JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- **Just as any other player who will step onto the field at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Chris Clark is well aware of how extraordinary the opportunity is that lies a mere 60 minutes of football in front of him.
"To be in a position like this, as a young kid, you always hope so," Clark said. "You always hope to be able to get a chance to play in the Super Bowl." Unlike most of those players, however, Clark suits up for the Super Bowl after being circled throughout the season by some as the very reason that the Broncos wouldn't be playing in the big game.
"I'm sure a lot of teams and a lot of analysts didn't pick us to be in this situation because of the whole Ryan Clady incident," he said.
Tasked with replacing the two-time All-Pro left tackle after Clady's season ended when he suffered a foot injury in Week 2, Clark's lack of experience as a starter – he only had six career starts entering 2013 – was immediately called into the spotlight as a question mark hovering over the Broncos' entire season.
But Clark only found opportunity from that void of uncertainty, the opportunity that he had waited on for much of his career. And with the tall order of protecting quarterback Peyton Maninng's blindside tasked to him, Clark set out to answer those questions with ferocious determination.
"I didn't want the offense to have a drop-off, at all," he said. "I worked so hard to just make sure I'm on point, that I would not be the weakest link, I would not be that guy. Just doing that has helped me tremendously."
It's helped the Broncos tremendously, too. Clark was part of an offensive line that allowed a league-low 20 sacks in the 2013 regular season and paved the way for Denver's record-breaking offense. So far in the playoffs, they've only been better, as Manning was not sacked in the Broncos' wins over the Chargers and Patriots in the Divisional Round and AFC Championship Game.
Playing a key part in the success of a team playing in the Super Bowl, for Clark, is a far cry from where the road to getting to this point began. It's far from when he went undrafted out of Southern Miss in 2008, far from when he bounced around between the practice squads of the Buccaneers and Vikings before finally being signed by the Broncos in 2010 – and even far from the backup role he maintained at the onset of this season.
"That role – being undrafted – that's number one, that hurts," Clark said. "You watch the whole draft and then nothing happens. Then, going from undrafted to free agent for two years. Then from that to just being a backup guy, or whatever, for four years. It's been a tough road."
That all changed when Clark was called upon in the wake of Clady's injury following the Broncos' 41-23 win over the Giants in September.
"You don't think it'll come like that. You know?" he said. "You hear about it – 'Next man up, next man up.' You hear about it all the time, but until you actually do it, then you actually get that experience. It's been different for me."
The immediate elevation from journeyman to lynchpin in keeping Manning on his feet would seem to come with a pretty weighty burden. Not for Clark.
"I didn't feel pressure at all," Clark said. "And even my family, they asked me, 'That's got to be hard, that's got to be a lot of pressure on you.' But I try not to feel pressure, I try to apply it. Make you have to beat me. It's not about me stopping you, it's about you stopping me. Just having that mindset, it pushes me further and makes me work harder."
Being surrounded by such a skilled and driven group of teammates on the offensive line helped him, as well.
"It makes you work harder," Clark said. "You just want to outwork all of those guys. Even though we're together, you're trying hard to be that guy that makes the Pro Bowl. You want to be that guy and try to separate yourself, just to be great. But it's definitely a challenge that I was willing to take on."
In taking on that challenge, he also had to conquer both the physical and mental rigors of blocking against All-Pro defenders such as the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware and the Chiefs' Tamba Hali, both of whom Clark held without a sack in three combined meetings this season.
"It's a mental block. I don't think about it, I just do it," Clark said. "I think about guys put their pads on just like I do. Yeah, you're a big-name guy and I'm not a big-name guy, but I'm going to work hard. You're going to have to outwork me. And that's just the way I feel about it. It doesn't matter who the guy is, I plan on working harder."
Clark also made the shift to starter while working in the complex offensive scheme of first-year Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase – and in the rigors of a Manning-led offense.
"It takes a lot of studying," Clark said. "Even though I might know all the plays, I still study every day. My wife, she helps me with that a lot and she gives me my study time where I go and do what I can do. But it's definitely one that you have to stay on top of because there are so many calls, so many words and so much everything. Things are changing every week, every day – things are changing. It's an offense – a Peyton Manning offense – that you have to be on top of."
Sometimes, the intricacy of the offense even becomes a tongue-in-cheek trope that Clark and his teammates have used in meeting rooms while intensively studying the playbook.
"We make jokes about it. We're like, 'Are we trying to trick them or trick ourselves?'" he said. "That helps things ease over. We just keep going with what we do as an offense and try and stay on one accord, that's the main thing. Make sure that the offense is running on all cylinders with no weak links."
Once circled as that very weak link that could keep Denver from the Super Bowl, Clark now looks to help anchor a Broncos offensive line that will square off against the NFL's top-ranked defense on Sunday.
"Those guys (Seattle's defensive line) can go, man," Clark said. "They can go and they're relentless. We know that and like I said, that's definitely a challenge for this O-line. And we're a group that accepts challenges."
And he's done just that, himself, with tenacious resolve – which is why Clark will have the opportunity on Sunday to play in the game he's dreamed about since he was a kid.
"I just feel that makes me better," he said. "It makes me strong and makes me work hard, knowing what I came from. I just feel that it's been a great ride for me and I'm just going to keep continuing it and just keep pushing forward. I feel that the sky is the limit for me and I just want to be great."