Anyone who played with Gary Clark knew it was a bad idea to slack off around the four-time Pro Bowler. If he saw someone who wasn't playing up to expectations, he was going to call them out for it.
Back in 1986, Clark had to call himself out for dropping a pass on a wide-open route in the NFC Championship game that he feels would have led to a touchdown. Washington went on to lose to the New York Giants, 17-0, and Clark was haunted by what could have happened if he had managed to hold onto the ball.
It was the worst feeling Clark had ever experienced, and as tears poured down his face after the defeat, he made a promise to himself:
"If I ever get the opportunity to come back, we're not gonna lose that freaking football game, and I'm not going to be the reason why we lose."
Spoiler alert: he did, and he wasn't.
The drop, which came late in the first quarter after beating cornerback Elvis Patterson by five yards down the right sideline, was an uncharacteristic mistake from Clark, who at the time was wrapping up his second season. He already had 2,191 yards in his career, and he had just been selected to his first Pro Bowl after racking up over 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns.
Clark was "kind of feeling himself," he said, because of that early success. He believed defensive backs couldn't cover him ("By the way, they couldn't," interjected former quarterback Mark Rypien during a live stream celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Super Bowl season). Putting all the confidence from his teammates aside, it was clear to Clark that he still needed to be better.
So, when he got back to the DMV area after the loss, he got up at 3 a.m. and started preparing for next season. That wasn't a surprise to his teammates, who knew all about Clark's work ethic.
"If you've heard of a 'closet trainer,' that's this guy," former defensive back Brad Edwards said, pointing to Clark. "He would train in all kinds of crazy hours. Day and night. It was nuts."
That dedication was only heightened once Ricky Sanders joined the team one year after Clark in 1986. It was obvious to Clark how talented Sanders was, and while they ended up being teammates for six years, there was a level of competitiveness between them. And since they were roommates, they saw plenty of each other over the years.
Here's how Clark ensured he had an edge over Sanders without him knowing: he would wait until Sanders went to sleep to train.
"By the time I came back in, Ricky hadn't woke up, so it's like I hadn't done anything," Clark said.
All that extra work paid off, too. Clark finished four of the following five seasons after his NFC championship drop by eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark. He made three more Pro Bowls and earned a First Team All-Pro selection in that span.
And when it came to his promise, Clark delivered in the biggest moments. In the two times Washington advanced to the conference championship and the Super Bowl following 1986, Clark accounted for a combined 17 receptions for 303 yards and four touchdowns.
"I cannot overemphasize how much vertical space that a guy like Gary Clark created for you within a defense," Edwards said. "You just could not take a chance."
Clark's best statistical performance during the 1991 season, which is considered by many to be the best team in league history. Clark put up career-highs in yards (1,340) and touchdowns (10). He was part of the only offense in the NFL that season to have two players account for 70 receptions. One of his best games came during Super Bowl XXVI, when he caught seven passes on 12 targets for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Clark still hasn't forgotten the drop he had all those years ago, but after getting a couple more rings, it's fair to say he made it up for it. And it's a fact that he wasn't the reason why Washington lost. Instead, he was the reason it became one of the era's powerhouses.