Imaging missing play in an NFL Championship Game so you can tend to your offseason job — then, decades later, being inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Impossible, you say?
Not for Earl “Dutch” Clark.
For a time in the 1930s Clark was the highest-scoring and best-paid player in the National Football League, quarterbacking the Portsmouth Spartans and (after the team had moved to the big city) the Detroit Lions.
In December 1932 the Spartans and the Chicago Bears tied for first place, so a playoff game was arranged — indoors, at Chicago Stadium, due to inclement winter weather. No one, least of all Clark, anticipated the NFL season was going to extend an extra week. Can’t make it, Clark told Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark. Have to get back to my offseason job as head basketball coach at Colorado College.
Without Clark’s offensive spark the Bears blanked the Spartans 9-0 in what turned out to be the first NFL playoff game ever. The public liked the idea so much that the following season the league split into two divisions and formalized a playoff between the division winners. The NFL Championship Game was born.
Clark overcame his absence at the Chicago game. In 1935 he led the Lions to the NFL championship. A year later LIFE magazine, inspired by a photo taken by the Detroit News‘ head photographer William Kuenzel, said Clark had “the perfect football face” — reminiscent of a Roman gladiator’s (a little ironic in that Clark had very poor eyesight and wore eyeglasses off the field). Prints of the Kuenzel profile were prized by the likes of actress Bette Davis, singer Bing Crosby, and automaker Walter P. Chrysler.
At the end of 1938 Clark officially retired as a player, left the Lions and became head coach of the Cleveland Rams, one of the worst teams in the league. With the Rams, Clark got his first dose of mediocrity in football, posting records of 5-5-1 (1939), 4-6-1 (1940), and 2-9 (1941). When the Rams again finished under .500 in 1942 at 5-6, Clark decided he had had enough. He had never particularly liked coaching, he later admitted, and he had not been particularly good at drafting impact players.
Besides, Clark said, the Rams never were going to be able to compete with the established powers of the Western Division: the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. He retired from the NFL completely.
Just three seasons later the Cleveland Rams swept their season series with both the Bears and Packers, won the Western Division, and defeated the Washington Redskins to claim the 1945 NFL Championship.
Dutch Clark is forgotten by many today, though interestingly three of the Ohio fields where he once plied his trade still are in existence and continue to host sports events: League Park and Shaw Stadium in Cleveland, and Universal Stadium (now Spartan Municipal Stadium) in Portsmouth.