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Published: Wednesday, 10/19/2005

Keeping the faith: UT's Andrew Clarke

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Andrew Clarke is sure God has a plan for his life.

First of all, he's a believer. As for second of all, there's the matter of when and where his injury seems to have occurred.

When a top athlete, one of the very best tight ends in college football, sees his career grind to a halt because he's hurt while sitting at a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, well, he doesn't need to be charred by a burning bush to get the message.

The 2003 season was just over. Clarke's eight touchdown receptions brought his three-season total to 18, the most ever by a University of Toledo tight end and the third most by any receiver in school history. He had been named first-team All-MAC. He was considered by at least one pro football talent guru to be the No. 1 tight end among seniors-to-be in all the land.

On Dec. 7, Clarke went to a large classroom on the second floor of the Larimer Athletic Complex for the Athletes-in-Action meeting. The rows are elevated and the chairs are anchored and spring-loaded to swivel behind tables.

"You can lean back and they'll catch so you can only go so far," Clarke said. "I leaned back and it collapsed."

Other people in the room laughed. The big - 6-4, 250 pounds - and strong football player had broken the chair and landed on his butt. Poor baby. Clarke thought it was pretty funny, too.

While his teammates scrimmage, Andrew Clarke can only watch and stretch.
While his teammates scrimmage, Andrew Clarke can only watch and stretch.
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"I was fine," he recalled. "I didn't think anything of it."

He thought about it the next morning, though, when a sharp pain in his right hip area made getting out of bed a challenge.

And he has thought about it every morning since. That would be about 650 mornings, if anyone is counting.

Clarke said he has racked his brain for other explanations - a delayed reaction to an on-field mishap or a weight-lifting injury. Anything. But nothing comes to mind other than falling from achair one day and the debilitating pain starting the next.

Clarke played his last football game on Nov. 29, 2003, in a 31-23 Toledo loss at Bowling Green. It is now Oct. 19, 2005, and Clarke has yet to return to action, although that could change in the near future. He still wants to play and UT coach Tom Amstutz says he has a plan to accommodate that.

"He was an all-conference tight end, he already had an

invitation to the Hula Bowl and all the NFL guys were coming through to see him," Amstutz said of Clarke. "It has been painful to watch how hard he has tried and worked to get back. But I have a plan. He will be on the field for us this season."

Clarke has dealt with team doctors, X-rays, MRI tests, even specialists at the Cleveland Clinic. He has heard the same thing over and over. There is, or was, some swelling of the sacroiliac (SI) joint that connects the sacrum and the ilium.

The doctors simply call it a bruise, which doesn't sound all that bad until you consider what is bruised. The SI joint attaches certain vertebrae to the upper portion of the pelvis. It is not unusual for the healing process to take a year, maybe 15 months, but such a prognosis is usually reserved for accident victims who have suffered considerable trauma.

Ironically, the SI joint is considered one of the strongest in the body; in this case, the body of a very strong, healthy, young man who did no more than fall a couple of feet off of a chair and onto his rump. Apparently, in this case, that's all it took.

"They said a year or 15 months and I brushed it off," Clarke said. "I thought they were crazy. But the [2004] season rolled around and I wasn't close. I put together all the medical reports and treatment reports and presented it to the NCAA to get a medical red-shirt and another year of eligibility.

"They came through with that, so I had another whole off-season to recover and rehab, but here I am six games into this season and, sure, I'm getting pretty discouraged. But I haven't given up."

Clarke attends every team meeting and film session and practices every day, but sits out of contact drills. He said that Amstutz has pretty much left it to him to decide when he's ready and that while the mind is ready, the body still is not.

But he is confident it soon will be and when the time comes to join the huddle he expects it to be an emotional moment.

Clarke still hopes to get some plays on film, something to show the pro scouts, and he has not given up the ghost when it comes to an NFL career.

"I think it's realistic," he said. "I think if I can get pain-free, then I can return to 2003 form and turn some heads. Maybe I can get to the [NFL Scouting] Combine. If not, there will be a Pro Day with a lot of scouts here. I guess I'll know in the next six months if it could happen. If not, I guess I'll be disappointed, but I don't feel like I've been cheated.

"I know all of this happened for a reason. I just wish I knew what it was. But in five, 10, maybe 15 years I expect I'll be able to look back and realize what God was doing."

Clarke already has his undergraduate degree in marketing. He'll have completed work on his Masters in business administration by May. Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, tailback Trinity Dawson, and ex-teammate and fellow tight end Chris Holmes were in the wedding party last July when Clarke and former UT softball player Natalie Begalle were married in an outdoor ceremony surrounded by the mountains near Estes Park, Colo.

Life could be worse.

When Clarke ducked into a team meeting room to do an interview earlier this week, he explained that the chairs were in a circle because "we just had our football bible study group in here. I've been leading it for the last three years."

A man has to believe. Yes, a big, strong man with great hands who ran perfect pass routes and blocked with the best of them only to see his career crash to the ground, figuratively and literally, has to keep the faith.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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