By David Rogers. December 20, 2019. NEW ORLEANS, LA — Whether in football or in life, play every play like it will be your last play — and the one for which you will be remembered.
COVER IMAGE: Former NFL veteran defensive back and now ESPN analyst Ryan Clark speaks to players, coaches, sponsors, staff members and fans at the New Orleans Bowl luncheon in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in downtown New Orleans.
After a 13-year NFL career, retired defensive back and new ESPN analyst Ryan Clark both entertained and inspired more than 200 football players, coaches and staff, as well as a few hundred more fans of Appalachian State and University of Alabama-Birmingham (the schools playing on Saturday in the New Orleans Bowl). Clark was the Keynote Speaker for the New Orleans Bowl luncheon at the Marriott Hotel, on Canal Street, in the Grand Ballroom.
The event opened with a couple of earthquakes — well, that is probably what other hotel guests not affiliated with football might have thought. First UAB’s, and then Appalachian State’s marching bands percussed their way into the ballroom, alternately saluting the respective players and coaches that will be competing on Saturday in the iconic Mercedes-Benz Superdome. In a word, it was loud — particularly when the Marching Mountaineers arrived more than 300-strong to play some of their most iconic pregame selections.
High energy was paid more than lip service. Along with the bands, both schools’ cheer and dance teams flipped, bounced and swung their way around the room. If you didn’t have much of an appetite before arriving for lunch, watching the energetic gyrations of those 20-somethings got those hunger hormones kicked into high gear.
Videos of the football players mimicking their coaches, trying to pronounce various words unique to the Louisiana region, and demonstrating their Christmas song singing talents…well, that produced more than a few chuckles among the players and the rest of the audience.
Apparently, the New Orleans Bowl this year might just as well be called the Clark Bowl, not just because Friday’s keynote speaker was Ryan Clark, but because the two head coaches of these schools also have last names of Clark: Shawn Clark of Appalachian State and Bill Clark of UAB.
Interviewed by the emcee, both coaches were gracious in singing their opponent’s praises, not even a hint of “talking smack” that might be taped up to a locker room bulletin board. App State’s Clark is now the head coach in his return to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. He called the offensive plays in last year’s big win over Conference-USA runner-up in 2018, Middle Tennessee. Former head coach Scott Satterfield brought Clark back to his alma mater to join his former teammate’s coaching staff as offensive line coach, in 2015, and he has been an instrumental part of the Mountaineers’ four straight Sun Belt Conference championships, two championship game titles, and four straight bowl victories in four years of being eligible since transitioning from the FCS to FBS.
UAB’s Bill Clark has led the team in a return to becoming “bowl eligible” after resurrecting a program that was shut down in 2014, then reinstated in 2017. In his first year, with the program in 2014, the Blazers recorded their best won-loss record since 2004, going 6-6, but still fell victim to university budget cuts. Now in their third year since reinstating the program, UAB is playing in its third consecutive bowl game. The Blazers defeated Middle Tennessee to win the C-USA title in 2018, 27-25, then after losing 35 seniors to graduation after the 2018 season, overcame adversity to finish as runner-up in C-USA this season, losing to Florida Atlantic in the title game, 49-6.
A Louisiana native who played college football at LSU, Ryan Clark signed as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants in 2002. Despite the long odds after getting cut by the Giants, Clark went on to play 13 NFL seasons, including two stints with the Washington Redskins around a six-year period with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Having competed in two Super Bowls, Clark told the crowd that one of his greatest adversaries was a sickle cell trait he carried that manifested itself when he played for the Steelers in Denver’s high altitude. He stressed to the Marriott grand ballroom assemblage that there win or lose in the bowl game on Saturday, there are more important things than football.
“I never thought anything was more important than football,” he said. “Then I had kids…when my son made his first interception, I cried like a baby.”
One of the things that kept driving him, he explained, after the Denver episode was that his last play in Denver was the Broncos’ Jay Cutler taking a knee in a victory formation.
“Can you imagine what it would be like for my son if any time my name was mentioned they showed my last play on the field would be one where Jay Cutler was taking a knee, because we had lost?”
Whether in life or in football, he said, play your next play like it will be your last play, the one for which you will remembered for eternity.