The Lions’ Dutch Clark: Detroit’s First Gridiron Hero

Although Chicago’s George “Papa Bear” Halas once called him “pro football’s greatest player,” in the annals of Detroit sports history, the name Earl “Dutch” Clark remains in relative obscurity compared to Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, and Joe Louis.

Dutch ClarkDespite being a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and having nearly single-handedly established football in Detroit, remarkably Dutch Clark never remained a household name.

In  1934, the Detroit Lions played their very first game with a 9-0 victory over the New York Giants before a half filled University of Detroit Stadium. Clark, who drop kicked a third quarter field goal for the first score, quickly became the city’s first gridiron hero.

When a syndicate lead by WJR owner G.A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans franchise in 1934 he and coach George “Potsy” Clark desperately coaxed the 27 year old Clark out of retirement. Although an All Pro in his first two seasons (’31, ’32) and the NFL’s leading scorer in 1932, (also in ’35 and ’36) Clark had left the fledgling Portsmouth franchise over a salary dispute before the ’33 season to become the head football coach at the Colorado School of Mines. Richards stated that if football was going to be successful in Detroit, Clark was a crucial acquisition.

In their inaugural 1934 season, team captain Clark, along with an exceptional cast that included Glenn Presnell, Ernie Caddell, and Ace Gutowsky, lead the Lions to a second place finish. The team amazingly shut out opponents in their first seven games but lost each of their last three contests by three points. The next year the Lion’s captured their first World Championship in a 26-7 thumping of the Giants that was highlighted by a spectacular 40 yard touchdown run by Clark.

As the game’s last true “triple threat” Clark was the undisputed Lion King.  Although often referred to as a quarterback, technically he was a signal calling tailback in the single wing formation.

An All Pro in six of his seven professional seasons, Clark, an All American from tiny Colorado College, was considered an exceptional field general, an accurate passer, a fine punter, football’s last drop kicker, and in the era of the sixty minute man, an exceptional defensive safety.

But Clark is most remembered for his open field running.

Despite being blind as a bat (“left eye twenty-two hundred, right eye twenty-one hundred” according to Clark) and not fleet of foot, the image of the ruggedly handsome Clark wearing his silver leather helmet, Honolulu Blue number 7 jersey, and satin silver pants while criss crossing the field left diving opponents and fans in awe.

The most famous description of Clark came from his coach Potsy Clark. “He’s like a rabbit in brush. He has no set plan, no definite direction. He is an instinctive runner who cuts, pivots, slants, reverses. When the interference gets him in the secondary, he begins his mad twists and turns. He’ll get out of more holes than anybody you ever saw. Just about the time you expect to see him smothered, he’s free of tacklers.”

Clark finished his Lion’s career as a player coach in ’37 and ’38 and then coached the Cleveland Rams for four seasons. In the early 1950’s he was the head football coach and then Athletic Director at the University of Detroit. Except for occasional appearances at Lion Alumni Day at Tiger Stadium, Clark, an avid Lion’s fan kept a low profile living with his family in a modest home in Royal Oak and working as a salesman for a local tool and die company.

Two years before his death in 1978 at 71, Clark had returned to his native state of Colorado.

One reply on “The Lions’ Dutch Clark: Detroit’s First Gridiron Hero

  • Shawn

    It is ashame we do not have much video footage of him. Everything i have ever read on him says he was the best of his time. Even the likes of red grange and bronko nagurski amongst others say he was the best back then. I think he was the league’s first barry sanders style runner. Just wish there was more footage.

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