METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Marques Clark stopped playing organized football when his eligibility with Division II Henderson State ran out in 2006. Drew Brees helped him get his first shot in the NFL this month with the New Orleans Saints.
"I owe him everything," the 28-year-old rookie receiver said when asked about Brees' role in getting him his first NFL tryout.
It just so happens that Brees does offseason throwing at a San Diego-area high school where Clark got a job about two years ago as a wide receivers coach. Brees noticed Clark working out there last summer and asked him if he wanted to run some routes. They did not work together very much last summer, though, because Brees, as a member of the NFL Players Association executive committee, was traveling a lot for talks aimed at resolving last year's lockout.
This offseason, however, Brees was staying in San Diego while holding out for the five-year, $100 million contract he wound up signing earlier this month. He ran into Clark again, and invited him to rejoin his workouts. This time, Brees noticed how Clark seemed to catch every ball and began to wonder if he'd somehow "slipped through the cracks."
"He kind of like, straight from coaching, just took off his sweat shirt, stepped in and just started running routes," Brees recalled. "And after a couple you're just like, 'Man, there's something about this guy. He's got something.'
"I'd watch him make a catch or watch him run a route and make it look just so natural and so easy. Finally, I pull him aside after one of those throwing sessions and I'm just like, 'Man, what's your story? What's the deal?'"
Clark explained that he always dreamed of playing in the NFL while at Henderson State, where he had 91 catches for 1,456 yards and 11 TDs in two seasons after a stint at junior college. But he had little idea how to go about getting noticed by networking with coaches and scouts. He had no pro day, no invitation to the combine or any pro camps. Nothing.
The closest he came to playing organized football again was a tryout for a couple United Football League teams, but that came to nothing as well. In between, he worked as a cashier at a casino in his native California and held some other jobs before a friend helped him get a job coaching at Westview High School.
"I was just staying in shape, just in case, basically, like if something came up and there was a tryout somewhere," Clark said.
Brees said Clark is a humble hard worker who reminds him in some ways of Marques Colston.
"Has those qualities. He's modest but competitive," Brees said. "You can tell there's this competitive fire like he wants to catch every ball, wants to run every route perfectly. Never wants to be outhustled."
After several workouts, Saints backups Chase Daniel and Sean Canfield joined Brees for some of his throwing sessions, and Brees decided he had to get a second opinion on Clark.
"I said, 'Is it just me. I just want to make sure I'm not crazy, but this guy belongs in a camp right? Like this guy looks like he can play in the NFL.' And they're like, 'Yes, absolutely,'" Brees said.
So Brees called quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi and then director of pro scouting Ryan Pace and told them Clark's story.
"Sounds crazy, right?" Brees said. "But this guy can play."
Brees then told Clark to expect a call soon, and Clark stayed by his phone the entire day. When the call did not come that day, he hit the gym late at night to burn off some nervous energy.
The call finally came the following day, and "Sure enough, they bring him in, try him out, he catches every ball, looks great and they sign him up," Brees said.
When Clark was done with his tryout and the Saints offered him a contract, Clark said, "It was like I didn't really think he (Pace) was talking to me. It was an out-of-body experience. I thought, 'Did he really just say that?' And he was staring at me like, 'Yeah, we're going to sign you.'"
In the short time Clark has been in New Orleans, he has heard about the "Beerman," former kick returner Michael Lewis, who went from driving a beer truck in south Louisiana, to dabbling in low-level arena football to becoming a Pro Bowl special teams player for the Saints.
At Saturday evening's practice, overflow crowd appeared to Clark to be larger than a typical home crowd for a Henderson State game. He did not sign any autographs though, because he figured, "Nobody knows who I am."
Perhaps that will change in time, like it did for "the Beerman."
Clark arrived in New Orleans on Monday night, and if he has his way, "I won't be home until February ... and (I'm) stuck with no clothes or anything, but it doesn't matter."
NOTES: The only two players missing practice were rookie DT Akiem Hicks (fractured right hand) and TE David Thomas (back). Assistant Joe Vitt said Hicks is expected to start three days of non-contact work on Sunday before returning fully to practice. ... Brees paid for a New Orleans area snowball stand to serve any fan and player who wanted one.