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Earl “Greatness” Clark – One of the NFL’s important early legends

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Courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame Courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame

The National Football League is one of the most widely recognized organizations in the entire world, raking in record-breaking television ratings every February while accumulating $9.5 billion annually. The game has produced some of America’s biggest stars and contributed to some of our favorite fall traditions, as we watch in awe as the greatest athletes in the world clash heads like rams battling for position. 

One of the initial stars of this tremendous league hails from a city in Southeast Colorado; a city touted as the “Home of Heroes” because of the unwavering courage of those that the city has bred in its rich history.

Residents of Pueblo likely know Dutch Clark from the local stadium in his namesake. Dutch Clark Stadium, formerly Pueblo Public School Stadium, was rededicated to honor Clark in 1980, and a statue portraying Dutch was placed outside the stadium five years later.

Most famously, Dutch Clark Stadium hosts the annual Bell Game rivalry between Pueblo Central and Centennial every year. The game personifies a cross-town rivalry that has existed since 1892, a tradition rich in school pride and historic performances. Every year, swarms of fans cloaked in blue clash with the opposition, painted red from head to toe, all in the name of boisterous, friendly competition.

Earl “Dutch” Clark was born in Fowler, Colo. and attended high school in Pueblo at Central High School. While in high school, Clark was a multi-sport star, excelling in basketball, track, and football, towering remarkably over his competition from an early age.

Photo Courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame Photo Courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame

Interestingly enough, Clark was able to be a standout in sports particularly football, despite being what many states would consider legally blind, according to author and head of the NFL Films research library Chris Willis. Willis detailed Clark’s life in his book “Dutch Clark: The Life of an NFL Legend and the Birth of the Detroit Lions.”

“It was just something he dealt with throughout his life,” Willis said in his book. Clark’s vision was 20/100 in one eye, and 20/200 in the other. 20/200 vision is the cutoff in the United States for being considered legally blind, and essentially meant that Clark could see at 20 feet what the normal person was seeing at 200 feet.

The poor vision clearly never affected Clark a whole lot on the gridiron. Clark was still able to dodge the blurred would-be tacklers, power over a kaleidoscope of helmets, skin and jerseys, and somehow find the kneaded green and white of the goal line.

As a senior, Dutch had already contributed to a successful Wildcats team as the fullback and the kicker, and Central High School was poised to make a state championship run. In the 1925 game between Central and Centennial, now known as the Bell Game, Dutch ran for four touchdowns and threw for two more en route to a 43-0 victory for the Wildcats, according to Willis. The performance solidified Dutch as a star, not just in Pueblo, but across the country.

Courtesy College College Archives Courtesy College College Archives

Dutch and the Wildcats would go on to lose in the state semifinals that year, but he would eventually win a state championship and earn high school All-American honors in basketball during his time in Pueblo.

When the time came for Clark to graduate from Pueblo Central, he had more to decide than just where to attend college. Clark, a multi-sport star, had to decide whether he wanted to concentrate on football, basketball, track, or play multiple sports while seeking a college degree.

Several schools within and outside the state of Colorado were courting Dutch for obvious reasons; he was a powerhouse on the football field and a scoring machine on the hardwood.

Initially, Clark seemed destined for Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, a school with one of the richest football traditions in the history of the sport. Clark also loved the beauty and consistency that was (and is) the state of Colorado, and was being intensely courted by Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

Courtesy Colorado College Archives Courtesy Colorado College Archives

For one reason or another, though, Clark made a last-minute decision to go to the Windy City – Chicago – and pursue a basketball career and coaching degree from Northwestern University.

Clark would soon become homesick, however. Willis explained that he was constantly being hounded and questioned about playing football, as tales of his athletic prowess travelled the 1,100 miles with him to college.

More than that, Dutch had found love in high school, and began to miss his significant other. While Dutch was a fierce competitor on the field, it’s clear that there was one person that he coveted more than any award or success. After two weeks of missing his girl, missing the sport of football, and missing Pueblo, Clark made the decision to leave Northwestern and return to Colorado.

Luckily for his biggest suitor, he chose to take up the offer given to him by Colorado College. Now with nothing to hinder his focus, Clark could set his sights, however blurry, on becoming a great football player and student.

Clark’s third year at Colorado College was easily his best, and at the time was the most dominant season ever put together by a collegiate football player in Colorado. Dutch did it all on the football field, playing quarterback, running back, kicker, punter, linebacker and punt returner.

During one game against the University of Wyoming in 1928, Clark had a champion performance, and showed that he was a dual-threat as he rushed for 381 yards and threw for 200 more, leading the Tigers to a 48-25 victory over the Cowboys.

His athletic prowess allowed him to put up previously unseen numbers for the Tigers, gaining over 1,300 yards rushing while scoring 103 of the team’s 203 points on the season. His junior-year performance was good enough for him to earn All-American status, the first such honor for any collegiate player in the state of Colorado. 

In 1931, Clark was graduated and ready to don the leather helmet as a professional football player. He  joined the Portsmouth Spartans, a new member of the National Football League that were located in Portsmouth, Ohio. In his second season with the Spartans, Clark quarterbacked the club and threw for 272 yards with two touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran for 461 yards and three touchdowns.

Despite being a successful general on the field for the infant Ohio squad, Clark decided it was in his best interest to return to Colorado once again, where he could make more money as head football coach for Colorado School of Mines. A few short years later, the landscape of the NFL and Dutch’s place in history would be changed forever.

George Richards, owner of several Detroit-area radio stations, purchased the Spartans in 1934 in the midst of the Great depression. In Portsmouth, the team was struggling with revenue in the effects from the economic downturn, and Richards saw an opportunity to turn the team around and become an NFL powerhouse. He named the team the Detroit Lions, and thus Richards brought about what would become a historic franchise and a staple in the NFL.

Following the team’s move to Detroit was Dutch Clark, who returned to play for the newly founded Lions. Though Clark was technically the quarterback because he occasionally threw the ball, he was more suited to be labeled a running back. Clark was the play caller for the Lions, but most often played tailback in a single-wing style offense.

In his first season with the Lions, Clark earned All-Pro honors when he rushed for 763 yards and eight touchdowns, threw for 383 yards while completing 46 percent of his passes and kicked 13 extra points and four field goals.

Clark’s first season is also enshrined in NFL history for other reasons, as team owner George Richards, a marketing whiz, moved one of the Lions’ regular season games to Thanksgiving for the very first time, starting a holiday tradition that continues to this day.

Clark would guide the Lions to the NFL Championship in the team’s second season of existence, joining the Tigers and Red Wings as Detroit professional sports teams to win their respective league champions that year, helping label Detroit as the “City of Champions.” 

It was clear that Clark was unlike any other player in the NFL, as he was the league leader in scoring for three of his seven seasons in the league and was named to the All-NFL team six of those seven seasons. He contributed points through the air, on the ground and with his mastery of the now-outdated dropkick.

Clark finished his seven-year NFL career with 36 rushing touchdowns, 11 passing touchdowns, three receiving touchdowns, 71 extra points and 15 field goals. As if to prove he could really do it all, Dutch also served as a player-coach of the Lions during his last two seasons in 1937-38.

Dutch Clark retired after the 1938 season, and went on to serve as a coach for the Cleveland Rams, Seattle Bombers and Los Angeles Dons, before returning to Detroit to take the athletic director and football head coach positions at the University of Detroit.

After his retirement from the game, Dutch’s fantastic career was recognized with several awards and honors. He was one of 54 members of the first ever class of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

In 1963, the Pro Football Hall of Fame was formed and inducted 17 members as part of its first class. Dutch Clark, native of Pueblo, Colo., was among those enshrined forever in professional football history that year, along with such legends as Red Grange and Jim Thorpe.

Colorado recognized Clark as an initial member of their Hall of Fame as well, inducting Dutch alongside boxing legend Jack Dempsey and another football star Byron White in 1965.

Courtesy Colorado College Archives Courtesy Colorado College Archives

Dutch Clark’s No. 7 jersey was the first number to be retired by the Detroit Lions, and no player for the Lions has worn it since. His legacy is one that has stood the test of time, and is one that all football fans young and old should be educated about and recognize.

With the stadium and statue in his name standing as a reminder to all, Pueblo is indeed the Home of Heroes, but it is also the home of the one and only Earl “Dutch” Clark.

 – by Nick Jurney

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