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Metra’s in Desmond Clark’s playbook

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Desmond Clark does his best to blend in, filing onto the two-decker Metra train at the stop near his north suburban home Saturday afternoon.

But within minutes, as passengers settle in, Clark becomes the center of his cab’s attention.

Two high school buddies from Minnesota heading to downtown Chicago to watch the Bulls host the Miami Heat try to determine why he looks familiar while an older couple from Grayslake figures it out.

“What’s his name?” Mike Ballard says to his wife. “He looks familiar.”

“He plays for the Bears,” Karen Ballard whispers back to her husband.

She recognizes the veteran tight end, who is wrapping up his eighth season in Chicago. The Bears host the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Playoffs today at Soldier Field.

But Ballard can’t fathom why Clark would be sitting in front of her.

“It’s unbelievable,” she says later. “He’s on a train, going down to the game?

“It’s like, ‘Wow.’ ”

Some fans assume he rides in a chauffeured limo downtown, or drives a six-figure sedan or sports car into the city. But Clark embraces a yeoman mentality, foregoing the Louis Vuitton roller bag and flashy suits some of his teammates favor. Instead, he wears dressy jeans, a casual blue jacket and carries his gadgets, toiletries and clothes in nondescript bags.

“Why wouldn’t I ride the train?” Clark asks. “Sometimes, you get traffic going downtown. Why not get a limo? Because it costs $100. This costs $5!”

Clark isn’t the only one.

Many of the Bears’ employees live in the northern suburbs, near the team headquarters in Lake Forest, and they catch the Metra downtown the day before games. That’s usually on Saturdays, when players go through a light morning practice at Halas Hall then check into a downtown hotel in the evening for a team meeting.

Although parking at the hotel and stadium is provided, several players, coaches and staffers have historically taken the Metra so they can ride home with their families. Former offensive coordinator Ron Turner and former defensive end Alex Brown were Metra regulars.

In 2004, Clark’s wife Denise, started taking the train from their home.

“But she had to get up early, catch the train and take a cab to the stadium,” Clark says. “It was a big hassle for her.

“So I decided I could just do it.”

That way, Denise could drive down at her leisure, and they could drive home together, usually stopping at one of several downtown restaurants with teammates.

“Joe’s Stone Crab is, by far, my favorite place,” Clark says. “If I was eating my last meal, it would be from Joe’s.”

Besides, Clark doesn’t mind the commute. He catches up with phone calls or e-mail, studies his playbook or plays games on his iPad, like Words with Friends.

Last season, he commuted with Brown, who was released by the Bears last offseason.

“Me and Alex would just talk the whole way down,” Clark says.

But Clark said there’s no question that Saturday’s ride was the most eventful ever.

Two young men ­ one clearly inebriated or stoned ­ attempted to assault a conductor when they were turned away. It caused a 20-minute delay, as police arrived to handle the situation, and Clark went from amused to annoyed.

“Come on conductor,” Clark says, noting that he’s got a 3 p.m. acupuncture appointment. “I don’t like to be rushed.”

He’s got a Saturday routine.

Before the team meeting, Clark dines with linebacker Nick Roach, often at Tuscany in Little Italy.

Yet when the train finally departs, Clark settles in, and talks about the incident with other passengers. Halfway to downtown — the ride takes about 70 minutes — Clark is showing the Ballards pictures of his family.

“You feel a little apprehensive,” Karen Ballard says, “like they should have their privacy.’’

Approachable and engaging, Clark is friendly with fans, including one female rider who requests a picture as they come to a stop.

Clark says he’s often approached for autographs and pictures on the train, and he generally obliges.

“I’ve had some interesting conversations,” he says. “But never about football.”

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