Editor's Note: Today is the seventh edition of a 9-day celebration of this year's Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame induction here at CUBuffs.com, profiling each of this year's inductees, leading up to Saturday's football game against Kansas State. Today, we look at the career of trailblazer Franke Clarke. This year’s Hall of Fame festivities begin Friday, October 17, with the induction ceremonies at the Omni Interlocken Hotel & Resort (5:30 p.m. reception, with induction ceremony at 7 p.m.). The honorees will be introduced publicly at halftime of Saturday's game. Tickets for Saturday's game, including a Hall of Fame special $50 admission, are available for purchase online by clicking here.
This year’s University of Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame class would not be complete without the inclusion of Frank Clarke. He is immortalized in the history books as one of the first African-Americans to participate in football at CU. His name deserves to be recognized among CU’s premier athletes, though he would never want you to know it.
He describes himself as a benefactor of opportunity, which is a testament to his humility. When reminiscing on his days as a collegiate and professional football player, Clarke does not describe himself in the same light as those who bore witness to his remarkable achievements.
“I wasn’t the toughest player,” Clarke said. “To be honest, I was afraid. I was never a regular, but whenever we needed a first down, or even a touchdown, they put me in.”
His numbers, however, speak for themselves. In an offense that revolved around a run-heavy mentality, Clarke amassed 532 yards receiving, while boasting a 26.6 yards per catch average during his two years in a Colorado uniform. He was an honorable mention Big 7 Conference performer as a junior and was selected to play in the Copper Bowl All-Star Game as a senior.
During his short tenure in Boulder, Clarke became a beloved figure, whose influence stretched far beyond the football field. He was a staple in the CU community, a man blessed with looks and a personality that complimented him well. While he struggled academically, Clarke offered much in the way of character.
“I got by being a nice guy. I liked class, but I never did quite figure it out academically.” said Clarke as he recalled his time at Colorado.
He was well-liked by his teammates and classmates, and he earned the respect of most with whom he associated. He was so well-liked among his peers, in fact, that he was chosen as CU’s equivalent of homecoming king. His gentle nature and agreeable personality helped pave the way for success in many facets of his life.
Clarke’s athleticism and sure-hands attracted attention from NFL front offices. He was suddenly the prototypical player for a league that aimed to draw fans by placing added emphasis on the passing game.
“One of the ways of attracting crowds was to be a crowd pleasing sport,” Clarke said. “Passing the ball was a way to do it. I know for a fact that that’s why the Browns and Cowboy’s were interested in me.”
He was selected 6th overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1956 NFL Draft. He enjoyed an 11-year NFL career, playing alongside some of the game’s most noteworthy players. When asked which player he was most proud to have played with, he answered without hesitation.
“Jim Brown.” he said. “He and I were rookies together with the Cleveland Browns. I was absolutely amazed with this guy. I had never been around a human being with the confidence that he had. I had no idea I was playing with a legend at the time. Not only did I get to watch him, but we were friends. We were on the same team.”
Frank Clarke (83) enjoyed an 11-year NFL career with the Cleveland Browns
and Dallas Cowboys
“To have [my record] broken by a guy who will surely end up in the Hall of Fame; that was cool.”
Clarke admitted that he has only been back to Boulder once since leaving the school in 1956, but he expressed enthusiasm toward the prospect of returning to Colorado for his induction into the CU Athletic Hall of Fame. He sings nothing but praise for the university that has helped provide him with numerous opportunities over the years, and he was tickled by the idea that “such a fine university” would want to recognize his accomplishments.
“It came to me as somewhat of a surprise,” he said. “I’m still at a loss for words. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I am happy to have been honored in such a way. I am very humbled by it. I’m having a lot of fun with this, and I will until I die.”
His reaction to being inducted into the CU Athletic Hall of Fame is similar to the attitude with which he approaches life. He lives in the moment, a rare quality, as he describes. In football, he wasn’t consumed with a burning desire to win at all costs, rather he just went out and played. When offered the opportunity to attend college, he jumped on it, acknowledging that had he not been approached, college never would have crossed his mind.
“I thought, am I one of the luckiest human beings alive or what?” Clarke said. “I never sought things out, they just happened. I never thought about college. I never even thought about playing professional football while I was in college.”
He is thankful for every blessing that has befallen him, and attributes his success to those who have helped him along the way. His gratitude for those who have offered their support over the years is overwhelming, and it is no wonder he commanded the admiration that he has in his lifetime. When discussing those who have guided his path through life, he was quick to mention Dallas “Dal” Ward, the namesake for CU’s Athletic Center. Ward was Clarke’s football coach at Colorado, and a fellow inductee in this Hall of Fame class.
“(Coach Ward’s) daughter called me and said how pleased she was that I was accepted at the same time,” Clarke said. “And she said how proud her dad would be. It was a sweet conversation. It’s fantastic that I get a chance to be recognized on the same level as my old coach.”
One of three African-American players on the original Dallas Cowboys roster, Clarke blazed trails that profoundly impacted not only the make-up of the NFL, but American culture as well. He doesn’t think of himself as a civil rights leader, but as a man who went about his business regardless of what other people thought of him. His determination to live by his own accord, during a period of social unrest, is yet another component of his character that makes him such an asset to his environment.
“I don’t see myself as a groundbreaker,” he noted. “People just remind me that that was the era I came from. I started to open my eyes a little bit in the 1960’s when the Civil Rights movement started to happen, but I never saw myself as a victim of racism, so I certainly wasn’t a person who jumped on the bandwagon of the Civil Rights movement.”
It is hard to overlook the athletic achievements of a prominent figure in the sports world. In Frank Clarke’s case, it is made a little easier by the fact that he is a genuinely good person, and his infectious personality inspires one to look beyond his athletic prowess. One conversation with him is enough to assure anyone that he is a special individual. While he maintains that he is “blessed” to have been a member of the CU family, CU is likewise privileged to have had a man like Frank Clarke gracing its campus.