FRISCO, Texas – It's eerie how these things have a way of happening.
Draft day wasn't the first time Damone Clark fielded an important phone call from the Dallas Cowboys, as it turns out. Call it coincidence or serendipity, but Clark is actually working through rehab on a neck injury that his new employer helped him find.
"The crazy thing is, at the Combine, Dallas' medical staff was the one that told me," Clark said. "When they told me, I was shocked. I'm like 'Whoa, maybe y'all got the wrong person.'"
That's an understandable attitude. Clark started all 12 games for LSU last season, finishing fourth in the entire country in tackles with 135. He even participated in the Senior Bowl in February, where he was named the best linebacker in attendance
"I played the whole year and felt perfectly fine," he said.
But there were the Cowboys, calling to inform Clark that he had a herniated disc in his spine that would require surgery. After initially hearing from them, Clark turned toward spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who would eventually perform his surgery at the end of March.
"I went out and got a second opinion, and Dr. Watkins said the same thing," Clark said. "It's crazy that this is the team that drafted me. So I already feel comfortable here."
The Cowboys themselves have plenty of reason to be confident. Team officials have stressed that the two injuries aren't exactly the same, but Leighton Vander Esch did undergo the same procedure following the 2019 season, when his own neck injury forced him to miss seven games.
"Just on the injury front, going through the experience with Leighton and there were a couple of other comparables," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. "I mean yeah, that was definitely part of the discussion leading up to the decision."
Vander Esch missed six games in 2020, but that was due to a broken collarbone, not his herniated disc. He played a full season in 2021 for the first time since his rookie year, tallying 77 tackles and four tackles for loss.
As he works his way back from his own injury, Clark acknowledged that learning about Vander Esch's situation has only made him more confident than he already was.
"If you have someone like Leighton, who had the same, exact injury and he's back on the field, why wouldn't I be back on the field, too?" he said.
Technically, Clark was on the field this weekend – just not as a participant. Clark attended the Cowboys' rookie orientation practices, and while he may not have played, he shadowed all of his teammates movements, keeping meticulous track of what was happening in front of him.
That tracks with the pre-draft analysis of Clark's demeanor, as the Baton Rouge, La., native was a team focal point during his upperclassman seasons at LSU. To hear it from McCarthy, his transition has been impressive to the Cowboys' coaching staff.
"He's been on the Zoom call meetings. Very, very bright," McCarthy said. "Has really good command and understanding. He looks great. His rehab, you wouldn't know he was dealing with anything, just looking at him and watching him move. But he's been very impressive."
It's easy to hear all of this and get excited. The Cowboys' front office said during draft weekend there's a chance Clark could contribute in 2022. Laying all of this out during the course of spring football, it's understandable to wonder about timelines and scheduled for a potential return.
Despite that, both parties seem to understand that this is about the big picture. Clark said Saturday that he feels like the surgery extended his career, rather than shortened it. There's no reason to jeopardize that with a rushed recovery.
"I understand the excitement and all of that, but I think learning from Leighton's situation, there's a timeline. He won't play too early, I'll say that," McCarthy said.
Even if that's the case, Clark will have plenty of football to play, and it's the Cowboys who stand to benefit, after identifying the problem in the first place. Sometimes things come full circle.
"I'm just happy they found it, and Dallas still picked me up. I'm happy to be here," Clark said.