Kenny Clark’s life could have gone in one of two directions.
With his father facing 55 years to life in prison with no chance for parole after a conviction for second-degree murder, Clark could have followed the path that had consumed his father and so many others in their crime-plagued hometown of San Bernardino, Calif.
Or, he could rise above it.
Clark did more than rise. Two weeks ago, Clark was the Green Bay Packers’ first-round draft pick. The Packers not only added a much-needed stud to the middle of their depleted defensive line, but they selected a mature-beyond-his-years 20-year-old who was so revered among his teammates that he was a unanimous selection as team captain as a junior.
“I was raised the right way,” Clark said on Friday. “Got a lot of ‘whuppings’ growing up. My mom kept me in line, my dad kept me in line. We just kept going and me fighting, and trying not to worry about the (extras) and worrying about the main thing, which is football.”
Clark was just 9 when his father was sentenced. The events of the night of May 22, 2004, remain in doubt. The prosecution’s key witness has recanted parts of his story but has waffled so much that Clark’s conviction has stood despite more than a decade of hearings and appeals.
While the fate of his father hasn’t changed, Clark’s relationship with him has done a 180. For the first few years after his father was sent to prison, anger and the confusion of youth led to Clark not wanting to have anything to do with his father. He didn’t want to talk to him and resented the long treks to Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Calif., to visit the man who had disappeared from his life. A 9-year-old should be playing games, not being the man of the house and looking after his three younger siblings so his mom could go to work to keep a roof over their heads.
When he was about 13, Clark said he was ready to let his dad be part of his life.
“Because you always need your dad, you know what I’m saying?” Clark said. “You don’t want to exclude anybody out of the family, especially when, I mean, my mom and my dad are still together. You don’t ever want to exclude anybody out of the family. But my mom raised us right, my dad raised us right. We just kept that type of relationship.”
As his relationship with his father took root, his football skills blossomed. At Carter High School in Rialto, Calif., Carter became a top recruit. He was Scout.com’s fourth-ranked defensive tackle in the West Region and a four-star prospect. UCLA would be his landing spot.
“I think it’s incredible for him to keep a relationship with his father, especially when his father’s locked up,” UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure said last week. “I did a home visit out at the prison with the family when we were recruiting him. It’s just unbelievable, I think, the sense of family. Even when you go out to a prison and you’re sitting in one of those rooms, you’re able to see the interaction and how involved the father is with his family. It was great to see. I’ve talked to his dad on the phone dozens of times. It’s great to see how connected he was to Kenny — not only during the recruitment process but when he came to UCLA and staying involved.”
The young boy who was forced to grow up in a hurry became a big man on campus at UCLA. About a month past his 18th birthday, the true freshman unseated an NFL-bound senior to move into the starting lineup. A month shy of his 20th birthday, the junior was voted captain. By season’s end, he earned All-America accolades.
His dad wasn’t there to see it first-hand, but he saw it through frequent phone calls, regular family visits, updates from the coaches and the rare prison luxury — television privileges so he could watch his son beat up on offensive linemen a year, two years or even three years older.
“His mom, Nicole, obviously she’s the rock of that family. She did an incredible job with Kenny and his younger siblings,” McClure said. “Dragging them out to the prison, that’s no picnic. You’re driving four-and-a-half hours out into the middle of the desert to a prison. A lot of kids probably aren’t that motivated to do that but she was very persistent with them. She’s a great role model. That’s not something you see everyday. I’ve had players in the past who’ve had parents incarcerated but I’ve never seen it quite like this, the way they were able to keep the family together.”
For Clark, the abnormal became normal.
“He’s still the dad, you know what I’m saying? I go see him all the time and go talk on the phone all the time. The only thing I really missed was just him actually being here on a daily basis.”
It was no different on April 28, the first round of this year’s draft. With eight of the top defensive linemen on the board, Packers general manager Ted Thompson used his first-round pick on Clark. Clark’s father — watching the draft at a lower-security prison in San Luis Obispo, Calif. — might as well have been at the big draft party hosted by Nicole.
“After I got drafted, he called just crying,” Clark said. “He was so excited. He was just so happy for his kid. It was a good moment for my whole family that was there.”
Clark became a man at a young age. He became a college starter at a young age. And he figures to be an NFL starter at a young age, too. B.J. Raji’s decision to step away from the game left an enormous void in the middle of the Packers’ defensive line. Clark, who will turn 21 on Oct. 4, will be thrust into a key role immediately.
“None. None at all,” Clark said of the pressure. “I just play football and I just hope for the best.”
Spoken like a man who’s endured more than most.
“When I went to college, I played at 17. I had to mature quickly, and I have to do the same thing here,” Clark said. “Yeah, it’s two different games, but I think we have good, core veterans here.”
Meanwhile, Clark and his family continue to hope for a judicial Hail Mary, with a final brief in support of his innocence filed two weeks before the draft. Clark remains optimistic that this time, unlike all the other times, the scales of justice will tip in their favor. And maybe, just maybe,
Kenny Clark Sr. will get to watch a game from Lambeau Field rather than in prison.
“Yeah, it would be great, man,” Clark said. “It would be a great feeling. We’re hoping that day comes. I’ll be extremely happy when that day comes.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.