In this occasional “Where Are They Now Series,” the Free Lance catches up with standouts and prominent figures from yesteryear
Even though Dave Clapham is retired and enjoying life in Reno, the former longtime Haybalers’ football assistant coach still has connections to Hollister and the south Santa Clara County area.
Clapham, 68, received a notable honor when he made sports reporter Chris Murray’s list, “The best Nevada Wolfpack Athlete for every year for the last half century,” which was published on July 16 on nevadasportsnet.com.
Clapham was listed as the best Nevada athlete for 1974 after earning Associated Press All-America small college honors at offensive tackle—the Wolf Pack’s first selection in 21 years—and going undefeated in league boxing matches at heavyweight. Clapham had no idea he had earned the distinction until one of his former teammates told him about the story.
“It’s like when you pull your pants out of the dryer and find a $20 bill, it’s a gift you didn’t expect,” he said. “I’m happy to be acknowledged as one of Nevada’s finest athletes. It’s awesome, especially when these things come later in life. It’s pretty cool and I was quite surprised.”
Clapham has family that lives in Morgan Hill, including his oldest son, J.D. He was in Hollister recently for a funeral, but also got to spend time catching up with friends and former teammates. Clapham moved to Reno from Hollister four years ago when his youngest son, Adam, decided to attend Nevada-Reno.
Dave Clapham had a storied athletic career. The San Jose native played football and basketball at Overfelt High, where he is in the school’s Athletics Wall of Fame. He played two seasons of football at San Jose City College before transferring to Nevada and helping it to a 7-4 record in 1973, the most wins by the program since 1948.
After graduating in spring 1974—Clapham was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1994—he earned free agent tryouts with the Niners and Colts in 1974 and 1975, respectively. He appeared in several preseason contests, but did not make either team. He then embarked on a long semi-pro football career, first with the San Jose Tigers and then the Central Coast Barnstormers.
He was inducted into the American Football Association Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton in 1996. He had coaching stops at Overfelt, West Valley College, Gavilan College, and the Barnstormers, but his longest stint by far was as an assistant football coach at San Benito, a 16 year run that ended in 2003.
Clapham said one of the best moments of his career—either as a player or coach—came when he got to be the presenter for former Balers and Barnstormers standouts Bryan Smith and Jose Rodriguez, who were inducted into the AFA Hall of Fame on June 27, 2014.
Clapham was an assistant coach at San Benito when Rodriguez and Smith were players there, and years later all three were reunited on the Barnstormers.
“We were very fortunate to be under Dave’s guidance and leadership,” Smith told the Free Lance in a previous story on Clapham. “He always had our best interests at heart.”
Clapham worked for 26 years in the probation department with Santa Clara County, aiding in the gang prevention unit. Both of Clapham’s sons played football and graduated from San Benito High, and J.D. currently works in the probation department at the William F. James Boys Ranch, a juvenile detention center in Morgan Hill.
Clapham got his start in boxing in his junior year at Nevada. Back then, the football players lifted weights in an old, dungeon-like room below the gym, aptly named the Wolf Den. They worked out alongside boxers who would be sparring in the ring.
From time to time, a football player would end up practicing with a boxer, which is what happened with Clapham.
“They needed a heavyweight to spar with one of their guys, and next thing I know the boxing coach said, ‘You’re my fighter,’” Clapham said. “I said, ‘Don’t I have anything to say about that?’ He told me no, that I just beat the guy (who was the starter). At that moment it was like, ‘OK, let’s give it a go.’”
Nicknamed Red Dog because of the color of his hair, Clapham said he got to spar with Oscar Bonavena, who was ranked in the top 10 in the world and was noted for giving Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier tough fights. Clapham also sparred with Bernard Mercado, an Olympic boxer from Columbia.
Clapham said he’s had so many indelible experiences that it’s always great to recount them. He’s enjoying life in Reno after a playing and coaching career that spanned decades.
“Retirement has been exceptional, so I’m very happy,” he said.
Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]