NEXT GENERATION: TYLER CLARK
AMERICUS – In the southwest corner of Georgia, not quite close to the border of Alabama, and not quite close either to Florida, a sort of triangle of small Americana exists: in one small town, the home of a president. A few miles away in another small town, the site of an infamous Civil War moment.
And a few more miles away, in a town named after the country … football.
The town of Americus, named upon its founding in 1832, had a population of 17,041, according to the 2010 census. That made it the 69th-highest populated city in Georgia. And yet Americus has produced eight NFL players, and at one point two Americus natives (Dan Reeves and Chan Gailey) were head coaches in the same Monday Night Football game.
Few who were at Leonard Pope’s draft party in 2006 thought it was anything too unusual when the tight end was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. Pope was just the latest in a line that included Reeves, Victor Green and Kent Hill. Surely there would be another one next year, or at least the year after that.
There wasn’t. The Americus pipeline, for some reason, dried up. For a decade, nobody from Football Town USA even earned a football scholarship from the SEC or ACC.
When Pope held that draft party a decade ago, in Americus of course, one of the attendees was an 8-year-old named Tyler Clark. The next object of pressure and pride that comes with being an Americus native on the national football stage, it turned out, would turn out to be him.
“It’s shocking,” Clark said last month, before he headed up to Athens, “to know I’m the first in that long.”
HOW IT CAME TO BE
Clark may have grown up in the football culture, and his size always made him a likely candidate to play. But on the first day of middle school practice, he called his dad.
“I’m through playing ball,” Clark said.
“Why?” his father asked.
“It’s too hot.”
“Nah, you need to stay out there and play football. You’ve got good size and everything.”
“Nah, I’m gonna go.”
“No, you’re staying out there.”
Clark tried then to leave on his own by catching the bus. But he was late and missed it.
“Ever since that day,” Clark said of his father, “He’s just been talking to me about: Keep playing, keep doing what you’re doing, and something’s going to work out for you.”
That’s pretty much how it went. Americus-Sumter High School – the result of a merger about a decade ago – has gone through several head coaches, and stopped winning region and state titles on a seemingly-annual basis. But size is size, and Clark was listed at 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds when he signed with Georgia in February.
Clark was a four-star prospect, but got lost a bit among the group of other big prospects in southwest Georgia: He helped recruit outside linebacker David Marshall, from about a half-hour away in Thomaston. He spent a lot of time with Lee County’s Chris Barnes, carpooling to Athens for unofficial weekend visits. Clark is also close to now-Georgia sophomore defensive tackle Trent Thompson, who’s from Albany.
But when family members asked Clark about competing for playing time with his buddies, he had a quick answer.
“I’m going to work harder,” Clark said he told his family. “We homeboys off the field. But on the field I don’t know them.”
HISTORY AND FOOTBALL
Jimmy Carter is famously from the town of Plains, right down the road. The international headquarters of Habitat for Humanity is in Americus.
The town of Andersonville, also close by, was where the Confederacy built a POW camp, and its conditions led to the post-Civil War hanging of the commandant. It was the subject of a cable film starring William H. Macy. The site is now a memorial and a national POW museum.
Americus largely skirted non-sports fame or infamy; even when Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed there in 1961, it was after he had been in arrested down in Albany.
Football would be the town’s gateway to national fame. Reeves started it, going from a standout at South Carolina and then the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl head coach. When he was a little league baseball coach in Americus, one of his young players was Gailey, who would go on to be the head coach for the Cowboys, Bills and Georgia Tech. The Americus boys matched wits in a 1999 game on Monday night.
“When you think about it, it really is kind of unbelievable,” Reeves told The Associated Press at the time.
Kent Hill went from Americus to Georgia Tech, then was a first-round pick and made five Pro Bowls.
Victor Green was fairly under-recruited when he graduated from Americus High School, accepting a scholarship to Akron. He went on to a 10-year NFL career and was named to the New York Jets’ All-Four Decade team.
There have also been Alonzo Jackson, Otis Leverette, Roy Reeves and Tommy Sims. Finally there was Pope, the man-child tight end (6-foot-8 and 270 pounds) who was a third-round pick and spent eight seasons in the NFL.
Along the way, Pope noticed the big kid who was a family friend. It was Clark. Pope thought to himself: I have to look out for this guy.
LEONARD POPE, FOOTBALL MENTOR
It’s hard in a small town not to have tangential connections with everyone. Clark’s father was a close friend of one of Pope’s cousins.
“Tyler is a great kid, man,” Pope said the other day from Americus, where he lives again, working in sales. “The first time I saw him was as a little child. But when he grew up and started playing ball, I was like, man. He was kinda like me. You know how you can kind of pick out a kid and know he’s abnormal? And then once I heard the buzz of him going to Georgia, I knew I had to get in on it.”
Pope took up a mentoring role. Clark said they now speak regularly, and Pope offered him advice on going from Americus to the SEC. The gist of it: Make sure to be physically “right” when you get to Athens, because “up there it’s a different league.”
Clark should be just fine, in Pope’s view. He comes from a good family, is smart and listens.
The hometown pride thing is a real thing for Pope. When he was playing, then-teammate Danny Ware walked by a Pope media session and chanted: “A-mer-i-cus!” (Ware is from Aragon, a town to the north on the Alabama border.)
“Hey, I guarantee you this: Every state, every team, every organization that I’ve played for, that them guys know about Americus, Georgia,” Pope said. “From our lingo, from the way we talk. I got a lot more professional from being in the spotlight, doing interviews and small things like that. But we’re the country.”
So what is it about Americus being able to produce so much football? Several people, including Clark and Pope, both pointed to what they called a “great community,” which supports and gets behind its teams and players. And while the town is not exactly poverty-free or devoid of racial problems, it does seem to have less than elsewhere in south Georgia. There is a calmness about the city and the area, which is, after all, the home of Jimmy Carter post-Presidency.
“I think the community knows, just like us athletes us know, that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. When a child like Tyler gets a chance to succeed and pursue his dream, it’s only right for all of us to get together and try to push for that,” Pope said. “It’s been 10 years. And every chance I get I’m making sure I’m letting him know the dos, the don’ts, this is what might happen if you do this. But I think he’s gonna be all right.”
JUST LIKE HOME
Clark resembles his hometown in his relaxed, quieter ways. He’s an avid fisher who often goes to the pond his uncle, Tyrone Snead, owns. He spends other days in his driveway, washing his car, because – according to family friend Valecia Sales – it allows more alone time.
“Football, the pond and washing his car,” Sales said, laughing.
“That’s it,” Clark said, smiling too.
Sales accompanied Clark on his recruiting visits, and detected a reason he passed on Tennessee, Auburn and others that chased him.
“The biggest thing I saw, that was because he was born and raised and I know he loves Americus, is that environment in Athens,” Sales said. “There was something about those country roads (near Athens) that I think pulled him, that was that final decision. Along with the coaches and the school, that was his dream school. It was that draw back to Americus, small-town Americus.”
Clark, sitting a few feet away on this spring day, just nodded in agreement.
For many towns, it’s just a place you’re from. But there’s something different about Americus.
“There’s that born and raised in Americus, Georgia, that’s in him,” Sales said. “And he loves Americus.”
Next Generation is a series of profiles on the individuals who have signed on with the Georgia Bulldogs and will join the team this summer.
THE NEXT GENERATION SERIES
- To the kids at Elbert Primary, ‘ME-cole’ is beloved
- How Tyler Simmons became ‘The Helicopter Kid’
- There’s more to Charlie Woerner than meets the eye
- Georgia’s new punter born for this role
- Javon Wims’ journey to UGA is one for the books.
- Dogs’ biggest player swims against the tide
- Big brother serves as catalyst for Catalina coming to UGA
- Family losses only motivated David Marshall
- Elijah Holyfield brings a champion spirit to UGA
- A father’s tough love puts Michail Carter on a path to success