Marques Clark catches a pass during practice at New Orleans Saints training… (Gerald Herbert / Associated…)
METAIRIE, La. -- It's a steamy day on the Bayou, but Marques Clark is in no hurry to leave the New Orleans Saints practice field. He's soaked in sweat, yet trying to absorb every moment of this improbable NFL dream.
He catches pass after pass from quarterback Drew Brees — the player who took a chance on him — while the rest of their teammates at training camp have already retired to the air-conditioned comfort of the locker room.
Finally, after the last pass is thrown, Clark dutifully grabs two sets of helmets and shoulder pads and lugs them to the locker room for a pair of veteran players. It's tradition; he is a rookie, even at age 28, and is happy to do anything to improve his chances of sticking with the team.
"I never thought I'd be here," said Clark, who last played organized football in 2006 at Henderson State, a Division II school in Arkadelphia, Ark. "I'm taking in as much as I can."
Were this a typical summer, Clark would be coaching receivers at Westview High in San Diego. He landed there after working a string of random jobs to make ends meet. At various points he delivered pizzas, manned the front desk at a gym, worked a cash register at a casino, and had jobs in research and development for Jack in the Box and installing software for Qualcomm.
As he angles to earn one of 53 spots on an NFL roster — still a very tall order — the memories of those other jobs are fresh in his head.
"Working in the casino was probably one of the worst jobs I ever had," said Clark, who, at 6 feet and 175 pounds, doesn't appear to have an ounce of fat. "There's secondhand smoke everywhere. You'd come home just smelling like cigarettes, and you'd wake up in the morning just coughing up stuff. It was really gross."
Delivering pizzas wasn't so bad.
"That was always fun," he said. "I worked with my best friend there, and we'd hang out telling funny stories. Once, I delivered a pizza and the lady wrote me a check for 75 cents for my tip. I didn't even cash it."
Clark is still a long way from cashing NFL checks. The Saints will cut their roster from 90 to 53 players by the end of training camp, and they have their share of talented receivers. But Clark could never have guessed he'd get to this point, even after he finished his Henderson State career with 91 catches for 1,456 yards and 11 touchdowns in two seasons.
After an unsuccessful tryout with a couple of United Football League teams, Clark reluctantly shelved his idea of playing in the pros. He stayed in shape, but had no clue as to how to make inroads with an NFL team. His only connection with football was his coaching job at Westview.
That's how he crossed paths with Brees, who maintains ties to San Diego after beginning his career with the Chargers. During the lockout last year, Brees worked out at Westview and needed players to catch his passes. He gathered some high school and college players, and Clark asked if he could join too.
"He jumped right in like it was a sandlot game or something," Brees recalled.
It didn't take long for Brees to notice Clark's speedy and graceful route running, and the way he effortlessly pulled the ball out of the air.
"He plucks it, man," Brees said. "So much natural ability and feel. He's great in transition, just so explosive out of his cuts, so quick. Catches everything. Catches it out in front of him with his hands. Making bad throws look like good throws. Making it look easy."
Brees complimented Clark on his skills.
"He gave me a bunch of confidence because he told me I looked good running routes and I should be playing somewhere," Clark said. "So after that, I worked out really hard the whole summer. When I heard that I was like, 'Wow, if Drew Brees thinks I'm good, it must mean something.'
"At first it was like, 'Oh, OK, cool.' But then when you hear it again and again, it's like, 'Oh, maybe he's serious. He's not just saying it to say it, to be a nice guy.'"
Their paths crossed again this summer when Brees returned to San Diego and was holding out for what would become his five-year, $100-million deal. He again staged workouts and invited Clark to join him. Fellow Saints quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Sean Canfield participated in the sessions too, and Brees asked for their opinion of Clark. They agreed: He made catching the ball look effortless.
"It's kind of like seeing the ball in slow-motion, I guess," Clark said. "It's just there. Sometimes you'll just see the ball and it's like I get to think about it for a second, like, 'Hmm, how do I want to catch this one?' And then I just go get it."
Brees took the next step, calling Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi and Ryan Pace, director of pro scouting, and telling them about Clark. Not long after that, Clark got an invitation to come to training camp.