One finger is broken. Another is dislocated. Several others have ligament damage. You shake hands with Robert Clark, it’s like shaking an egg carton. Be careful. Don’t squeeze.

These are not hands for football, not right now, but then, Clark has always had a weird sense of timing. He didn’t even play the game until his senior year of high school, and then only after his playground friends begged him: “Come on. Come on. You’re as good as the guys we’ve got.” He had no plans for college or college sports — he had a job at a Breyers Ice Cream factory, sitting in a freezer, watching a conveyor belt. But his older brother, who played football for North Carolina Central, begged him: “Come on. Come on. You’re as good as the guys we’ve got.”

Now here was Robert Clark, who could probably walk the streets of Detroit without five people recognizing him, and, suddenly, Sunday afternoon, in the second week of the NFL season, he was indeed as good as the guys they’ve got. Better. He was going up for passes like a man possessed. The first ball thrown his way he caught for 11 yards and a first down. The second ball he caught for 14 yards and a first down. The third ball he caught for 13 yards, another first down. When they pushed him, he bounced off and caught the ball anyway. When they grabbed him, he broke away and gained precious yards. By the time the sweaty afternoon was done, Clark would have 10 catches, nine first downs, and more offense — by himself — than the entire Lions passing game had last week. One hundred forty-three yards.

And a few sore fingers.

“They hurt pretty bad,” he said, spreading the swollen digits for a reporter after the Lions’ 23-14 victory over Green Bay, their first victory of the season. “But you know what? I think them being hurt is what helped me catch all those passes today. I really concentrated on my hands.”

Hmm. Maybe we should break all the other Lions’ fingers. He keeps going and going

Then again, what works for Clark doesn’t necessarily work for other people. Most guys drafted in the 10th round don’t figure to be around too long. Clark, all tight muscle and sharp cheekbones, is now in his fifth NFL season. He is still here. Coaches like him because when you show him a route, he runs it exactly as you draw it. Quarterbacks like him because when they call his number, he is where he’s supposed to be. Sometimes, even when the ball is not.

“There was one play today,” quarterback Rodney Peete said after the victory, “where I threw Robert the ball and it was too high and I figured,
‘Well, he’s not gonna get that one.’ And next thing I know, he’s up in the air and he’s got it. I was impressed.”

Clark was like that all day. He caught a pass with a midair scissors kick, and he caught a pass with his arms high overhead, as if signaling a touchdown. He caught a pass and dragged two defenders past the first-down line. He caught a pass and spun a defender around so badly, the guy was facing last week. He caught a pass and dragged his feet to stay in bounds. He caught a pass in a jump-ball confrontation with a defensive back: the back pulled a muscle, Clark got the reception.

“If you give me the opportunity, I can say this: I’m gonna catch some balls,” Clark told a crowd of reporters.

But wasn’t that always the knock with this guy? Too many drops? Too many easy passes in and out of his hands? Here were the Lions with this gimmick offense based entirely on a lot of receivers catching a lot of footballs — and they had all these men specializing in drops. It was like trying to dig a well and nobody bought shovels.

Last week was a disaster. Only eight passes were completed all game. But on Sunday, against Green Bay, Clark finally did what all the Detroit receivers are going to have to do if they ever hope to win with this semi-run ‘n’ shoot business: catch the short ones, catch the long ones, catch the high ones, the low ones, the hard ones, the easy ones — catch everything, and then run like hell after you’ve caught it. A passing fancy?

Now Clark was looking at his hands, studying the crooked knuckles and swollen joints. His receivers coach, Charlie Sanders, snuck up behind him and grabbed a gift certificate from Clark’s pocket, something a radio station had given him for doing an interview.

“Is this the prize I get for being receivers coach of the week?” Sanders asked. He laughed. Clark said, “You want it, you can have it,” and Sanders said, “Nah. You earned it.” Later, as he watched Clark walk away, Sanders said with a sigh, “He can catch the ball when he wants to, can’t he?”

He can. And if he does what he did Sunday in the weeks to come — and if Mike Farr and Willie Green and Brett Perriman and young Herman Moore, who played dropsie on Sunday, can do the same — maybe the Lions’ offense will be more than a passing fancy. But those are big sentences. Around here, you learn to take pro football one small sentence at a time.

The sentence this week: Robert Clark caught them all. Ten passes. A personal best. The last time a Lions receiver caught more than that was more than 10 years ago. So we even have a little history here.

“Robert played great today,” coach Wayne Fontes said. “But it’s only one week.”

Right. Not enough to fool you for the rest of the season. Not enough to convince you the Lions have solved all their offensive problems. But for one afternoon, one victorious afternoon, it’s enough to warrant a high five for the guy who played football only because everyone told him he was as good as the other guys. Robert Clark. Ready? AaaaaaaaAAAAHHHHH–

Ooops. Watch the fingers.

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