By Alaa Abdeldaiem
Dave Clark didn’t know if he would ever get his chance.
A polio survivor, Clark was without full use of his legs, and his stunted growth was an obstacle in the way of pursuing his dream of playing professional baseball. He did everything on crutches and wore leg braces all the way to his hips.
Yet Clark’s drive never wavered. Determined to turn his hopes into reality and become “a dreamer that does,” Clark knew he had to try.
“Unless you step out of your comfort zone and try new things, you don’t know what your potential is,” Clark said. “It would’ve been easy to quit, but I was willing to prepare for an opportunity I knew might never come along.”
In 1971, Clark signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, starting on a path that would lead him to a 40-year baseball career. It’s a path that included buying and playing for the Indianapolis Clowns, managing a three-time championship team in Sweden and serving as a member of Team USA’s staff with the 1996 Olympic baseball team.
It’s a path that inspired him to start the Dave Clark Foundation and host sports camps for disabled kids and adults, a path he wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t done what he knew he had to do: Try.
Pulling Away from Defeat
Adversity started just 10 months after his birth in 1952.
Not yet able to walk, Clark suffered from what at first seemed to be normal flu-like symptoms. Doctors had reassured his parents, but neither of them was convinced. Three weeks after the symptoms failed to clear, doctors made the new diagnosis.
Clark had polio, a disease that would sentence him to a year living at the Ithaca Reconstruction Home away from his family.
“I was less than two years old when I left the center using my first set of braces,” Clark said. “I came out using those braces and crutches walking like Frankenstein, but I knew nothing else. That was normal for me.”
Normal is how Clark’s parents always raised him to feel. He was treated no differently than his two brothers, letting him join those in his neighborhood during their daily sports games. Soon, there was nothing Clark couldn’t do.
He was playing basketball, football, and hockey, relying on his crutches for mobility. He was boxing, swimming and fishing. More than anything, he spent his days pitching and catching, playing baseball with friends until his feet were no longer visible under inches of snow and looking forward to afternoons playing catch with his father.
When Clark wasn’t doing, he was dreaming. He imagined himself as a professional baseball player, throwing tennis balls off the roof of his garage and broadcasting the game live in his head. He was a batter hitting a home run during the last inning of Game 7 in the World Series. He was a pitcher striking a batter out with bases loaded.
Clark never shared his dreams, though. Unable to fully fit in at school, Clark was frequently bullied, teased and called “Olio” by several classmates.
“The bullying did get under my skin,” Clark said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’d love to try and play professional baseball,’ but I couldn’t to tell anyone. I knew they’d laugh. I was afraid.”
So afraid that he refused to move from the back of the line on a five-block walk during a class field trip to a local fire station. He was done trying, hoping instead that he’d disappear behind the rest of his classmates.
It was then that Clark was pulled along, encouraged to never quit. The support came from Ernie Pound, a fellow first-grader who brought a Radio Flyer red wagon with him to the trip.
“Ernie told me to jump in, that he’d pull me along the trip,” Clark said. “The entire weight of the world was lifted off of my shoulders then.”
Today, Clark presents the Pulling Each Other Along Award during his sports camps to honor the notable contributions of people who have helped others achieve their dreams under exceptional circumstances.
People like Ernie Pound, who Clark saw for the first time since that day in first grade during a book-signing event more than a decade later.
“You never know what your actions are going to mean to somebody else and how long that impact will hold,” Clark said, choking back tears. “Ernie didn’t realize at six, seven years old what kind of an impact he had on me. And to see him again after all of those years? That was a touching moment.”
A Dream Turned into Reality
The chair sat at the corner of the gym, placed on the sidelines where Clark would watch his classmates participate in the day’s events.
Two years had passed since Clark first recognized just how much his polio had set him apart from everyone else. He was different. His classmates and teachers made that much clear to him. Knowing no other way, Clark said he could have stuck to the sidelines for the rest of his life.
“Teachers never even tried to see what potential I had, so I did what I was told,” Clark said. “The gym teachers before would bring us all together, tell us what we were going to do, and then point me towards the chair.”
Mr. Schnetzler had other plans.
An ex-Marine, Schnetzler was assigned as Clark’s new gym teacher in third grade. He told the class they were climbing rope that day, and as Clark made his way to his usual station, he said Schnetzler stopped him in his tracks.
“His voice just boomed, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’” Clark said. “He didn’t even let me finish my sentence. ‘Not in my class,’ he said. ‘There may be things you won’t be able to do, but you and I will never know what they are if you don’t try, and you will try everything in my class.’”
Clark not only tried, but he became the only student in his class to get to the top of the rope.
It’s that same mentality that drove Clark as he prepared for his baseball career years later. Despite being unable to use his legs, Clark learned to focus on what he could do, using his coordination skills and upper body strength in his pursuit.
He worked out four hours a day, six days a week. Clark ran five miles on his crutches each day, lifted weights, rode on stationary bikes and did calisthenics. He hand-wrote letters to all 24 Major League clubs at the time, asking for a tryout.
He tried, even when matters didn’t look promising.
“I was a guy on an island,” Clark said. “People looked at me sort of like, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ And I was realistic to know that a guy on crutches with leg braces isn’t going to get a lot of looks from professional scouts in the world of sports.”
When his chance did come, he was ready, opening a door to a baseball career Clark said he never could have imagined.
Clark spent two years with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league system before going on to pitch for the Indianapolis Clowns, several other independent pro ball teams, and the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 1980. In 1981, Clark was selected to the Swedish Elite Professional baseball League All-Star Team as a pitcher and later managed a team in the league to three World Series championships. Clark returned to the Indianapolis Clowns in 1984, this time as a player, manager, and owner.
Suffering from post-polio, Clark retired at age 36, but his baseball career was nowhere near its end. Clark was on Team USA’s staff with the 1996 Olympic baseball team in Atlanta, was a pitching coach with the Braves in 1999 and later a scout with the Marlins, White Sox, Yankees, Braves, Padres and Orioles.
That’s when Doug Cornfield first heard of Clark’s story. Clark had been awarded the National Heroes of Sports Award in Atlanta in 1999, where Cornfield was then residing.
“As the winds would have it, we were in the process of moving to Corning, New York, in 2000, and [Clark] was also in the process of moving to Corning,” Cornfield said. “My brother was a friend of Clark’s after working with him at a local YMCA, and so we were able to meet later that year.”
Cornfield was particularly drawn to Clark’s story as a parent of a now-18-year-old son, Gideon, who was born with neither arm fully developed. Gideon was only a year old when Cornfield and Clark first met, but it was Clark’s “soft switch” that left Cornfield hoping their relationship would last a lifetime.
“I wasn’t planning on working with Dave when I met him 16 years ago, but the more I learned about his story, the more I told him, ‘Dave, you gotta get a book,’” Cornfield said. “’You gotta do something with this.’”
With Cornfield’s help, Clark did, and what would follow was something neither of them could have imagined.
Making a Lasting Impact
Florence Strom knew what it meant for a disabled child to live with limitations.
A mother of three boys, two with Leber congenital amaurosis and one with cerebral palsy, Strom saw it every day, especially with then-12-year-old, Ryan.
Ryan was legally blind, a fate that left him struggling to reconcile with his disability.
“Ryan has always had a difficult time dealing with the possibility of losing his vision entirely,” Strom said. “He’s the outsider looking in most of the time, was told he couldn’t participate in gym and couldn’t do things other kids did.”
Searching for a way to boost her child’s confidence, Strom heard about the Dave Clark Foundation from a friend at a local school in New York, and after searching their website, Strom knew she had found some possible help.
The Dave Clark Foundation, founded by Clark and Cornfield shortly after they had met, is one the two built in hopes of “inspiring people to overcome their personal challenges and perceived limitations in order to lead satisfying and productive lives.”
Clark and Cornfield then started running six to eight D3—Disability, Dream and Do—camps a year. The camp features pro-style baseball and hockey practices for children and young adults with disabilities, set up in different locations nationally and providing a chance for participants to connect with pro-athletes on the field.
It was at one such retreat that Ryan met Clark.
“Ryan loves baseball, and Dave took him to the side and sat and talked with him for a long time about what it meant to not give up and staying determined,” Strom said.
Strom said she saw her son change shortly afterwards. Ryan joined his school’s modified track team and displayed a new level of motivation Strom hadn’t seen before.
“It’s very comforting to see Ryan take steps towards realizing that his vision doesn’t define him,” Strom said. “At the D3 camp, he never heard the word ‘no.’ He was never told he couldn’t. He learned that he could still do incredible things if he just tried.”
Tanner Vavra, too, connected with Clark’s message. Vavra heard of Clark and his story from a baseball coach in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and being legally blind in his right eye, he was often compared to Clark in his pursuit of a professional career.
“I had no idea who Dave was at the time and just blew it off, thinking my coach was just pulling my leg,” Vavra said. “Then I met him at a D3 camp he had teamed up with the Twins organization for, and listening to him tell his story in the locker room to us as players, I was like, ‘Whoa. This is who my coach was telling me about.’”
Vavra quickly took hold of Clark and his foundation’s mission, embracing the impact such an opportunity had on all its attendees.
“I know what it’s like when someone tells you you can’t do something on a regular basis,” Vavra said. “To go and spend a day with kids who are told they can’t do a lot of things and give them an opportunity to do something they enjoy, that’s a big deal.”
Clark hopes to provide that opportunity to all, seeking to expand beyond hubs in Florida and New York. He hopes to connect with more like Ryan and Vavra, to inspire and motivate, to use his story to impact people the way Ernie Pound and Mr. Schnetzler once impacted him.
How far he’ll be able to grow, how many he’ll be able to touch, how strong his impact will be—Clark may never be able to imagine. But, regardless of what obstacles may arise, Clark knows for one thing for certain.
He won’t know until he tries.