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Desmond Clark: A Bear for life

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Desmond Clark made Chicago his first free agent visit in 2003. He signed here and never left. In this interview with Jack M Silverstein, the tight end-turned-financial advisor reflects on his Bears career while explaining why he does not look in life’s rearview mirror.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Chicago Bears - December 17, 2006 Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

When the interview ended and we both began putting on our jackets in preparation for another frosty Chicago night, we each pulled out poof-ball wool hats. Mine was the Cubs hat I’ve worn since the day I bought it, Game 6 of this year’s NLCS.

Desmond Clark, my interview subject, pulled out a Bears hat.

“You’re talking about my fraternity here!” he told me earlier. “I’m a Bear for life.”

Clark is also a Chicagoan for life. The Bears were his first free agent visit in 2003. He signed here and played here the rest of his career, through training camp of 2011. During that time he became the most productive Bears tight end since Mike Ditka and was the first free agent signee who played on the Super Bowl team of 2006.

He was attracted to the Bears for four main reasons: the contract, the starting job, a coach from his alma mater Wake Forest who was with the Bears, and the team’s history.

“I knew about Ditka but that was about it,” Clark says now. He learned the team’s tight end history from the photos on the wall of the tight end meeting room. “That’s how I learned about Greg Latta. That’s how I learned about Jim Thornton. And of course Emery Moorehead was there. I knew him before I got here.”

Clark retired during the 2011 season. Five years later, he is working at MassMutual Chicago and practicing his five F’s of life: faith, family, fitness, finance, and fun. In this interview, edited for space, Clark reflects on his Bears career, gives his post-mortem on Super Bowl XLI, tells why he doesn’t worry about injuries, and wonders what the rest of us have wondered the past few seasons: Why oh why did we trade Greg Olsen?

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You came to the Bears after a 4-win season. As a fan, when your team is down, you’re always looking for signs that you’ll be champs in the coming years. What sort of flashes did you start to see in 2003 that “maybe this is a club that in a few years can win it all”?

In 2003, the only two free agents that we had were me and Kordell Stewart. The one main piece was Rex Grossman. He was drafted in the first round that year to be the eventual starting quarterback. They brought him along slowly that first year, but he was that first piece from when I got here where we were saying, “This is building toward the future.” And he ended up taking us to a Super Bowl.

But there were a lot of pieces who were already here. Mike Brown. Brian Urlacher. Olin Kreutz. We had a nucleus already set for that run that we were going to make. Then we added other pieces, like Tommie Harris. He didn’t play in the Super Bowl but he was instrumental getting us there. You had Peanut Tillman, who was drafted (in 2003). Lance Briggs got drafted that year also.

This Tribune feature in Oct. 2006 comparing the 2006 Bears to their 1985 counterparts features Desmond Clark on the first row at the bottom “as Emery Moorehead”.

But really it was bringing in Lovie the next year that took all of those pieces and made it into what it had to be to get us to the Super Bowl. He reshaped that whole defense. He got rid of the big guys who couldn’t penetrate and get to the quarterback. But it was already a defensive-minded team. And you sort of feel like the little brother on the team. It was always, the offense had to do just enough for the defense to win the game. As an offense and for me personally, I didn’t like being the little brother on the team.

So it was frustrating at times that the offense couldn’t do more, but at the same time it’s a team game, and our defense, they carried the load most of the time. As long as we won the game — but I would have still liked to have had more of an offensive balance.

Before the 2006 Bears opened their season, even the local reporters were doubtful that the team’s offense could perform.

But then in ’06, those first six, seven weeks, you guys really lit it up.

People tend to forget that they were saying “Rex Grossman for MVP” through the first seven weeks. And then we had that bad game against Miami, when we lost our first one, and that was the beginning of “Good Rex, Bad Rex” at that point. I think that year we were in the middle of the pack as far as the offense, and that’s why we went to the Super Bowl. Because the defense was still great. They just needed us to be average.

And that year we put up some pretty good numbers on the offensive side of the ball, with Berrian and his speed going deep, and Moose being a sure-handed guy. and we had Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson running the ball. And then we still had Adrian Peterson running the ball. The offensive line was probably the best offensive line that I played on.

So yeah, we had all the pieces. The offense was able to carry our load. I believe the defense was always doing what they needed to do. And of course, our special teams were just that: special, with Devin Hester coming in that year.

What were your favorite memories of ’06? I won’t even say, “this part of the season” or “that game” or whatever.

My favorite memory has to be coming out of the tunnel, being introduced in the Super Bowl. that’s a lifetime dream. As a kid growing up, playing the game of football, the Super Bowl was it. And now being in the Super Bowl and coming out, and all the cameras are flashing, and you know you’ve got 100 million people or more around the world watching you. This is the only game in town, and I’m actually in it. That was a special moment just taking all of that in at the beginning of the game.

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears
Desmond Clark (top) goes full chest bump with Muhsin Muhammad after Muhammad’s touchdown put the Bears up (with the PAT) 14-6 in Super Bowl XLI.
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

So post-mortem the game. What happened? When you look back at it, do you identify certain — you know, “If we’d only done this or that.”

Oh yeah. The defense had one glaring mistake, Reggie Wayne, going down the sideline wide open. Other than that, I think the defense played them pretty well.

On our side of the ball, we had costly turnovers. A fumble that Cedric Benson had. A couple of interceptions that we had on the offensive side of the ball. And I think one of the mistakes we made as an entire team was the coaching staff — I felt like we should have ran the ball more. Because it’s wet. It’s rainy. We have a quarterback who can throw interceptions. Not that he lost the game or anything like that, but you had a running back who was carrying the load. And we didn’t go to him enough, I think. I think we should have relied on Thomas Jones and our offensive line to carry us. Because we were in the game.

Do you remember if that was discussed at halftime or on the sidelines?

No, because at halftime, we were right there. What was it, 16-14?

Yeah.

So we were right there. There’s no discussion at halftime because everything is still open. We can still do anything we want to. Me, I question not the fact that we were throwing the ball but some of the things that we called in a downpour. So it’s moreso what we called, not that we were running pass plays.

But there’s a lot of mistakes. I’m sure I missed a block or two. I dropped the last pass of the game. So there’s a lot of blame to go around. We got there as a team, we lost as a team. We had a great season. Great memories. But there were key moments in the game that I think, “Man, if that wouldn’t have happened.”

And it’s those things right there — that one play by the defense, a couple interceptions, a couple play calls that could have been questionable, and then not letting Thomas Jones touch the ball enough. He was that emotional leader we looked to to get everything going. A game like that with rain coming down. Yeah. I would have liked to see him get the ball a little bit more.

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears
Missed opportunities.
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

I’m interested in this idea of “the window” in pro football, both for a team and for a player. It opens, you have a certain amount of time to accomplish your goals, and it closes. 2006 was definitely the mountaintop. In 2007, they drafted Greg Olsen. What was it like to be a veteran and have the team draft your position in the first round? And yet i know you guys are pretty close.

It was ironic that it happened that year, because I just came off of probably the best year of my career. Some people might say ’01 when I was in Denver, but I think I had more of an impact in ’06 even though I didn’t catch as many passes. But them drafting Greg, it didn’t move me one way or another. I just thought it was odd, because I thought that if they were going to do it, they would do it after the ’05 season when it was a lot of talk about me declining and us needing a tight end who could stretch the field.

But when Greg came in, I was so appreciative of when I came into the league how Shannon Sharpe, Dwayne Carswell, and Byron Chamberlain, how they treated me as a rookie, that that set the benchmark for my career of when now I’m the leader of the group, when I’m the veteran, how I’m going to treat people who come into this game. They just wanted the best for me. And that’s the same thing with Greg.

I think Greg paid me one of the highest compliments — and he probably doesn’t even know that I read it — but he put something on social media, or it was in a magazine or something, that he gave me credit for helping him make that transition from being in college to becoming the tight end that he’s become. And I believe that for any veteran who has a young guy who comes in and they have that type of talent, that type of talent can get lost in bad experiences and not having the right type of mentors at the early part of the career.

(Pause) Well, it can get stunted. It won’t get lost, because that person still will rise up. But it can get stunted early on if they don’t have the right group of people around them to get the best out of them and to have that team mentality of, “We do good things together.” That’s what we used to say in the tight end room. I got that from Denver, because they say that in Denver. So I brought that with me to Chicago.

Instead of you and Greg ever clashing, it always seemed like you guys were close. And you played so well together.

We always deferred to each other. Greg never made it about him and I never made it about me. Matter fact, it was 2009, I think it was, and I think Greg had some escalators in his contract. And coming up those last two games, I just started saying, “Greg, take this series.” And there would be other games where I’m having a very good game, and he’d be like, “Go ahead, I know it’s my series, but take this series.”

That was always our relationship. Even when they came to me in ’09 and said, “Greg is going to be the starter,” I was pissed, because I felt like at least we could go into camp and he would have to beat me out. But Greg to this day, unless he reads what I’m saying now, he would have never known that I was pissed because it had nothing to do with him. He was doing his job, and I was just trying to do my job. That’s how I kept it the whole time.

We had a really good relationship, and I like to think that — even though I know it’s not true — that when he got down to Charlotte with the Carolina Panthers, that he got #88 to pay tribute to me. (Smiles) I know that’s not true. But I’ll still think it.

So really, what happened with Greg Olsen? Why did we trade — just, why? Why? Why?

I couldn’t tell you.

Why didn’t we get the most out of him, and then he leaves and he’s as good as we knew he would be?

It was our offensive coordinator.

So Mike Martz at that point?

Yeah. I don’t know what it was with Martz, but his whole career, tight ends never meant anything to him. Just look at his whole history. He never incorporated them into his offense. and he was almost forced to do it here. In 2010, he brought in (Brandon) Manumaleuna, and they paid him all that money, so they were forced to play him. In 2010, I had practically every coach — offensive and defensive coach — go to either Lovie or Mike Martz and tell them that I needed to be playing, and it never happened. It never happened.

Greg Olsen (pause) he was just (pause) — the tight end position just wasn’t a valued position to (Martz). He saw that position as a third offensive lineman.

Martz wanted tight ends who were there to block.

Correct.

Which for a guy who is so offensively-minded, it doesn’t make any sense that you would turn down weapons.

To me, it never made sense. For them to trade him, that didn’t make sense. For them not to play me in 2010 did not make sense. We had three tight ends out there, and I guarantee you nobody on our team, including the coaches, would say that I was lower than number two on the depth chart, and that’s only behind Greg. But I had two other tight ends playing ahead of me because they were big tight ends who blocked.

(Ed. note: After the trade, Bears GM Jerry Angelo told reporters that Olsen pushed for the trade. Olsen denied it. Three years later, Angelo, no longer with the Bears, said that trading Olsen was a mistake.)

I’m sure you were not surprised to see how well Olsen has done in Carolina.

No, not at all! Because if Greg would have played his first few years without me being here, he probably would have been in the Pro Bowl his second or third year in the league. Because we had to share snaps. So it doesn’t surprise me at all. (…)

I know why they got rid of me. I was older. 34. my contract would have been guaranteed because I got injured and I would have been out for a few weeks. (…) I had a great camp in 2011. A great camp. I’m grateful for every single moment that I had. People talk about (not playing much in) 2010 — “You must have been pissed.” No, not really. At the time, yeah, but I’m not bitter about it now, because when I look back on it, I got paid every single week. And I went out and practiced and busted my ass every single week. I can’t help if they played me or not. They paid me for my time. They paid me for my services. I don’t have anything to be mad about.

So you were done after 2011. And the Lovie era was over after 2012.

And it hasn’t been the same since.

I was a beat reporter that year and I was in the locker room the day Lovie was let go, and there were guys crying in the locker room. Some vets, but new guys too. That effect was pretty incredible.

Lovie gets that loyalty by showing the love that he has for the individual players. It’s almost that servant leadership that he always put on display. But he had to be a coach at the same time, and he balanced that very well. That’s why a lot of guys were dedicated to him. I don’t think you could ever say, even in ’06, that the Chicago Bears were one of the more talented teams in the NFL. On the defensive side, yeah. But as an entire team, you never looked at us and said, “They have a wealth of talent as a whole team.” But we never had a season with Lovie, besides ’04, that we were not competitive. and there has to be something said for that.

He got the best out of the talent that was there. And you see coaches with better talent not get the same results. And I think that’s something that has to be applauded forever for what he was able to do here. Not that we sucked talent-wise. He just got the best out of the talent, kind of like Tom Thibodeau when he was here. He got the best out of the talent.

Do you think that has played a role in all of these friendships that you guys have all maintained?

Absolutely.

Because you all seem very close after your playing days.

Because we were very close during our playing days. I will go out on a limb and say nobody during Lovie’s time had as much fun or had as close of a locker room as we had. People would come in from different teams and be like, “Wow, I really like this around here.” I was on two teams before I got here, and I never had that culture before anywhere else. It was just guys having fun. We had our disagreements. There was some stuff that never got out — issues in the locker room — but it never got out because of that closeness.

We heard about some. We heard about Miller and Kreutz, and Benson and Thomas Jones or Urlacher shoving Benson. Was there anything that would surprise fans?

Oh yeah. (Pause) but I’m not gonna tell you. (Laughs.)

Have those friendships helped all of you guys transition into your post-football careers as far as feeling like you’re all navigating this at the same time together?

It’s interesting, because my partner Manny, who you met, he brought me in to be his partner because of my background, because of my playing career, because of the things that he heard from my teammates about me. If it wasn’t for the brand that I built playing football, not only as a football player but the stage I was on to let people see who I was as a person, no, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have the opportunities to walk into the doors of business owners as easily as I’m able to. I wouldn’t be able to reach out to executives to have the opportunity to talk about what I’m doing here and the business I’m building here. That plays a major role in what I’m doing and how I transition into this field that I’m in now.

At what point in your career did you start to think about life after football?

You want the honest answer or do you want what sounds good? (Laughs.) When I stopped playing football. That’s when I really thought about it deeply. I’m a communications major, I went to school to talk sports when I got done, but that was always, “I’ll get to that when the game is over.” If I would have done it right, I would have been more immersed in media, kind of like Brandon Marshall is now. You already know where he’s going once he’s done. You see a lot of guys doing that now and getting into the field that they’re going to be in once they’re done playing.

I didn’t do that. But once I got into that field, I found out that I didn’t really want to pursue that. I wanted to pursue something else that was more meaningful in life. That’s when I had to sit down with myself and say, “What’s going to be my purpose? What am I going to do now?” And that’s when I came up with my purpose statement, which led to my 5 Fs: faith, family, fitness, finance, and fun. I really believe that if you put those five things together you will live a great life.

My purpose is to help others live the best life that they can. From there I had to find something that fit that purpose. I did a few things before I settled down into that financial arena that I’m in now, because people say, “Hey, money’s not everything.” Have you ever tried to live life without money? And now it’s even more focused, because my goal is that anybody who I meet, I want to sit down with them, have a conversation about what their financial goals are, and then what are the exercises that they’re doing to get there? Because most people have goals, but they don’t do the exercises to get there.

So we’re talking about thinking about life after football, and that can take two forms. One is business and finances, but the other is health. How are you doing?

I’m doing fine. I’m great. I think I’m sharper than I’ve ever been mentally. Physically I could lose a couple pounds (Laughs) but I think I’m in good shape. But here’s the thing that I recognized after getting out of the NFL: When you’re playing that game, you can’t think about it. Once you start thinking about that, you’ve lost your edge. Once I got out of the game and I started looking at the game, I was like, “You’ve got to be crazy to do that stuff.” There’s something mentally loose for you to play that game. And that’s not a bad thing. It just IS.

Who goes out and plays a game where you are literally ramming your body into somebody else at full speed to gain an extra yard? Logically, that doesn’t make sense to do. But people do it all the time. People have fun doing it. Who has fun running into other people? When you think about it like that it doesn’t make sense. That’s why I say, to play that game, you have to be a little bit off.

Once I got out of the game I was like, “I’m not off enough to ever want to do that again.” I want no contact. I have my mind together, and now, that makes no sense. I enjoyed it when I was doing it. But you can’t be out there thinking about your health and play that game as reckless as you need to play it to be good or great at it.

Do you think about it now in light of what happens to players 10, 15 years after retirement?

I don’t. I refuse to live life in fear. I refuse to look in the rearview mirror. I coach high school football, and you have parents who say, “Ohhhhh, what about all this concussion stuff?” Well, what if you go out on this road and you get hit by a semi? More kids get killed in car accidents than anything else. People die from cancer all the time.

If you have a passion for something, go and fricking do it. Life is not promised tomorrow. And I’m never going to live my life scared. I’m never going to live my life, “Oh, what if?” I’m not going to jump out of a plane, either, because I don’t have a passion for that. But if I had a passion for jumping out of planes, I would go and do it and not care about what the results could be. If you have a passion for something, go do it! Go do it. Tomorrow’s not promised, so what are you waiting on? What are you scared of?

I had a passion for playing football and now that I’m out of the game, that doesn’t discount the passion that I had for it then. So I’m never going to look back into the rearview mirror and say “Man, I could be messed up.” People ask me, “Do I miss the game?” And I say no, I don’t miss the game. But at the same time, if I suffer injuries later on in life, if something pops up that was football related, I would be on my death bed and I wouldn’t have a single regret because I got to do something that millions of people wish they could do. I had a great time doing it. I enjoyed every moment of it. I feel like I lived more life in those 13 years than people get to live in 90. You can’t ask for anything better.