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Thomas Clark, M.D., '01: On the offensive
By Laura Stephenson Carter
The news was right there in black and white in the sports pages of USA Today. Along with a short story about the MLS [Major League Soccer] proceedings, the national paper ran a team-byteam list of the draft picks. Under the bold-faced headline of the Columbus (Ohio) Crew, eight names were printed. The fourth name on the list: Midfielder Tommy Clark." So reported the local daily newspaper, the Valley News, on February 8, 1996.
Clark was excited at the prospect of playing for a major league team just as his father, Bobby Clark, had. The senior Clark had been a goalie with the North American Soccer League and had gone on to coach professional teams in Scotland and Zimbabwe, and then had coached at Dartmouth. Tommy had played soccer in high school; at Dartmouth College; and with professional teams in Zimbabwe, New Zealand, and Scotland. At the time of the MLS draft, he was playing with the professional New Mexico Chiles. Still, he was puzzled. Why would a team he knew hardly a thing about be interested in him? It wasn't long before he discovered they weren't. USA Today had made a mistake. Columbus's pick had been a Michael Clark.
Tommy was characteristically upbeat, though. He figured he could continue playing for the Chiles and get on with his plan to pursue medical school. After all, one of the reasons he was in New Mexico was to take premed courses at the University of New Mexico (UNM). He would grow to love medicine, but he'd always love soccer. Little did he know that one day he'd find a way to marry those two passions. Clark, who was born in Scotland, moved to Zimbabwe as a teenager when his father became coach of a professional team there. Young Clark, already a gifted soccer player, learned early what it was like to be adored for soccer skills. In Zimbabwe, as in many other countries, soccer players are heroes. Clark's team got to play every week in the professional stadium. "The thing that was most amazing for me was getting to play every week in front of 35,000 people," he recalls. "They were not there to see me but to see the first team. So if the schedule was running late, my team would just keep playing and keep the fans amused. For a little kid, that was a big experience."
When Zimbabwe became politically unstable, the Clark family moved to Hanover, N.H., where the senior Clark became the Dartmouth soccer coach, and Tommy and his siblings—Jamie and Jenni, also soccer players—enrolled in the Hanover public schools. Tommy played soccer at Hanover High and at Dartmouth College, where he was the team captain and a second-team All-Ivy pick at midfield. He also received the Timothy Wright Ellis Memorial Award, in recognition of his participation in extracurricular activities—including as a youth soccer coach—and for his spirit, drive, loyalty, and amiability.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1992, Clark returned to Zimbabwe to play professional soccer and to be a volunteer English teacher. The kids were eager to learn, but the school didn't have enough books to go around. Clark decided to help. "I had a couple of books that I would give the kids—Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It and John Grisham's The Firm," says Clark. He told the kids he'd lend them a book for a week. But "the kids stopped coming to class when it was time to hand in the book, because they hadn't finished it." He laughs. "That intervention didn't work out so well."
A few years later, however, he developed an intervention that did work: Grassroot Soccer. He established a worldwide organization that has professional soccer players in Zimbabwe teaching seventhand eighth-grade students about HIV/AIDS prevention. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are nearly 30 million people with HIV/AIDS, and in Zimbabwe the prevalence of HIV is over 30%. But little was being done in the way of HIV/AIDS education.
"People have asked me, 'When did you come up with the idea for this?'" says Clark. "I really can't remember. I know it was before medical school. My idea very simply was to somehow use the fame and cachet of these professional soccer players to impact the community around HIV, to get the subject in the open. Because this wasn't something people talked about. And I figured if I could get these people talking about it, that might have an effect."
"He has a strong social conscience," says Richard Nordgren, M.D., a Dartmouth pediatric neurologist whom Clark considers a mentor. "He cares about important issues."
When Clark graduated from DMS in 2001, he and his wife, Susannah, a DMS classmate, went to UNM for residency—his in pediatrics and hers in internal medicine. The idea for Grassroot Soccer was still percolating, but he wasn't sure how to implement it. Then "one day I said to my wife, 'If I don't do this, I'm gonna feel terrible.' I was waiting and waiting for an opportunity."
Luckily, the UNM pediatric residency director, Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., encourages his residents to propose projects to help medically underserved communities. He had local communities in mind but agreed to let Clark develop a proposal for HIV/AIDS education in Zimbabwe. The residents weren't expected to implement their ideas, but Clark wanted to see his through. Hoffman encouraged him. "He said, 'We'll make some time so that you can go to Zimbabwe for a month, and free up a little bit of time during your residency so you can work on this,'" Clark recalls. Clark managed to arrange his rotations so he could spend time on the project. "We'd have a school health rotation, and I'd say, 'Well, you know my project in Zimbabwe, we're doing it through the schools. It's important that I know developmental stages for different aged kids that we're targeting.' So I'd somehow manage to squeeze it into the residency."
Clark incorporated Grassroot Soccer and applied for nonprofit status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Then he took two fellow soccer players—one another Dartmouth grad, the other a friend who would become the organization's managing director —to Zimbabwe for a
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Laura Carter is the associate editor of Dartmouth Medicine magazine.