Tyler Clutts wants to play like everyone’s image of an NFL fullback.
He just doesn’t necessarily want to look like one.
So when Clutts was moving boxes around the house and a ladder fell on his head causing a nasty cut below his right eye, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“It was the day before we went in for head shots,” Clutts recalled Friday afternoon after the Cowboys concluded their final practice for Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff against the Packers. “I wasn’t too psyched about it, and neither was my wife.
“They were supposed to air-brush it out, but I guess not.”
Other than that gash, the smiling face in the 2014 Cowboys media guide is the same one central San Joaquin Valley football fans remember from Clutts’ college and prep careers. Only a little older (he turned 30 in November) and more weathered by the rigors his job: clearing holes for 1,800-yard tailback DeMarco Murray.
Clutts performed those duties to chalkboard-like perfection on Murray’s critical 1-yard touchdown during the Cowboys’ 24-20 comeback in the wild-card round. On fourth down, the 6-foot-2, 255-pounder tossed aside Lions safety James Ihedigbo to open a lane that Murray followed to bring Dallas within a touchdown.
“Fullback is the position I was probably always meant to play,” Clutts said. “It fits my personality, and physically it’s a good match. It’s perfect for me.”
Seeing Clutts in a No. 44 jersey still takes some getting used to for those who remember him as a section title-winning quarterback and defensive end at Clovis High. Or an all-conference defensive end, linebacker or long snapper at Fresno State.
But it was his switch to fullback during a 2010 stint with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the UFL that paved the way to the four-year NFL career he’s currently enjoying.
“A tackle is kind of an individual accomplishment,” Clutts said. “The ability to help a teammate succeed is another feeling altogether. Like on that touchdown run, I was as excited or more excited than any sack I had in college. It’s pretty cool to celebrate as a team and know you’re just one part of 11 pieces. That’s unique.”
When Clutts made the switch to fullback, the first person he called for pointers was Lorenzo Neal, the former Bulldog who spent 16 NFL seasons blocking for the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson and Eddie George.
Now it’s Neal who takes pleasure from watching Clutts initiate those running-start collisions.
“Tyler’s an old-school, throwback. Know what I mean?” Neal said. “He’s going to run in there with his fair on fire and throw his body around. He goes until he breaks glass.”
“If you break glass, something’s broken,” Neal replied with a laugh. “He runs in there hard, and you’ve got to love that in a guy.”
In today’s pass-predominant NFL, fullbacks are an endangered species. The likes of Daryl Johnston, Tom Rathman and Neal, bruisers and bullies who were the backbone of a running game, have nearly disappeared. Some teams have abandoned the position, deploying extra tight ends or defensive linemen to do their dirty work.
The few fullbacks that remain have been relegated to spot duty. Used only in obvious running situations. Clutts played on about 16% of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps during the regular season. Some games he’d get 15 snaps. Others he’d get five.
“We believe it’s not so much the quantity (of snaps) but the quality and the importance of the situation,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said earlier this season. “Short yardage and goal line are some really important downs.”
Of the eight teams that reached the divisional round, six list a fullback on their rosters.
Clutts is opposing one of them Sunday in the Packers’ John Kuhn. But unlike Clutts, who didn’t carry the ball all season and caught one pass for 1 yard, Kuhn gets occasional touches.
The two will meet up afterward, no matter whose team wins.
“After every game the fullbacks go up to each other and congratulate each other,” Clutts said. “It’s such a hard position to make it.”
The Cowboys’ are Clutts’ fifth NFL team. His first was the Browns, who signed him to their practice squad but lost him to the Bears. He spent the entire 2011 season in Chicago, then got traded to the Texans who kept him around for all of 2012.
Waived by Houston the following training camp, Clutts was claimed by the Dolphins but got released without suiting up for them. He spent two months unemployed before the Cowboys picked him up for the final four games of the 2013 season.
One year later, Clutts is enjoying his role in the storied franchise’s resurgence.
“The fans out here are as passionate as any fans in the country,” said Clutts, who makes his offseason home in Fresno with his wife, Tiffany, and their two young children. “It’s a great time to be a Cowboy.”
A win Sunday at Lambeau Field would really leave a mark.