Clark goes from unknown to NFL champ

Every week, ESPN RISE will spotlight professional athletes we believe should inspire those of you in high school who are striving to get better at your sport. Many of them were once just like you are right now -- unknown, unlucky, unrecruited and unappreciated.

Did any of these athletes give up? Nope. They followed their dreams; continued to get bigger, stronger and faster; and once an opportunity was presented to them, they kicked open that door.

For the second installment of this series, the editors at ESPN RISE decided the Dallas Clark journey was a story that needed to be told. The Indianapolis Colts tight end, one of the favorite targets of Peyton Manning, started out in a small town with a population of just 431. Without even a whiff of a college scholarship offer, he walked on to the University of Iowa football team. Two years ago, he was a starter in the Super Bowl.

Growing up in Livermore, Iowa, Clark excelled at multiple sports in a town that was so small it had no stoplights. In his four years at Twin River Valley High School, he earned four letters in football, basketball and track and five letters in baseball.

It may not be a tough task to be the top athlete when your class has 25 total students, but Clark made his mark on the football field initially as a linebacker. Clark was first-team all-conference and honorable mention all-state as a junior after making 140 tackles to earn team MVP honors. Clark had an even better senior season. He recorded 160 tackles and once again earned team MVP and all-conference honors while receiving a second-team all-state selection.

Just three days before Clark's graduation, as he and his family were preparing for an open house celebration that was a custom in the town, tragedy struck when Dallas' mom, Jan, had a massive heart attack and died. Clark tried with all his might to revive the most important person in his life but to no avail as the damage was too severe and his mom passed away in his arms.

Just days later, Clark would run in the district track meet, and although it was a difficult time for him and his family, he honored his mom's memory by setting the school record in both the high and low hurdles.

Clark told the local Livermore paper, "She's still with me. She's always with me. She was able to give me the strength to do everything I've done. I've always tried to make her proud and happy."

With no coaches or recruiters pounding on his door, Clark decided to walk on at the University of Iowa. After redshirting in 1998, he saw another season go by without him playing a single down as an injury wiped out the second half of his 1999 season and any chance he had of seeing the field.

Despite not seeing game action in two years, Clark continued to give it his all and in 2000 was finally rewarded with a chance. He made the most of it as he stood out on special teams to earn Iowa's annual Coaches Appreciation Award.

In a move that has Clark thanking Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz every time he sees him, Ferentz then decided to give the third-string linebacker a chance to shine at tight end, suggesting he make the position switch as a sophomore.

Clark told The New York Times, "He told me that he saw a lot of natural ability and instincts. I thought he was full of it. But from the first few days of playing tight end, running pass routes just felt natural."

Ferentz deflects the credit from himself and instead directs it toward Clark.

"He gives us too much credit for his success," Ferentz said in the same New York Times article. "You could see he had ability at linebacker, but he just wasn't reacting to plays as quickly as you'd expect a superb athlete would. It wasn't instinctive. You can't guarantee that a position switch is going to work, but for him, it worked right away."

Clark started at tight end for the first time in 2001 and played in 10 games for the Hawkeyes, catching 38 passes for 539 yards and four touchdowns while still playing on special teams and defense to earn an All-Big Ten honorable mention. Finally making his mark as an important impact player for the school, he was awarded a scholarship for the 2002 season, in which he exceeded most expectations except probably his own.

By the 2003 season, Clark was regarded as one of the top college tight ends in the country. After helping Iowa to an 11-2 record, he ended his college playing days with 1,281 career receiving yards and one year of eligibility remaining on the table. He declared for the 2003 NFL draft, where he was projected to go in the first round. As projected, Clark was selected in the first round by the Colts with the 24th pick.

Despite missing the end of the 2006 regular season with a knee injury, Clark came back for the playoffs and was an important part of the Colts' Super Bowl run as they defeated the Chicago Bears 29-17 to become champions of the football world. In the Super Bowl victory, Clark recorded four receptions for 36 yards and even had a yard rushing.

Clark's numbers have continued to improve. In 2007 he finished with 58 receptions for 616 yards and set a single-season team record for touchdowns by a tight end with 11. As one of the elite tight ends in the game, Clark was named the Colts' franchise player in 2008; the team then rewarded him by making him the highest-paid tight end in the NFL.

For a player who wasn't offered a single college scholarship out of high school, Clark has made a truly inspirational ascent in the football world. It's almost as if someone has been watching over him.