked that he might be embarrassed in their company — at 5-foot-6, he'd be among the shortest in the room.
The opportunity would be a gold mine for anyone seeking a quick autograph from an NFL great. But one thing the Clark brothers learned from their understated father: Don't bother people.
"Probably won't come back with one [autograph]," Tim Clark said. "But if I could sneak a story or two in there, or listen to their story, that'll be priceless."