A trailblazer from the Colorado football program’s lengthy history has passed away.
On Thursday, CU announced the passing of former receiver Frank Clarke, who was the first African-American varsity football player and letter winner in school history. The 84-year old Clarke died Wednesday night in Dallas following an illness.
Clarke spent three years in the Buffaloes program beginning in 1954 after transferring from Trinidad Junior College. After sitting out a transfer season Clarke emerged as the Buffs’ top receiver for two consecutive seasons during a run-heavy era of college football.
In 1955, 13 of CU’s 47 completions went to Clarke, accounting for 407 yards and five of the Buffs’ seven receiving touchdowns. Clarke added seven receptions for 124 yards and two touchdowns the following season. He finished his collegiate career with an average of 26.6 yards per reception. Clarke’s era worked against him in the CU record book, as his 20 career receptions are not enough for him to qualify for the Buffs’ career lead in yards per reception (Clarke still would have trailed Jeff Campbell’s career mark of 28.6 yards per reception) but his 31.3 yards per catch in 1955 remains the Buffs’ top single-season mark.
Clarke was selected in the fifth round of the 1956 NFL draft, and he finished an 11-year career with the Browns and Dallas Cowboys with 291 receptions for 5,426 yards and 50 touchdowns. Clarke’s final NFL game was the famous “Ice Bowl” NFL Championship game between the Cowboys and victorious Green Bay.
Clarke went on to a professional career that included working NFL games for CBS Sports, but it was Clarke’s impact off the field that made the most meaningful mark during his time in Boulder. The Buffs featured two African-American players in Clarke and John Wooten, who joined the team shortly after Clarke. At the end of the 1956 season, when the Buffs were invited to the Orange Bowl, Clemson initially said it would refuse to take the field against a team with black players on its roster. CU didn’t back down, and even stayed at a Miami hotel that otherwise refused to service black people.
Clemson eventually changed its mind and suffered a 27-21 defeat to the Buffs, with Clarke contributing an 18-yard reception to the victory.
Clarke was inducted into the CU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008. Wooten also is a member of the CU Athletics Hall of Fame.