Bruce Clark sat in the stands at Beaver Stadium last Saturday for the first time and watched his alma mater polish off the University of Cincinnati.
But Clark didn't fully appreciate the experience.
That's because he left part of his heart in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina destoyed his home and several buildings he had a hand in restoring, and scattered part of his family.
"They announced there were 98,000 people in the [Beaver Stadium] stands, and the first thing that came to my mind was how 100,000 got displaced [in New Orleans] and didn't have a home," Clark said quietly Wednesday afternoon at PSU's Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. "I couldn't really enjoy the game."
Clark was among a group of speakers with New Orleans ties who shared their stories.
The two-time All-America defensive tackle and anchor of the 1978 team that played for the national championship, Clark was a fearsome talent who went on to play seven years in the NFL — six with the Saints. He was truly one of the most physically dominant linemen Penn State has ever had. Any credible all-time PSU team would have him on it and probably next to Mike Reid as the defensive tackles.
And yet, this is anything but a triumphant return.
"Empty," is how Clark describes his emotions.
About 10 days ago, he called Joe Paterno — "the father I never had," Clark said — in hopes of relocating to State College and "starting over."
Along with his wife and two children (7 and 2), Clark then rode a bus to State College from Orlando.
"There's a first time for everything," he said.
Housing was arranged, and Paterno has put Clark in touch with members of the business community.
"I've gotten a resume for the first time," he said.
Clark could not say enough about how State College has opened its arms to him. After he enrolled at PSU in 1975, he moved from New Castle, Pa., to State College, then took his family to New Orleans when he joined the Saints.
His family still includes his mother, who went to Philadelphia, and several siblings and their children.
"After I got drafted, it gave me the opportunity financially to do everything I always wanted to do for my family — put them through school, provide better housing and a better opportunity for them," he said. "Most of the money I've earned in professional football, I've invested in New Orleans."
When the hurricane hit, Clark was on his way to Orlando.
"I moved everybody down there 25 years ago, and I thought I lost them all in one day," he said.
He is still trying to locate his 10-year-old daughter, Nicole, who lives with her mother in Covington, La., and Clark's sister.
"Every night when the phone rings, we're hoping it's her," he said.
Clark, who operated a remodeling business in New Orleans following his NFL career, frequently had tears in his eyes as he spoke Wednesday.
"Everything I built down there and established is gone," he said. "I feel so bad because I've seen how much that city has grown, and I've seen how much that city has meant to so many people."
Clark chose to start anew in State College because "this is where I've always been the happiest."
At some point, he'd like to return to help New Orleans because "once I get established here, I can help people there."
In the meantime, he'll swallow hard every time he flips on the TV.
"I'm taking one day and one week at a time," he said, welling up again. "I'm trying to be strong for everybody else and not break down."
Maybe it will help Clark to know that many of the same Penn State fans who admired his greatness nearly three decades ago are pulling for him again today.
(Neil Rudel covers Penn State football for the Altoona Mirror. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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