Many people may not see similarities between playing football and serving in the United States Armed Forces, but Lieutenant General Richard Clark sees many common bonds between the two.

“I tell people that I learned as much about leadership on the gridiron as I did with all the military training,” Clark explained. “I think they go hand-in-hand. You learn a lot about yourself and about teamwork. You learn a lot about things you have to employ later, especially in the military.”

Clark shares these observations from experience. The Superintendent of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado grew up playing football in Richmond, Virginia, and he played it well, earning all-state honors and making it all the way up to the college level playing for the Academy. Even after suffering a knee injury and having to switch from linebacker to nose guard, he thrived. What many saw as a form of adversity, he managed to turn into an opportunity.

“That was a big switch from linebacker, but I learned to love that position and had some success as well.”

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark giving a speech to football players
courtesy of "The Academy."

Clark credited football for helping him develop his mental strength, which became a big asset for him as he committed to a full-time career in the military after graduating in 1986. He would see action in three different conflicts – the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. Throughout his career, he would receive numerous honors, including three Distinguished Service Medals and two Bronze Stars, among others. He is most proud of being alongside the people he served with. One moment that stands out in his memory is leading a squadron of B-1 Aviators into combat as part of a successful mission while commanding the 34th Bomb Squadron. He was the commander, but he also saw himself as a coach of a football team would.

Clark recalled, “It was so much like being on an athletic team. We all trained, practiced, and prepared ourselves mentally, physically, emotionally for what was about to happen. I leaned on a lot of lessons that I learned in football in that experience.”

In 2020, President Donald Trump nominated Clark to succeed Jay Silveria as the Superintendent of the Academy, and he began working in that role on Sept. 23, 2020. He was the first black superintendent in the history of the institution.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” he said humbly. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever be Superintendent, but it is a privilege to be here and help develop our future leaders of character.”

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark motivating soldiers as they perform pushups
courtesy of "The Academy."

After all the years of defending freedom on the battlefield and changing lives for the better as Superintendent, Clark’s military career is nearing the finish line. His last day of active duty comes on May 31st, but he won’t be settling down into retirement. On June 1st, he will take the helm as the Executive Director of the College Football Playoff. This transition into his other major passion will come with challenges, but that is not new to him. He will succeed Bill Hancock, who has served the sport well, but Clark embraces the opportunity to make a difference and positively impact the sport in a new way.

“The primary element of the job description is selecting the top teams in college football for that year and put them on the field in a playoff format that allows us to play through and determine who the number one team is,” he shared. A big portion of the job will also involve working with colleges, coaches, commissioners of conferences, and other people that will serve important roles in the process. Even with the challenges that come with the role, he feels the end result will be a playoff that Americans can be proud of.

“When you really boil down to it, it is about student athlete success, see where that success leads to, and be proud of it.”

Clark will see many young men take the field with hopes of raising a national championship trophy, but he hopes many other young men and women will embrace the opportunities that come with service. He has experienced the benefits that come with the military firsthand, and he has seen others benefit from it as Superintendent. He is optimistic about what is possible for those of the next generation that take advantage of those opportunities.

“I get to hand the baton off to these young men and women that are going to lead our country. They are remarkable young people, so talented, passionate, patriotic, and motivated. They are everything you would want not just in a military member but as a human being.”

The 2024 college football season kicks off in August, with the season’s playoffs taking place in December and January. The National Championship game will take place on Jan. 20, 2025 in Atlanta, Georgia.

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