MOSCOW, Idaho – The grin has always been there.
If it has extra warmth now, it’s because the future Dorian Clark imagined when he came across the country from his native Florida to Idaho in 2014 is coming into focus.
And the hip pain that has been his constant companion as a Vandals cornerback is no more.
Clark developed early for the Vandals. He got into nine games as a freshman. He was supposed to be a grayshirt, but injuries on the depth chart ahead of him meant by the first day of fall camp he was running with the active players.
“Everything was fast,” Clark said. “I had to learn the defense, get reps. (In position meetings) the whole room was seniors and juniors. “I realized, ‘You ain’t a freshman anymore.’ ”
A hip impingement that appeared almost as soon as he put on a Vandals jersey dogged his every step, though. Anyone who has had a deteriorating hip knows the constant arrow-in-the-side ache. It does not lend itself to the sprinting, jumping and abrupt direction changes that playing defensive back requires.
Clark’s labrum, the tissue that surrounds the hip socket and helps protect the joint surface, was frayed and getting worse.
Anticipating plays and learning to hide his injury from opponents became second nature. Clark did it well enough that by his sophomore year he was starting.
He was in on 45 tackles, including three for loss. He had a sack and a pass interception. The following year, he hurt a shoulder in preseason that needed surgery, and he missed Idaho’s bowl season.
“I was more than happy for my brothers, to see them have that great year,” Clark said.
Time away from the game didn’t help his hip. While Clark played in all of Idaho’s games last year, making 44 tackles, including a season-high eight against Coastal Carolina, and breaking up two passes in Idaho’s double-overtime win over South Alabama, by the end of the season he had come to the end of the road in terms of playing through worsening pain.
He had surgery, but there was no guarantee it would do anything but make the rest of life more comfortable. Clark had to accept his career might be over.
“I wasn’t sure I’d be able to play corner, open my hips, change direction,” Clark said.
“I was feeling out of it.”
He could have graduated and gone about his goal to start a nonprofit to inspire youth through sports. Football wasn’t done with him, though, and Clark went through another spring practice with Idaho. His hip gradually improved to the point.
“I knew by the end of spring ball I wanted another year. I wanted to finish with the guys I came in with,” Clark said.
Continued improvement this past summer was hardly noticeable. Then came a stunning realization.
“The second day of fall camp, I had a couple of breakups,” he said. “I was flying around. I felt good. For the first time, I was playing without pain since I’ve been here. That was fun.”
Through four games this year, he has made 17 tackles, including two for loss, and he pounced on a blocked field-goal attempt against Western New Mexico and raced 47 yards on his repaired hip for a touchdown.
“I can change directions faster,” he said. “I’m quicker than three years ago. I’m more confident in my athletic ability.”
Clark’s smile may be of greater value to the Vandals than the impressive talent Clark brings to the field as a cornerback. It is guaranteed to pick up anyone who is down and to soften any needed criticism.
It accompanies such senior wisdom as Clark telling younger teammates not to wrap their identity around football.
“If you have a bad day, it’s easy to transfer that to school,” Clark said. “Let a bad day be a bad day. At the same time, when you’re away from football, enjoy life.”
Clark, a consummate teammate, was recruited from Jacksonville’s Baldwin High School as an admitted “mama’s boy.”
“A whole new world,” he said of Idaho. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was out of my comfort zone.”
He set about expanding that zone. He made friends with teammates in the Wallace Complex residence hall. One of them, Gunnar Amos, transferred to Idaho State last year to play quarterback. Idaho had moved him to safety. When the Bengals and Vandals play Saturday, words may be exchanged.
“I feel like I have to,” Clark said. “It’s only right. We were in the dorms together. We are very good friends. I feel like I have to talk a little trash to him.”
Clark had grown up in a religious home, but he acknowledged his familiarity with life in the church caused his faith to plateau. In Idaho, with no family near, he tested his faith against his new independence and found it deepened.
“It’s my own now,” he said.
Clark’s time at Idaho is an expansive tour of the university’s fields of study. He majored in organizational science and minored in marketing and communications studies. This year, he is pursuing a master’s in movement studies and leisure science. It is all in aid of his goal to start a nonprofit. Organizational science, marketing and communications bolster his CEO skills. Movement and leisure science offer insights on the impact of sports on child development.
Having played in the Sun Belt Conference and now the Big Sky Conference, Clark is looking forward to playing league rivals that have more in common with the Vandals than the marriage of convenience that was Idaho’s link to the Sun Belt. Trading in the run-heavy Sun Belt for the wide-open passing common in the Big Sky also offers a cornerback like Clark welcome new challenges. “There’s no motivation needed,” he said.
Also, he gets to finish the regular season playing against the University of Florida, the team he followed in his youth, in the Gainsville, Florida, stadium where he always dreamed of playing.
“That’s definitely going to be exciting,” he said.
In his final season as a Vandal, it is all coming together for Clark.
“It has all worked out perfect for me,” he said. “I can’t complain at all.
“What a journey.”
And now it’s pain-free.
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