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Harry Clark

Thirty years ago, Carroll coach Harry Clark was one of the most decorated track and field athletes in the country. Now, he's aiming for the sort success his father and grandfather had in the Montana prep coaching ranks.

A 17-year-old Harry Clark had just concluded one of the most physically taxing football games of his prep career.

It was also his last.

Thirty-three years ago, Clark, then a senior quarterback at diminutive Cascade High, lost in a Class B playoff game to Choteau and shouldered a workload that would send most able bodies into a two-day, fatigue-induced coma.

His father, John Cheek, the school's decorated, disciplinarian cross country and track coach, had other plans.

"I had to get up and run at the state cross country meet the next morning," Clark said. "Let's just say it didn't go too well for me."

Clark and a teammate were essentially acquired by the cross country team in a trade. Cheek had a 6-foot-4, 230-pound runner the football coaches wanted, but Cheek wanted Clark and his friend to contribute the cross country team, in return.

He was, after all, the most revered and coveted high school track and field athlete in the Northwest at the time, so dipping into the cross country circuit wasn't out of his realm.

Cheek was a six-time state champion track and field coach at Stanford and Cascade high schools. His father and Harry's grandfather, John Cheek Sr., also won state titles as a basketball coach in Kalispell and for cross country in Anaconda. Both are in the Montana High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Clark was raised in a no-nonsense atmosphere and by one of the richest coaching lineages in the Treasure State. He's 51 years old now, his body a far cry from his days as a thin, fleet-footed record holder who went on to run for NCAA Division I power University of Houston before finishing at Montana State.

He, too, is in the family business.

After spending 11 years an assistant at Montana, Clark is now in his third year of building a one-time reclamation project Carroll College team into a burgeoning program that has a viable chance at hardware at this weekend's NAIA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Clark never had to look too far for sage advice. Nearly every element in his philosophy, he said, was instilled by Cheek. He also sponged from some of the brightest coaching minds in the country throughout his 20s.

"Dad was rough, man," Clark said with a grin. "With him being my coach, it was harder for me than most because he's one of the best track coaches ever in Montana. What he did was discipline me enough to get the job done all the time. And now I treat my program the exact way he treated his."

Cheek and his longtime wife, Debbie, now live in Butte, close enough to monitor Clark's budding career.

"When he was young, I taught him everything he knew," said Cheek, who was inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in 2014. "Now, as a coach, he knows more than I do. He's done a great job in building the Carroll program. He's a great recruiter, because he's honest and personable. I'm sure proud of him, I know that."

Cheek isn't Clark's biological father.

In the seventh grade, Clark's father died from a heart attack at 46. His mother was never in the picture.

Cheek was a teacher and coach at Stanford at the time, where he coached Clark's older brother, a senior at the time of his father's passing.

Clark was in a transitional living situation shortly after the tragedy. His brother asked Cheek if he'd be interested in adopting the younger Clark.

"I didn't like him staying at the place he was at anymore," Cheek said. "At first, he didn't really like the idea, because I was the grumpy old coach."

As a Stanford junior high student, Clark had already posted marks that would impress at the high school level. Under Cheek's tutelage, he rewrote the Montana record books.

To this day Clark, who eventually transferred to Cascade from Stanford with Cheek, still holds Montana Class B records in the triple jump (48-2), 110 hurdles (14.54) and 300-meter hurdles (38.1). He captured 11 state championships and holds the record for the most state medals (20).

When he won the decathlon at the prestigious Golden West meet as a senior, in California, the Division I offers really began to pile up.

During Clark's senior year of high school, the University of Houston featured one of the world's all-time great Olympic track and field athletes in Carl Lewis in a program coached by uber successful Tom Tellez.

The school was also the buzz of the nation because of the basketball program's Phi Slamma Jama nickname, a University of Houston team that featured NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler from 1980-1984.

Clark was sold.

He left a town of 600 people to study in a city of 3 million. The school's student population of 43,000 was, at the time, nearly as the big as the general population of the town he considered "big" growing up -- Great Falls.

"Definitely a culture shock, for sure," Clark said. "There's a lot going on and I learned a lot there, especially from an Olympic-level coach."

Clark spent three years at Houston, qualifying for NCAA championships in the decathlon all three years. He transferred to Montana State as a senior, where he was an NCAA All-American, taking fourth in decathlon. He still hold's MSU's decathlon record (7,633 points)

This was back when Clark sported a 30-inch waist.

"We could never find pants for him," Debbie Cheek said. "With a 30-inch waist and 38 length, we had to go to a local cowboy store to get him the custom pants."

After college, he played two years of semi-professional football in the Seattle area before getting into football and track coaching in Montana. He even teamed up with Cheek to win another state title as coaches.

Now with a collegiate program his own, Clark isn't thinking in the way of upward trajectory, career-wise. Like Cheek embraced his place in small high school track, Clark is doing the same at his current post.

Not that he treats it small-time.

"I treat this program like the University of Montana. And that's the problem with a lot of other teams in the Frontier Conference -- they don't treat it like they should treat it," Clark said.

"What we do is get the right kids that fit the program. We have Carroll kids and want to do it the right way. They're Montana kids and Northwest kids and they're used to the crappy weather and shoveling the track in the winter time."

That approach, Cheek believes, will likely add to the family's coaching pedigree decades from now.

"My father and I are in the Hall of Fame," Cheek said. "And it'd be great if he was, too, and have all three of us in there."

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