Broncos OT Chris Clark set for game’s biggest stage at Super Bowl XLVIII

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — In just five years, Denver Broncos tackle Chris Clark has gone from the lowest of lows with his NFL career to the height of the majestic mountains seen from his team’s home stadium.

It’s a Rocky Mountain High that not even Clark, a New Orleans native, could have imagined having after being cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the end of the 2008 preseason.

“Being a young guy, I didn’t know how to handle that,” said a pensive Clark, a McDonogh 35 grad who was already fragile after all 32 teams passed on him in the draft that spring.

But things started looking up — at least a little bit — when he was signed by the Minnesota Vikings even though he never played a game for them before being released in 2010.

“I thank God that Minnesota came in and wanted to give me a chance,” a now-smiling Clark said. “I was grateful for that because it was definitely a rough time for me.”

One day later, he was claimed by the Broncos. And after paying his dues for four seasons, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Clark will start at left tackle on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII.

On the game’s biggest stage, in the shadows of the nation’s largest city, Clark will help protect Peyton Manning’s blind side in their matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

The best part of it was a humble Clark didn’t have to pinch himself this week as a lifelong dream to play in the Super Bowl became with each passing day closer to being a reality.

“It’s been a crazy path for me,” he said Wednesday. “Just being a free agent for two years … and then having a role like this. It was tough because you don’t think that it’ll come like that.”

The role that Clark, who played in 39 games from 2010 and 2012 with six starts, referred to was replacing two-time All-Pro Ryan Clady after he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2.

“You always hear about ‘next man up.’ You hear it all the time,” Clark said of a phrase routinely uttered by football coaches. “Until you actually do it and get the experience with that deal, it was kind of different. I’m just glad I had an opportunity to respond, and I plan to keep responding.”

That’s good news for Manning, a $100 million quarterback who naturally appreciates all the protection he can get at his position — especially from blind-side rushers ready to take a shot at him.

Then again, Manning kind of knew what he was getting when Clark, a fellow New Orleanian, started most of the offseason while Clady was out negotiating a five-year, $52 million contract and rehabbing a shoulder injury.

“I’m real proud of Chris,” Manning said. “It was fortunate for us that he was the starter the entire offseason. He was comfortable hearing the calls, comfortable working next to (guard) Zane (Beadles) and Manny (Ramirez) at center.”

Manning said while the loss of Clady was a big blow to the team. Clark, who signed a two-year, $3.477 million contract extension just days before Clady went down, felt it as well.

“Chris was disappointed for Ryan, but he was excited for his opportunity,” Manning said. “Chris was not content being a sixth man and a swing tackle; he wanted to be a starter. I’m real proud of the way he stepped up and embraced that role.

“It is a lot of pressure at left tackle in the NFL, especially one in a passing offense. He’s done a heck of a job, and I’ve been just real proud of him all season.”

Clark said there shouldn’t have been a problem because he’d been working for the past three seasons at being ready for when his time came.

“I didn’t want the offense to have a drop-off all, so I worked real hard to make sure I was on point,” Clark said. “I was not going to be the weakest link. … I would not be that guy. So having that mentality helped me tremendously.

“I didn’t feel pressure at all, and even my family members said that had to be hard,” he said. “But I try not to feel pressure, I try to apply it. I make you have to beat me. It’s not about me stopping you, it’s about you stopping me.”

Just like when he was released by the Bucs.

Clark said his older brother, Stephen, asked him what he was going to do after that disappointment. Even though he was hurting, Clark assured him he wouldn’t be stopped.

“I was like, ‘It’s all going to work out … don’t worry about me,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘It’s all going to work out, I’ll be OK.’ ”

Yes he is.