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Kenny Clark is the man of the house
Go Long heads to Wisconsin to sit down with the most important player on the Packers. What a journey of self-discovery it's been for the nose tackle, from seeing his Dad locked up to this title run.
DE PERE, Wisc. — This is what clarity at 26 years old looks like. The moment one gains purpose and direction on this little blue marble we call earth, there’s clutter. Worlds collide and it’s a beautiful sight.
Step inside the home of Kenny Clark on this arctic afternoon and it’s toasty. A fireplace crackles, emanating the perfect amount of heat. On the carpeted floor of the family room, his eight-month-old daughter transitions toy to toy as the Ms. Rachel rendition of “Wheels on the Bus” plays on a enormous TV. Mom and Dad have found this YouTube show to be a tick more educational than the others. Scattered about are a pack ‘n play, a bouncer, a walker, three empty milk bottles, one of those bead mazes you played with at the doctor’s office as a kid and a bottle of gripe water. Not that Clark and his longtime girlfriend need the popular herbal supplement anymore. Their little one, Kenaii, hardly ever fusses anymore.
Two game balls are perched above that fireplace. One’s in a case, one’s in plastic wrapping and a third is also still in wrapping over in the kitchen where — why not? — Clark owns a massive fish tank full of different types. He likes the Oscar fish most.
Like true parents with their hands full, for good measure, there are two empty bags of Chipotle takeout on the dinner table, too.
One trait stands out immediately: Calm. The Green Bay Packers’ Pro Bowl defensive tackle is not the least bit stressed. For a 314-pound man whose 9-to-5 consists of striking other humans directly in the chest, he is strikingly laidback. For an overthinker who claims to be far too indecisive, he sure has made some major decisions in life. He’s not only a father, he also signed a four-year, $70 million contract in August 2020. And for a son whose father is still in prison for a murder he claims he did not commit, he has reached a place of remarkable peace. Clark grabs a Pedialyte for himself, a water for his visitor, takes a seat at the table and tucks two hands that resemble baseball mitts inside the pocket of his sleek Jordan Brand hoodie.
The wind chill creeps near 0 degrees outside, yet the sun’s rays still find a way to slither through the closed blinds to shine directly on Clark’s face. He’s smiling. He’s laughing. He’s genuinely happy.
This 2021-22 season feels like a breakthrough in every conceivable way.
First, we talk football.
“I’ve been a really good player in this league for a minute. And I feel like a lot of times, I don’t really get the credit. Nobody really understands. Forget all the sacks, all the numbers, people are starting to understand what I mean to this team. How disruptive I am. It’s been a year where people are starting to understand, ‘Damn. This guy controls a lot up front. He dictates what’s going on.’”
That’s putting it mildly, of course.
The difference between a Green Bay Packers defense with Kenny Clark vs. one without Kenny Clark is jarring. Without him, the defense is something between PG and PG-13, a unit blistered by the Zombie Ravens for 30 points and 354 yards. Or, in more painful terms, what Packers fans have become painfully accustomed to every single postseason the last 10 years. But with Clark? They’re nasty. They intimidate. Clark can single-handedly direct the flow of an entire offense. Teams run away from him and double him and call that long-developing pass play the second he subs out because they know, for one play anyways, the pocket won’t cave. And despite being Priority No. 1 for each coordinator each week, Clark still finished the regular season with 48 tackles, four sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 28 pressures.
Now, Clark is the single most important player on the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. He’ll likely win his fourth MVP award, and that’s fun, but he’s also been to one Super Bowl through 14 years as the starter. Clearly, he needs help when it comes to January football and maybe — in the form of this colossus — help has arrived. On paper, San Francisco is a nightmare matchup. Head coach Kyle Shanahan could dizzy Green Bay’s linebackers with his brilliant misdirection. Clark, however, can ruin those plans. Clark must serve as the human wrecking ball who crashes through the line and eats those X’s and O’s for dinner before they even have a chance to assemble.
He is ready to be the player this entire team can depend on, too.
Physically, he’s fresh. After a debilitating torn groin in 2020, Clark believes his get-off is better than ever. But, this afternoon, it’s the mental he most wants to discuss, the fact that he cannot stop listening to audiobooks this season. He loved “Un---k Yourself” by Gary John Bishop and “Relentless,” by Tim Grover, really sharpened his focus. Michael Jordan’s former trainer helped instill a “relentless focus,” he says, to prove himself every single day.
Adds Clark: “You can’t let it slip.”
“You always want to be the tone-setter. You want to be one of those guys teammates can depend on. No matter when you’re playing or what the situation is, you want to let everyone know that those guys can depend on you.”
What a familiar feeling this is, too.
When Clark was 9 years old, he lost his father to prison. The trauma wasn’t quite as abrupt and ghastly as, say, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Laviska Shenault witnessing a vehicle strike and kill his father at age 10. Rather, a father locked up for a crime he insists he never committed has had a more gradual, more complex effect. Now that Clark believes he’s finally breaking through to the other side, he sits down with Go Long to take everyone inside his mind. His cell phone rings multiple times through this two-hour conversation and Clark doesn’t even look down to see who it is. In fact, he flips the phone right over. The only time Clark escapes deep thought is when Kenaii innocently coughs a few times and he makes sure she’s OK.
Being the man of the house is nothing new to Kenny Clark.
That was the case in San Bernardino, Calif., and that’s most certainly the case at Lambeau Field.
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Clark starts at square one: May 22, 2004. He was only eight years old and this scene is forever sewed in his memory.
That day, Dad asked if his son could pop inside to grab something quick before he left. As soon as Kenny stepped back outside, the police had arrived. He watched on in horror as police kicked his father and, he says, smashed his head against the garage. Blood splattered everywhere. One of his twin sisters, age four, screamed.
It was traumatizing and, to this day, chilling.
Kenny Sr. was stuffed into a cop car, whisked away and Kenny Jr. says the cops asked his sister where Dad kept the guns. Then, they raided their home. Kenny Jr. thought something was odd when, one week prior, he came home early from school and somebody knocked on the door. Since his mother, Nicole, instructed him to never answer the door for strangers, he only peeked through the blinds. It was an officer. And when he went to his room to play a video game, he saw a shadow zip by from outside. That same officer, he says, hopped the back gate and was scanning the house for 10 to 15 minutes.
Now, his father was gone. And the reason, was an incident two weeks prior to the raid. As ESPN’s Outside the Lines once detailed, a man named Misael Rosales was shot outside of a liquor store and the surveillance footage showed Kenny Sr. in the store minutes before the shooting. To this day, Kenny Jr. describes this all as a “he-said, she-said” situation. Apparently, Rosales had backed into Kenny’s SUV and one of Rosales’ friends (Monroe Thomas) at the scene told authorities that, while he didn’t see the shooting, he did see Kenny Sr. waving a pistol.
To this day, the Clarks maintain this is patently false.
Kenny Jr. cites the fact that the surveillance camera shows his father in a baseball jersey with no shirt underneath, no visible gun. There were dozens of people outside at the time, too. Nonetheless, the trial lasted eight days, Kenny Sr. was convicted in less than one day and Kenny Sr. was sentenced to 55 years with no parole. Wildly enough, as ESPN reported, Monroe actually contacted Kenny Sr.’s wife, Nicole, to come clean with an entirely different account of what went down. Thomas claimed to be on probation at the time and that the police threatened to send him back to prison if he didn’t testify against Kenny Sr. In this account, he said Kenny Sr. did not have a gun. At a hearing, in 2007, Thomas attempted to unburden himself with this information to a judge, who reminded him that if he contradicted his testimony he’d face felony perjury charges.
Thomas backed off. Nothing changed. The Clarks then endured a maddening cycle of failed appeals — most recently in March 2017.
Kenny Jr. admits his father was not perfect growing up in the violent Delmann Heights area of San Bernardino. At age 20, he was convicted of robbery and spent 20 months in prison. From Day 1, however, Dad has been adamant that he is completely innocent of this crime.
To this day, son believes him.
“My Dad did nothing wrong.”
Here, Kenny Clark Jr. thinks back to his emotions then.
Initially, he was overwhelmed with anger. Only anger. At the police, for sure. Seeing this abuse up close made him detest anyone with a badge on, be it a security guard or the officer at his father’s Level 4 prison who antagonized him practically every visit by making Kenny Jr. change his clothes. He wasn’t even allowed to wear a white t-shirt and blue jeans. But beyond this, he was angry at his father. He didn’t understand why someone who looked after him, who he loved, just… disappeared.
The rage boiled inside of him for a good two months.
“I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t understand why. I felt like he left us.”
Nicole tried to help her son adjust to this cold reality, but it wasn’t easy. The two had more long talks than Clark can count, talks that typically consisted of Kenny Jr. sobbing and screaming and sobbing some more because he was so confused. Each time, Mom calmed him down. Each night, Mom brought her four kids into her bedroom to pray as a family.
Together, they prayed for forgiveness. She couldn’t explain to her four kids why her husband was behind bars but she could instill this virtue. From there, father and son built a relationship best they could.
“You can’t hold grudges against somebody. You have to forgive them. I came to an understanding with that. I forgave him for not being there.”
Chatting face to face was crucial. He’ll never forget wrapping Dad in a bear hug at age 13, calling this moment one of the most important in his life because he’s not sure where his life would’ve gone otherwise. Then, Clark saw his father every weekend. Nicole even got the family a one-bedroom shack near her husband’s new residency near the Mexico border, the maximum-security Calipatria State Prison. They’d all pack into a car, drive the 140 miles to the middle of the desert on a Friday, see Dad on Saturday, again on Sunday, then drive home and it was off to school on Monday. School wasn’t easy, either. Most of Kenny Jr.’s childhood was spent trying to answer a question he had no answer to: What happened to your Dad?
As the case worked its way through the courts, Mom shielded her kids away from it best she could.
“Because we were so young,” Clark continues, “we didn’t understand it. I still kind of don’t understand a lot of it. People would ask all the time what was going on, and I got tired of explaining.”
What hurt was seeing friends that did have two parents around because he was old enough to know what he lost. He had already gained so many special memories. Like Dad watching on and laughing as Kenny Jr. and his brother, Kyon, wrestled WWE-style. Like Dad getting him into the sport of football to begin with and taking him to practice every single day. Like Dad pulling up clips of linebacker Ray Lewis and telling him that this was the level of physicality he needed to play with. Kenny Sr. absolutely loved the Baltimore Ravens because of the 2000 team’s historic defense. So, naturally, Kenny Jr. played middle linebacker in youth football.
This was an extremely tight-knit family. Son was at his father’s hip all the time.
And just like that, says Clark snapping his fingers, it was all gone.
Which all meant that the frustration inside never truly dissipated. While Kenny Jr. and Kenny Sr. were able to sustain a relationship, at no point did son ever look his Dad directly in the eye and ask what really happened that night. He says he still hasn’t to this day. Nor has his brother. Nor has his sisters. And yet, he repeats he “100 percent” believes in his father’s innocence. Told that someone could read this story and call BS, Clark is unfazed. As far as he’s concerned, people can say whatever they want because it makes zero difference to him. He sincerely does not care.
Oh, boy, did Mom keep him in check, too. There was no lack of discipline.
When his girlfriend, Kaleeyah, hears from the family room that we’re now talking about Nicole, she assures, “She’s tough!” and Clark chuckles.
“I ain’t gonna lie,” Clark says. “We got a lot of whuppings. A lot of whuppings growing up. Belts. Everything. I don’t want to get her in trouble, but anything you can think of. I’m grateful. I’m so grateful for my Mom. My Mom has been amazing and is a main reason I am who I am today. Every situation I’ve ever been in, the people I talk to, and how I am socially, it’s all tied to how I grew up and my Mom.”
Miraculously, Nicole kept the family chugging in the right direction. It took a lot of hours of work as a hospice nurse at the California Institution for Women, a prison in Corona, Calif. Yet she always made sure birthdays and Christmases were massive, memorable events. Kenny Jr. got his coveted Playstation 2 and Xbox.
There was always more than enough food on the table, too. Crucial considering Kenny was a hungry fella.
Of course, her treacherous hours meant that Kenny Jr., age 9, was the man of the house. He’d do some elementary-level cooking. Anything microwavable was manageable — noodles were a go-to. He’d make sure everyone was bathed at night. On a good day, Mom usually came home between 7 and 8 p.m., but whenever she needed to pick up more hours, it could stretch to 11 p.m. Thus, Kenny Jr. was asked to live an atypical life for a middle-schooler. When the final bell at school rang, he’d hop on a bike and head to the elementary school to greet his siblings.
He was forced to mature. Quickly. And while this all became normal, he still wasn’t in the clear.
In school, he got into fights — a lot of fights — which, of course, equated to a lot more whuppings. On to high school, his grades suffered and he admittedly became quite a rebel who absolutely wanted to hang around all of the wrong crowds.
It was no secret why.
“Not having my Dad around definitely. I talked to my little brother about this a couple days ago. With my Dad being gone, we all handled it different. We all missed out on something. Whether it’s situations with women. Or say my little sister is looking for love in a guy. That could’ve been my Dad. For my little brother, it could be a situation with his temper. We all had our own little thing with Dad not being here… For me, I’m really indecisive about a lot of stuff. I’m very indecisive. You never know. With Dad being here, I could’ve been way better at making decisions as a man.”
He reiterates that Nicole did the best she could and the proof’s in the pudding — all four kids obviously turned out great. He’s in the NFL and his three siblings all graduated from college.
Still, you don’t know what you don’t know. He wonders what they all missed without Dad.
He knows he easily could’ve fallen off the deep end in high school, too. Growing up, nobody talked about college because nobody in his family had ever been to college. He easily could’ve been just another kid selling drugs in the streets.
“I could’ve been in jail, been dead. Who knows?”
He remembers specific moments through that rebellious phase when he really wanted quick money, too. Thankfully, since he is so indecisive, he never did become a drug dealer like so many friends. It was a close call for everyone in his neighborhood. “It’s so easy to get sucked into it,” he says. “So easy.” Mom’s tough love helped but this is also where Kenny Sr. really stepped up.
He could relate. He wasn’t around the most savory kids himself growing up.
He told Kenny Jr., “Don’t follow guys and get yourself into a situation to where you’re in here with me.” Then, he brought up examples of people he knew who were dead or in jail. People he was around much of his life. Maybe Kenny Sr. wasn’t under the same roof as Kenny Jr. but damn did this advice hit home.
Right then, son decided not to waste his time on making a quick wad of cash — he’s sure glad he did, too.
The Crips and Bloods ran quite a bit of real estate in his pocket of California growing up. Today, so many kids that Kenny Jr. grew up with are still trying to escape a life of drug dealing and gangs. They have a son, a daughter and are attempting to leave the streets behind. Others aren’t so lucky, others are dead.
Two years ago, his cousin was shot and killed.
“I had a lot of friends doing crazy stuff, man,” he says, soberly.
By deciding early that this life wasn’t for him, Kenny Jr. starred at Wilmer Amina Carter High School in Rialto, Calif., and football became the glue that held him and Dad together. Into high school, Kenny Jr. would relive every single game in play-by-play detail so Kenny Sr. could picture it all in his mind. Dad moving to a prison that was closer to home helped, too.
When Kenny Jr. headed to UCLA and people started asking how in the heck he dealt with this all, he was… perplexed. Yeah, he was angry and frustrated, but this never felt like a burden to any degree. Always “even-keeled,” he never sat back to genuinely reflect on his plight. Still, today, he knows the experience molded him. He can be a blend of skeptical and cynical when it comes to strangers. Kenny Jr. is just now trying his best to trust people and acknowledge that, yes, people can be inherently good.
Part of the problem was seeing how family members would take advantage of his mother. She’d lend them money and never return it back. Part of it was the belief that his father was locked up for something he did not do.
“I have a very hard time trusting people. Or I feel like everybody… I don’t know. I used to look at the world and say, ‘There’s no good people in this world.’ It was always, ‘Somebody’s trying to get something out of me.’ Even when I was younger and I didn’t have money and I didn’t have anything, it was like that. Because my Mom used to do so much for people, too. I would watch my Mom do so much for somebody and they cross my Mom over and do something to my Mom. I’d be like, ‘Man, there’s no good people in this world.’ … And it’s crazy because when it came to stuff that’s supposed to make me feel bad, I was able to laugh it off, smile it off. I didn’t care too much about it. I got used to—it’s kind of weird—but I got used to people being bad people.”
Skepticism can be a good thing as a pro athlete. An infinite number of people ask you for an infinite number of favors 24/7. But Clark is also self-aware. He believes he has taken it too far.
Not that he needs to look far for hope. His parents are still together.
Through it all, Nicole stayed at Kenny Sr.’s side, going on 20-plus years. Three weeks ago, she was able to spend a night with her husband for the first time since the sentencing.
“My Mom stuck by him, man. She stuck by him. That’s because she knows the person that he is. He’s been a blessing in so many ways to so many people. Everybody I’ve spoken to — even his boys from school — all my uncles, people he hung out with, they never had anything bad to say about my Dad. My Dad is a really chill guy. Doesn’t bother anybody. Nothing. The dudes in the prison all respect him and love him. He’s a good guy.”
He repeats it once more — “he’s a good guy” — and says none of the evidence touches his father.
At his current Level 2 prison, Kenny Sr. has been able to make a life for himself. He earned his diploma, has worked a few jobs and even loves to cook. His family puts money onto his account and he whips up chicken or beef burritoes for himself and other inmates. These last five months, he’s been working out quite a bit. And with the Packers on primetime so often, he’s been able to watch his son’s meteoric rise this 2021 season.
This year, Kenny Jr. truly believes he’s finding himself, too. He’s trying not to seek the approval of others before making big decisions.
He’s becoming more decisive. Those books help.
“That’s what tough-minded people do. They made decisions and they live with it. Good or bad, they prepare. They rely on their instincts. They rely on how they were raised. You make a decision and you go about it however you want to go about it. You live with it.”
Of course, this absolutely applies to his profession as the nose tackle on a team aiming to win the Super Bowl this season. Being proactive is paying off. Last season, he admits he made too many excuses and agonized over his low sack total (two). This year, he hasn’t stressed over statistics because he’s trying not to overthink anything.
No longer does Clark live or play “by the book.”
“If I feel something in my heart, if I feel this dude is going this way, I don’t care what my coach is about to say. I don’t care what anybody really says. If I feel something, I’m just going to do it and live with it. And if I’m wrong, I’m going to fight like hell to get out of the situation.
“I’m taking my chance. I’m taking it. I don’t care. Since college, I’ve never been like that. I’ve always been a guy who does everything by the book. I’ve always been like that. Everything in my life, I try to do this, do this, do this. Sometimes, you just have to be decisive about whatever it is. If you feel it — and that is what you want to do — just do it! Just go ahead and do it. If it ends up being bad, fight like hell to get out of it. If you hit it at the right time, shit, you’ll reap the benefits of it. I think this year, especially in football, I’ve been like that the whole entire year.”
Clark points to the Vikings game, to blasting the center backward. He hadn’t mauled somebody like that since high school. He points to blowing up a lineman in Green Bay’s win over the 49ers in September and when he knew a lineman was pulling against the Steelers. He could’ve easily done his job and simply played the block. Instead, he saw the guard pulling, attacked and tackled rookie running back Najee Harris for a loss.
“I could’ve just sat there and said, ‘Let me play this block.’ I could put it in somebody else’s hands, but…”
… he’s putting it in his own hands this season.
He’s got his coaches’ trust, too. They know he plays with impeccable technique and are all for such risk-taking. Clark is in constant dialogue with defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery.
“He’ll tell me, ‘You’re at your best when you’re not thinking.’ I’m at my best when I’m being decisive about everything I’m doing. It doesn’t matter what the play is. It doesn’t matter who is going where. If I’m not thinking about it, and I’m just reacting on my instincts, again, going back to the book — ‘Relentless’ — he talks about, ‘If you’re prepared, if you care about whatever you’re doing, it lets your instincts and your talent and your technique be what you rely on.’ But in the moment, don’t think. Whether it’s business or football, don’t think about what this guy is about to do. Don’t worry about all of that. You can overthink it to death.
“Rely on my instincts. Rely on what I know right now.”
Because, hey, take a look at the gold standard. Clark knows Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald isn’t hesitating play to play. He dictates. He forces offensive lineman to second-guess their decisions.
“And when you have offensive linemen second-guessing themselves? That’s when you can eat.”
Clark puts himself right in Donald’s stratosphere, too.
“100 percent. I’m one of the best. There’s not a lot of defensive tackles who do what I do consistently. When you turn on my film, I don’t think there’s a lot of defensive tackles who can say, ‘I do my job better than he does his job.’”
The Packers agreed in rewarding Clark that massive contract. With that influx of cash, he bought his family a new house but when it came to buying something for himself? He vacillated. He really wanted a Rolls Royce but needed a nudge from his girlfriend to sign that dotted line. He’s never done much traveling, but says that’ll change in the offseason — Clark wants to see the world. Always one to weigh the pros and cons in his mind, Clark is trusting his gut more than ever.
He’s been with Kaleeyah since high school. Put the pressure on him to buy a ring and he smiles.
In the family room, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is playing. A few minutes later, a personal trainer arrives for today’s session.
Clark is counting his blessings. His father might’ve lost his last appeal but Clark remains optimistic. For what exactly? He’s not sure. The family is not losing hope and plans to do everything in their power to prove his innocence. So far, Kenny Sr. is 17 years into a 55-year sentence. Clark thinks he has a chance to get out in another 15 to 20 years. If nothing changes, they’ll make due like they always have. Whenever the debate over his Dad’s case works its way into Kenny Jr.’s life nowadays and people debate — “He’s innocent! He’s guilty!” — he is totally unbothered.
“Because I know who my Dad is and my Dad has always been a family guy. Respected and a respectful person to other people. Everybody I speak to about my Dad, who really knew my Dad, never had anything bad to say about my Dad.”
Life always goes on. He has no choice but to see the positive in every situation and this Cali native has grown to love everything about Wisconsin. This cold doesn’t bother him much at all. In his down time, he’ll keep listening to his audiobooks. He’ll watch the UFC. He’ll cherish this opportunity to raise his daughter. And, on Sundays, it’s back to shoving people around at the line of scrimmage.
Clark has an unbelievably chill personality yet sure knows how to turn it on.
“When the switch is on,” he says, “it’s hard to turn it off.”
Clark picks up Kenaii and steps around the bouncer. This life he created for himself is sweet. Out that window is the beautiful East River Trail, essentially the exact opposite of life as a blood or crip. And across the Fox River is Lambeau Field where it sure feels like life is heading toward an epic climax.
Kenny Clark Jr. plans to be the player who delivers a title to a title-starved fan base.
“I’m trying to kick the door down. Hopefully we get this win, get to the NFC Championship again and kick that door down.”
He pauses for a second.
“Get into the Super Bowl and win it.”