Twenty-two of the 334 players selected in the 1978 NFL Draft were defensive tackles. Two – Dennis Harrison and Greg Marshall – were chosen by Philadelphia. One who wasn’t drafted, Ken Clarke, signed as a free agent with the Eagles and arguably turned out to have the most successful gridiron career.
Fourteen seasons in the NFL, 10 with the Eagles, began with a pat on the back and positive first impression.
“Jerry Angelo, my defensive line coach my junior and senior years (at Syracuse), was really instrumental in me even having the confidence that I could make a professional football team,” Clarke said. “He always told me how good I was even though I didn’t know it at the time. He called me Big Dog, and he said, ‘Big Dog, you’re as good as anybody I’ve ever coached.’ That helped a lot knowing that hey, if he believes that I could do it, then why couldn’t I do it?
“(In Philadelphia for a pre-draft workout) somebody took us to meet Coach (Dick) Vermeil and they were in a staff meeting. I was like, ‘We don’t need to bother him.’ They stopped the meeting and he came to the door and greeted everybody. It was like, I don’t know, a 21-year-old kid meeting Dick Vermeil who’d won the Rose Bowl and had been there a couple years. I was impressed. He was very nice and you could tell that if you were going to play for him you had to be a certain type of player.”
Clarke proved to be that “certain type of player,” and in 1980 he helped the Eagles post a 12-4 record and win the NFC Championship. They lost to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV. Six seasons later, he and his teammates were introduced to their new head coach, Buddy Ryan.
“I hated to see Marion Campbell (who succeeded Vermeil as the head coach in 1983) leave because he was my coach,” Clarke said. “I felt he kind of raised me as a football player. But we had to make changes and Buddy was just coming off of a Super Bowl win (as the defensive coordinator) with the Bears. It was exciting to have Buddy become the head coach.
“But for somebody who had been in Philadelphia at that point, eight years, it was just a big change for me because I had been a 3-4 nose tackle (and we were going to) a 4-3 defense, which I had to learn. I liked Buddy, but it was a lot for me to learn and adjust to. It’s hard for veterans who’d been accustomed to something to get a new head coach and make that adjustment. I went through that period, but I learned to like what they were doing at the end of the day.”
Clarke missed just four games in 10 seasons in Philadelphia, all in 1987, his final year with the team. His fondest memories?
“Probably my first year, just making the team, which I always feel is one of the hardest things I ever did in my life,” Clarke said. “My first game was the Hall of Fame Game (vs. Miami). That was exciting to see some of the guys who were my idols get inducted. I may have played three or four plays in the game, but just to be there, that was a highlight. Then getting through Training Camp and making the team was fantastic.
“The guys I played with, you couldn’t ask for better mentors. Charlie Johnson, Carl Hairston, a guy that came in with me, Dennis Harrison. You had Claude Humphrey coming on board after a year or so. I could go on the list of players. I had really good teammates. We worked hard. We always felt like the toughest team we played every week was the Eagles, so everybody else was like, hey, a piece of cake. Going into games, we were confident. We were going to win the game, we just didn’t know how.
“I always say I think I made the best decision that I ever did to go to the Eagles because I always felt like if you could play for the Philadelphia Eagles, you could play for anybody.”
Clarke played for Seattle (1988) and Minnesota (1989-91) after leaving Philadelphia. He feels there are a variety of reasons why he was able to survive more than quadruple the average length of an NFL player's career.
“You’ve got to be blessed. You’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to stay healthy. You’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to learn. You can’t be complacent. You have times where it gets monotonous, but you’ve got to always try to keep getting better. That was always a goal every year,” Clarke said.
“Being on a team with good coaches who could teach and you could learn from, nobody plays 14 years in the NFL without good people, good organizations. And we had the best owner I thought in football with Leonard Tose. Mr. Tose, he gave Coach Vermeil everything he needed. So there was a lot to play that long.”
Now semiretired and making his home in suburban Atlanta, Clarke is a coach at Football University camps.
“One thing Coach Vermeil always said was that he loved football players. And I tell my players when I’m coaching them; I love football players, too. But I don’t just love people that play football. There’s a difference,” Clarke said.
“When you become a football player, you know it. That’s somebody who takes care of their business, be responsible. They don’t have to be told to do something. They spend the extra time in the weight room. They spend the extra time in the meeting room. They spend the extra time on details after practice and on the field. They pay attention. That’s a football player. And once you become that guy, you’ll know it and I kind of knew it from Coach Vermeil. You could tell. Pro football’s all about respect.”