Monte Clark: 1937-2009

His contemporaries recall his great years with the Browns and head coaching days...

Also: See Rich Passan's interview with Clark from 2006

Maybe John Morrow, the center on the Browns' last NFL championship team in 1964, summed it up best.

"The whole right side of the line is gone now," Morrow said Thursday from his home in Sherwood, Wis.

He's right. A little less than a year after the death of Pro Football Hall of Fame right guard Gene Hickerson, right tackle Monte Clark has passed away. Clark, who played for the Browns from 1963-69, died Wednesday night at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit from complications of lung and liver disease. He was 72.

Clark is the fifth member of the 1964 title club to pass away, following, in addition to Hickerson, Hall of Fame kicker Lou Groza, outside linebacker Galen Fiss and wide receiver Tom Hutchinson.

Born Jan. 24, 1937 in Fillmore, Cal., Clark went on to play at Kingsburg (Cal.) High School and Southern California, being named a captain of the Trojans in his senior year of 1958. He was a fourth-round pick of San Francisco in the 1959 NFL Draft and played both offensive and defensive tackle for the 49ers for three seasons.

Clark was traded to the Dallas Cowboys just six days before the start of the 1962 season and then dealt again, this time to the Browns, on April 30, 1963 for Cleveland Browns Legend Jim Ray Smith, a left guard who was at the end of his career. Clark was ticketed to be the starter immediately at right tackle with the retirement of Hall of Famer Mike McCormack following the 1962 season, but he suffered a knee injury against the Detroit Lions that limited him to reserve duty in just eight games.

Fully healthy again, he took over as the starter in 1964 and remained in that role for the next six seasons, during which time the Browns made the postseason five times, including going to back-to-back NFL Championship Games in 1964-65 and 1968-69.

The Browns had arguably the best line in the game at the time, blocking for two HOF running backs in Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, and providing the pass protection that allowed Paul Warfield to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver, and fellow wideout Gary Collins to make 70 career touchdown receptions, a club record. And in both 1964 and '66, quarterback Frank Ryan led the NFL in TD passes.

The prowess of the Browns line, which also included left guard John Wooten and left tackle Dick Schafrath, and the offense overall was there for all to see in the 1964 title game. Prohibitive underdogs against a Hall of Fame-dotted Baltimore Colts team that led the league in both points scored and fewest points allowed, the Browns rolled 27-0, gaining one of the biggest wins in club history and undoubtedly the largest from a total team aspect.

Ryan and Collins combined on three TD passes to steal the show offensively, and overall, but an unsung hero was Clark, who totally neutralized Gino Marchetti, the Colts' HOF end.

Clark never was selected All-NFL or made the Pro Bowl, but he certainly was deserving of such. He may have suffered from the fact the Browns were already getting so many players honored at the time that the voters and selectors probably said, "Enough already," and looked to recognize players from other teams.

Former Browns trainer Leo Murphy, who worked for, or with, all 16 of the team's  Hall of Famers in a 39-year career, called Clark "one of my all-time favorites."

Added the 85-year-old Murphy, who lives about 25 miles southwest of Cleveland in Medina, Ohio, "Monte was a great player and an even better person. You could say that about a lot of the players on the Browns then, but he was special. He was everything you would want a pro football player to be."

And then some. He was a Renaissance man before there was such a term.

Said Morrow, who played with the Browns from 1960-66 but knew Clark beforehand from his days playing against him on the West Coast as a member of the 49ers' arch rivals, the Los Angeles Rams, "The thing I remember about Monte, other than what a good player he was, is the poetry he wrote about players on the team."

Humorous prose to get under his teammates' skin, we take it?

"No, not at all," Morrow said. "It was serious stuff, describing the players, the way they were playing and the things going on with them."

The 6-foot-6 Clark, whose playing weight of 265 pounds "made him look lanky," according to Morrow, was the opposite of what most right tackles are today, and were to a great extent even in those days. He wasn't a big, hulking man who overpowered defenders with his brute strength, but rather an athletic, cerebral player who beat people with his feet and brains.

Former Browns defensive back Don Shula recognized that – and how. He was the head coach of that nearly-perfect 1964 Colts team, so he saw first-hand just how good – and smart – Clark was. As such, when he was lured away from the Colts to take over a struggling Miami Dolphins franchise in 1970, Shula hired Clark as his offensive line coach over the phone without ever interviewing him personally, fortifying his own opinions with glowing recommendations by two NFL head coaches, including Cleveland's Blanton Collier.

Clark gained a great reputation after building the game's best line in Miami. Wanting to become a head coach, he interviewed for the Browns job in 1975 that eventually went to another former offensive tackle, Forrest Gregg. The following year, Clark was hired by his first NFL team, the 49ers, and guided them to an 8-6 finish. But he was fired the following spring after losing out in a power play with disruptive general manager Joe Thomas.

Following his sitting out the 1977 season, Clark got his second – and final – head coaching job when the Detroit Lions hired him the following year. He stayed seven seasons, through 1984, when he was let go. He guided the Lions to back-to-back playoff appearances in 1982 and '83, the first time that had happened in 30 years, but was just 43-61-1 overall.

He was out of football for five years before returning to the Dolphins in 1990 as the director of player personnel under Shula. Five years later, he began a second stint as Miami's line coach, but that lasted just one season as Shula retired. He served as an assistant at Cal in 1998, then joined the Lions the next year. He remained with them for the rest of his life, and working as a special consultant when he passed away.

Al "Bubba" Baker was a fine defensive end with the Browns for three seasons in a pair of stints two decades ago, but before that, he was a pass-rushing machine for five years with the Lions and then four seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Lions drafted him in the second round in 1978 at the direction of Clark, who was in his first year as coach but had also assumed full control of all personnel decisions.

"Monte Clark helped change my life. He had such an influence on me," said Baker, who now operates a successful barbecue restaurant in Avon Lake in Cleveland's western suburbs. "He was the first person I heard talk about being a professional and acting professionally.

"When I came to the Lions, I was what you would call rough around the edges. I had a chip on my shoulder, and I wanted that chip to remain on my shoulder. I was angry that I didn't get drafted in the first round, that there were about 12 defensive linemen taken before me. I thought about that every morning to get me angry, to get me going, to motivate me.

"When I had a big game, I used to talk publicly about how I kicked that guy's butt. Finally, Monte brought me into his office and said, ‘Bubba, I know you kicked that guy's butt, but you can't go spouting off about it. You're going to have to play that guy again sometime.'

"I hated losing, and the Lions weren't winning many games – at least as many as I wanted them to do – then. So when Gary Danielson would fumble the ball and we lost, I would mention that in the press and I would also get up in Danielson's face and scream at him. Monte would tell me, ‘You can't do that. That's your teammate.'

"Sometimes, the best things you say are the things you don't say. I learned that from Monte, although I resisted it at the time. It took a long time for that message to sink in."

One of the last times Monte Clark made a public appearance in the Cleveland area was last fall.

It was at Gene Hickerson's funeral.

Though no one knew it at the time, there was some real symbolism in that, as the right side of that great Browns line from the 1964 championship team began to slowly fade away.

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