FORT LAUDERDALE — Sneaky thing, life. At the smallest of moments, it can make the biggest of changes.
For instance, there was the backup linebacker playing catch before the start of practice. There was the head coach who happened to walk past at just the right moment. There was the click of an idea as the coach glanced in the right direction at the right time at the right linebacker.
If not for any of it, who knows where Dallas Clark might be today?
These days, he is an unexpected star in the middle of an unlikely success story. Clark is one of the new hybrid tight ends, one of those versatile athletes who leaves defensive coordinators muttering to themselves as they try to figure out how to stop him.
This year, Clark caught 100 passes — the second most in NFL history by a tight end — and reached his first Pro Bowl. It was as if opposing defenses, like the league itself, never saw him coming.
When you think about it, how could they?
Go back to 2000, when Clark was a walk-on at Iowa and seemed to be on his way to a perfectly ordinary career. He was going to be a linebacker, he thought. He was going to be like big brother Derrik, who played at Iowa State. He was going to play some college ball, make a few tackles, then go about his life.
Instead, he decided to play a little catch with his roommate.
Because of it, he became a star.
To be honest, Clark wasn't a very good linebacker. In high school, where he merely played tackle-the-runner football, it had been a snap. But in college, there were coverages to absorb and techniques to learn, and Clark was slow to read oncoming plays.
"I was a comfortable third-team linebacker," Clark remembers. "I wasn't anywhere near the field."
As fortune would have it, however, Clark's roommate was quarterback Kyle McCann. And in those moments just before practice, the two would play catch. One day, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz walked past, and an idea clicked.
Why not try Clark at tight end?
"I don't know what his expectations were," Clark said, "but what did he have to lose?"
At the time, Clark thought Ferentz had a perfectly awful idea. He was a linebacker, after all. But Ferentz called Clark's father, and he talked to McCann, and he had both of them urge Clark to consider the switch.
"He said I had some natural ability," Clark said. "I thought he was full of it."
Once he switched, however, Clark was surprised to find out how much he liked playing tight end. He had a knack for running routes. He had good hands.
By the time the 2001 season started, Clark was Iowa's starting tight end. In 2002, Clark won the John Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end. In 2003, the once-reluctant tight end was drafted late in the first round by the Colts.
As it turns out, Clark has been a perfect fit for quarterback Peyton Manning — a reliable, sure-handed receiver, a willing blocker, a good teammate. In seven seasons, he has 356 catches.
Want to know just how difficult it is to cover Clark?
This week, Dolphins executive president Bill Parcells made sure to tell Clark just how annoying he can be, after Clark joined the other Colts Pro Bowl players for a workout at the Dolphins training facility before their teammates arrived.
"He wanted me to know just how annoying that players like (Antonio) Gates and I are," Clark said, laughing. "He always liked the big uglies at tight end, the guys who knock people back. He said he couldn't figure out how to cover us."
Parcells was just kidding. Others aren't.
"Do you put a linebacker on him? A defensive back? A safety?" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "You've got to decide how you handle him. He brings so much to the table."
After all, Clark can line up at tight end. He can line up split wide. He can line up in the backfield. And, in case any of his coaches are interested, he can line up at linebacker.
"I'd love to do that," Clark, 30, said. "I tell Murph (linebackers coach Mike Murphy) all the time that if we have injuries, I'm ready to go. He said, 'Right.' He tells me to go back and do my job."
Clark pauses for a minute, as if imagining the moment. Some parts of a linebacker never die, do they?
Funny thing, life. You can set your goals, and you can make your plans.
Sometimes, however, life has a better idea.