On the first day of third grade, Dave Clark headed to a familiar spot — a chair at the side of the school gym. He’d contracted polio at 10 months old and never walked without crutches and a leg brace. He was not expected to take part in P.E. class.
This year would be different.
His new teacher, an ex-Marine, challenged Dave to participate. The first day of class, the students were asked to climb a rope that extended to the gym ceiling.
“I put one fist over the other,” Dave said. “I was the only kid to get to the top.”
He would never be the same.
Dave is in Hickory for a few days to share his wisdom, stories of success and a bit of the tough-mindedness that drove him.
He will be the keynote speaker at the United Way Invitational cross-country race in Newton. The event is expected to draw more than 900 runners to Southside Park today, and Dave will speak around 6 p.m..
He’s worth a listen.
Dave’s years in pro sports are the stuff of movies. Indeed, Dave and his partner-in-crime, author Doug Cornfield, are in negotiation for a film about Dave’s life.
Some of the highlights:
» Dave carved out a professional pitching career that took him as high as A-ball (approximately the same level as the Hickory Crawdads) while hurling his knuckleball from the mound with crutches and a leg brace;
» Managed baseball teams in Sweden to three consecutive championships;
» Served on the staff for the 1996 USA Olympic baseball team during the Atlanta Olympics;
» Spent more than 40 years in pro baseball as a player and coach, noting that the designated hitter rule was a big help to a pitcher on crutches;
» Played college hockey as a goalie;
» Broadcast college hockey for 10 years; and
» Advised President Bill Clinton during a White House visit on how to throw out the first pitch at a ballgame.
Dave and Doug also help run camps for disabled children with the help of the Minnesota Twins organization.
Dave, 67, says it’s about giving back to the kids and seeing them accomplish something they did not think they could do. It makes sense he would be the keynote speaker at a United Way event here.
Dave is a man of a thousand stories and left me with one last tale — one about privilege.
Dave and his minor league teammates played a terrible game in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, losing 22-6.
“I stunk the joint out,” Dave said.
When he entered the clubhouse, he was livid. He commenced bashing one of his crutches on a steel pole.
A teammate finally calmed him enough to let him know there was a girl in a wheelchair waiting outside with her father.
Dave had his teammate jump up and down on the bent crutch with his cleats until it was reasonably straight.
Then he ventured forth.
He began by apologizing to the father and child for his lousy pitching.
The girl in the wheelchair interrupted.
“Mr. Clark, you were on the field.”
Dave said her words gave him perspective, providing a balm to his anger.
A ballplayer can give up two home runs but most of the time, there’s another day to play, Dave said. He was living his dream but even a man on crutches needed to be reminded of his good fortune.
There’s a lesson there for all of us.