All American in Plaster

October 16, 1978

By RB Scott

With a little bit of good fortune, Dan Clark, formerly of East High, late of the Irish Mission, and currently of the University of Utah, could have been an All-American. No doubt about it.

The choice of the past perfect tense – could have been – is deliberate and significant because blessings have not always come his way on the gridiron. But, like a craps addict, Dan desperately believes his luck is just about to change, even though the dice are loaded and actuarial formulas forecast disasters ahead, even death.  Here’s the full story.

Dan has been an outstanding athlete all his life.  He lettered in football, basketball and baseball at East.  He was as dedicated as he was talented and determined.  He grew accustomed to rising from third string to the first in a single season.  He regularly played hurt -- through ordinary football owies as well as serious, potentially crippling injuries.

No reader should conclude that this column is my homage to playing hurt, to self-destruction, to gutting it out for the gipper despite considerable personal risks and ignoring the advice of competent medical professionals. This is a tale of a young man who has about as much common sense as, well, your average 20-something football player.

Dan’s first football-provoked trip to the emergency room was at age 10, when he so severely strained the ligaments in his right knee that his leg was put in a cast.  At 11, doctors plastered-up his other knee for the same reason.  A year later he shattered a thumb and three fingers of the same hand.

At this point, a less-determined and more sensible young man would have taken-up tennis or croquet.  Or synchronized swimming..

But if nothing else, Dan was possessed.  That is to say: he was a “can do” kind of guy.  “If they tell me I can’t do it, it just makes me want to prove them wrong,” he said fiercely.

 In high school he set out to win the Christensen-Hewlett Trophy, which is awarded each year to the top senior athlete at East.  He was named the outstanding athlete of both his sophomore and junior classes, but a season-ending blow to his thigh dashed any hope he had for winning the coveted senior prize. Despite the injury, he was recruited heavily, but opted to relocate a five blocks up 13th East to the University of Utah.

He was one of six freshmen selected to join the varsity. His daily training routine included a couple dozen pull-ups, intended to strengthen his arm and shoulder muscles.  Completing the repetitions for the day, he’d hang from  bar as long as he could stand it, which is what he was doing when his shoulder pads pinched shut the carotid artery  – the vessel in the neck that carries oxygenated blood to the brain.  The next thing Dan knew he was lying on the ground waking up.  He’d blacked out and the free fall had torn-up the ligaments in his previously repaired right knee

Doctors told him the cast would be on for four weeks. Dan cut it off after two. “I just wanted to play,” he says shrugging sheepishly. But by the then the varsity team had been picked and Dan was shuttled down to the Frosh.

He trained relentlessly over the winter, determined reclaim a spot on the varsity squad. The day before Spring Camp opened he ripped-up the ligaments in an ankle playing in a pick-up basketball game.

It is completely understandable that, at this point, his coaches were beginning to regard Dan Clark as an accident waiting to happen. No doubt they wondered whether he was worth the investment of time and scholarship money. Because they didn’t have an efficiency expert on staff to run the numbers, they decided to give it the old, ahem, college try.

Dan got his marching orders and a demanding personal trainer to count cadence. “I ran my guts out for that guy because he said it was my last chance – all the other coaches had given up. I’d get back to my room at night and just stare at the walls.  It was a very lonely time…but I made the traveling squad and played a lot.”

Oddly, no sooner had he started play well again than he began to think about the meaning of life -- not a particularly useful endeavor for someone who routinely risked life and limb on the gridiron. Wouldn’t you know it: before he could do next month’s home teaching he was off on a Mormon mission to Ireland –now driven to help people find Christ in this mortality. When returned home after two years of service, to dispel the “myth” that Lord’s work atrophies muscles, tames killer instincts,  and, in essence renders even hard chargers like Dan inept at the brutal games grown men play.

In Ireland, Dan had neither gym nor trainer.  He had to improvise.  When he couldn’t  find a heavy train axle on a local railway bed, he’d make do lifting boulders or bench-pressing his missionary companion. His fitness obsession didn’t keep him from spiritual success: eventually he became an assistant to the mission president.

Returning home, he surprised everyone, including himself, by making the team.  But before the first game, he tore the ligaments in his thumb, a season-ending injury. Of course, this only made Dan more determined than ever. 

When Spring training rolled around he was raring to go.  Instead of running at half speed for the first tackling drill, he let it all hang out.  His opponent’s helmet smashed into Dan’s shoulder and everything went numb: “my neck, my shoulder, arm and fingers, everything on my right side,” he remembers. “When I got up, I couldn’t talk coherently because my face was numb too.”

Sensation gradually returned to his right side, but his upper arm and shoulder are still virtually useless because of severe nerve damage. Lately there have been hopeful signs of healing, slow mending.  And, for a change, he got lucky too. While treating the shoulder, doctors inadvertently discovered an earlier undiagnosed neck fracture at the seventh vertebrae—“the one that snaps when they hang you,” Dan laughs ghoulishly.  Though healed, his fracture-weakened neck is much more susceptible to re-injury, which could result in paralysis, even instant death.

He now wears layer upon layer of foam padding to protect the weak shoulder and a strap that limits the mobility and range of his arm. Doctors told him to count on a rather severe case of arthritis when he’s 30, and warned if continues to play, he risks losing use of his arm permanently.  Still he’s determined to make the squad for Saturday’s game in Houston. “With luck, I’ll do it,” says dice-rolling Dan.

But if good fortune finally shines on Dan Clark, he’ll be listening to the game on the radio at home in Salt Lake City. If he is, then perhaps for the first time in a dozen or so years, his mother and father will sleep soundly.