Staff Photo: David Friedlander James Clark is in his second season as the Georgia Force's assistant head coach after a four-year playing career in the Arena Football League and AFL2. He was also an All-American offensive lineman at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
James Clark can truly say he has found his niche in professional football in the Arena Football League. In his second season as the Georgia Force's assistant head coach following a four-year playing career, the 32-year-old Vidalia native has grown comfortable with his role. Staff writer David Friedlander recently spoke with Clark about the path that led him to the AFL following an All-American college career at Tennessee-Chattanooga, his adjustment from outdoor football and what lies ahead.
DF: How did you become involved in arena football?
JC: It's kind of an interesting story. In college coming into my junior year, I guess I was considered a pretty good player at that point. About midway through my junior year, I had a colon infection and had to go into the hospital for about a month and a half. I came back my senior year at about 250 pounds (down from 295) that spring, it was all I could do to get back playing.
After I graduated, I kind of took off about two years from football. Right before I left school, I was working out for a combine. I didn't hear anything for about two years. I was working at Lowe's, and a coach from (AFL2) called me and ... wanted to know if I wanted to play. I signed a contract and started going back and got in shape and went over to the Birmingham Steeldogs and made that team. It was a two-way (offense-defense) game back then, so it was a long season.
DF: So how did you find your way to Georgia, and later Jacksonville?
JC: I played in Birmingham in '06 and got signed to the (old) Georgia Force in 2007. I made the practice squad the first five weeks, and then a (lineman) broke his leg in Philadelphia and I started for 22 games. Then, the (original AFL) folded (following the 2008 season). I was living here in Atlanta working construction, and in 2010 when the league came back, about three teams -- Cleveland, Huntsville and Jacksonville -- offered me a chance to come play.
DF: When your playing days were over, it didn't seem like a hard decision for you to get into coaching and come back to Georgia.
JC: Well, to be honest with you, 2010 was just one last hurrah. I wasn't really ready for (playing) football to end for me in 2008 with the league folding and everything. ... Ultimately, I just wanted a chance to play and get it out of my system. I started 17 games for them down in Jacksonville, and it was a long season. I was pretty much done with football, and (Force head coach) Dean (Cokinos) gave me a call just kind of out of the blue and asked me if I was interested in coaching. I thought he was was calling me to play (laughs). ... It really threw me for a loop. I thought about it a little while and ultimately decided to come up here and give it a shot.
It's been a good experience. It has. It's been different. It's definitely one of the biggest transitions I've ever had to make -- from playing to coaching. It's a whole (different) world. As a player, all you've got to do is show up and perform. ... As a coach, it's constant responsibility.
DF: Do you think the fact that you are about the same age as many of the players or that you're so closely removed from your playing days helps you relate better with the players?
JC: It's tough because when you're out here playing and maybe your team's struggling or whatever, you can come out and play. It's tough when you're trying to teach the guys to do things that you can do, and you'd just rather play sometimes. Ultimately, it helped me because I was able to relate to the guys a little bit more than some of the veteran coaches that might not have played (in a while or in the arena game). It gave me a lot of insight, and I was able to give the players a lot of insight into the game. ... It was probably beneficial to both of us.
DF: Obviously, going from outdoor football to the arena game takes a lot of adjustment. After so many years in the AFL, has the arena game become more second nature to you?
JC: Absolutely. The indoor game, I definitely understand it probably a little better than the outdoor game right now. Obviously, I played outdoor ball a lot of years, so I still understand the outdoor game. It's just that I haven't been in an outdoor game in about five years. So, it would take some getting used to getting back to the outdoor game, no doubt about it.
DF: So, what are your ultimate plans within the game? Do you hope to remain in the AFL and maybe become a head coach someday? Do you hope to get back into coaching in outdoor football at some point? Or do you think your future is even in football?
JC: I'll be honest with you. The way I've lived my whole life, I just kind of go with what happens. Ultimately, I'd like to stay in coaching now that I've gotten a taste of it. I do enjoy coaching, absolutely. But I'm also an opportunist. Any chance I have to make money, I'm going to take it. We live in a world where you can do what you like to do, but sometimes you do what you've got to do.
I had a bachelor of science degree in sociology and a minor in psychology. I'm taking steps to get certified so I can teach in high school and possibly coach in high school one of these days in the future just to have that to fall back on. I don't think I plan on ending up (coaching) in high school, but it's still not something I'm totally opposed to.
DF: Having come back to play and coach in your home state, I guess your career has come full circle.
JC: You know, it was really interesting how things kind of worked out for me, as far as getting signed by Georgia in 2007 and 2008. That was a dream come true in a lot of ways because it's my home state. I was one step away from being with the (Atlanta) Falcons. I was probably a little bit older when I got back into it. My coach (with the Force) is now the regional line scout for the Falcons. That's Bob Kronenberg.
DF: Tell us about the situation with the Falcons.
JC: I was going to get workouts with the Falcons when the (AFL) folded. But once it folded, I really wasn't in it as much as I should've been. I was 28 years old and a little longer in the tooth at that time. The fact they were even considering bringing me in for workouts was an achievement in itself.
I was working construction in Atlanta and had a girlfriend at the time, and I kind of took my eye off the ball. I can honestly say I don't have any regrets, really, besides maybe I underestimated my talent early on (in my career). The surgery (during the junior season) was really a shock. That was a tough deal to even come back and play. ... (But) the fact is, I haven't done bad with the opportunities I've been given.
DF: As assistant head coach, your duties with the Force are quite varied. I guess the nature of the AFL dictates you wear a lot of different hats.
JC: Me and Dean, we had a (defensive backs) coach earlier in the year. He took a high school job after about four games into the season, so it's just me and (Cokinos). We probably could've hired other coaches, but you bring in another guy (in the middle of the season) who doesn't know how you operate, and it could create more problems than it helps.DF: Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about your golf game. I know you gave some of Gwinnett's high school coaches an eyeful at their recent preseason golf outing, and for more than just being a big hitter off the tee.
JC: (Laughs) Obviously, having a good golf game will get you further in life than you ever think. My grandmother was a golfer, and I'd go out and hit with her when I was little, and I kind of liked golf. But I never really got good until I was done playing college football because I was finally done growing, and my swing was finally consistent. I honestly don't play that much.
DF: You play enough to be able to help out (Sports Medicine South founder and orthopaedic surgeon) Dr. Gary Levengood whenever he needs a good golfer on his team in a charity or fundraising event. How did you get to know him?
JC: (Laughs) Through the old Force. I had a toe injury in '07, so I got to know him pretty good, and golf probably brought us closer together. I was out there hitting balls in his tournament for all the (coaches). Doc's a good guy. He's been there for me whenever I've needed him. In turn, I'm there for him whenever he needs me.