Kenny Clark had just hit his first home run.
He was only 9 years old, yet in his eyes the road to the major leagues seemed within a throw from home to second base. He was already an all-star catcher at his level. He was a player — like most his age — with hopes someday of making it to the professional level where he would perform in front of thousands while making millions.
He was only 9 years old, a time when reality and fantasy jell into a care-free perspective we only wish could be bottled and captured for later in life, when reality and skepticism creep in.
Naturally, he was unprepared for the cruel dose of reality that life haphazardly hurled in his direction like a Randy Johnson fastball. At that tender age he laid in a coma, in critical condition, with the future about as bright as the darkest night.
"I was trying to cross the intersection," Clark recalled. "And a van ran a red light and knocked the living daylights out of me."
It almost sounds amusing, in a way, to hear Clark so innocently and honestly describe the details of that tragic day in 1987, when he was ruthlessly catapulted so painfully close to death. He doesn't remember too many details. Like any other day, he was riding his bike, something he so loved to do. Clark was a bike rodeo champion and was habitually exhibiting the safe and cautious skills he knew so well when he was crossing the street.
Safety first was his rule on a bicycle. But he learned quickly that it takes two to make safety work efficiently.
"I'm still kind of weary about crossing roads," said Clark, 23. "It still kind of freaks me out. After that, though, I'm not scared of much of anything. They called me a miracle child. I came out of it and I'm 100 percent."
It didn't always appear that Clark would come out of it. And for him to now speak about being "100 percent" is considered miraculous by many. Clark's collision with the van crushed the entire left side of his head. Doctors inserted 164 staples to hold his head together. He was in a comatose state for nearly three weeks.
Clark says that because of the accident, he can't recall many things that happened to him when he was younger than 9. He does remember the joyous day he awoke, after lying in bed motionless for so long.
"Everyone was there by my side when I woke up," Clark said. "My aunt bought me a brand new pair of shoes. We didn't have very much money, so getting a brand new pair of shoes, I'd remember that for the rest of my life."
It sounds stereotypical, but to Clark it's so real. Ever since that devastating accident that temporarily put his life on hold, Clark admits to being issued a new lease on life. Even though he was a kid when it happened, the accident helps him to still savor life's simple pleasures now.
And, he insists, he'll never take it for granted. Ever. "I appreciate life so much more," he said.
Having family nearby is his greatest therapy.
Ever since that day when he awoke in the hospital bed and saw his family around him celebrating his alertness, Clark knows the value of family. He's been fortunate enough to be with many of them ever since.
When Clark signed with the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie free agent last April it marked the third time he and quarterback Daunte Culpepper were teammates. But the relationship delves much deeper. Yes, Clark and Culpepper share a bond from playing together at Ocala (Fla.) Vanguard High School, the University of Central Florida and now with the Vikings. But the bond extends much deeper than that.
The two are cousins.
And a pretty good quarterback-wide receiver connection as well. Clark caught 60 passes for 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns as a high school junior. "In high school, we had the best quarterback-wide receiver tandem in the entire state," Clark said. "It was a family affair."
In college, at Central Florida, Culpepper and Clark hooked up for 41 passes in Clark's redshirt sophomore season. Clark clearly remembers the first time the duo clicked for their first collegiate touchdown pass.
In the third quarter against Louisiana Tech, Clark ran an out route, caught a pass from Culpepper and scampered 60 yards for a touchdown that iced the victory for Central Florida. The moment that followed the game-clinching touchdown defines Clark's relationship with Culpepper.
"Daunte was more excited for me than I was," Clark said. "To see how happy he was for me to finally get a touchdown, that was neat."
The relationship was reciprocal.
Clark was Culpepper's biggest supporter, too. Even though many criticized the Vikings' selection of Culpepper in the first round of the draft, Clark insists he knew his cousin/teammate from Central Florida was ready to perform in the prime time of the NFL.
Clark not only saw the Zeus-like athletic qualities in Culpepper, he knew the personality of his cousin as well. He knew Culpepper was a relentless worker and wouldn't quit until he maximized his effort.
Clark claims he wasn't surprised that Culpepper was an All-Pro during his first season as a starter. "I thought he could've done it his rookie year," Clark said. "He was a tremendous competitor and he wasn't going to lose to anybody. He didn't like starting second to anyone."
But Clark was watching from a distance. For the first time in a while, Clark watched as his cousin first paced the sidelines with a baseball cap and clipboard, then lit up the NFL last season for unthinkable numbers. In his fifth year at Central Florida, Clark would have never dreamed he'd rejoin his competitive cousin once again.
"It makes me feel great," Clark said. "Not only does it feel like we're cousins, but we're basically brothers. That's how close we are. Especially to be a part of an organization like the Minnesota Vikings."
Even though both believed they'd make it to the NFL, playing on the same team yet again seemed unfathomable.
"We talked about playing on the same team in the NFL all the time," Clark said. "We never thought it would happen, though. We both knew we could play at this level, but never on the same team. Never in a million years."
The million years went fast. Clark, a wide receiver on the practice squad, is practicing in classroom mode. With receivers like Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Jake Reed and Chris Walsh ahead of him on the depth chart, Clark is simply playing the role of student.
"In practice, Daunte tells me little things to work on," Clark said. "He'll tell me in practice to come out of my route faster, things like that."
"Patience is a virtue," Clark said. "I know that my time will come one day. For right now, I'm going to learn as much as I can."
He's in the NFL. On the same team with his cousin and great friend. Reunited with Culpepper once again. Appreciating life while serving as a living testimony that everything can be taken away without a moment's notice, like that day when he was only 9 years old, riding his bike. Then minutes later, in a coma.
"I appreciate life so much more," Clark said. "I stared death right in the face. There's nothing somebody can do to me that will put fear into me. I've already been on my deathbed." VU
Getting To Know: WR Kenny Clark
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