Two weeks ago, college football fans across the nation huddled around their smartphones, computers, and televisions to learn which programs (officially) landed the top high school recruits. Not surprisingly, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide emerged from the scramble as the consensus “winner” of 2014 National Signing Day.
Among Alabama’s newest crop of football talent is a special young man whose character belies his age.
A senior at Calera High School in Alabama, Ronnie Clark was forced to grow up very early. His mother had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and by the time Clark was 14, her condition worsened. Soon, due to muscle deterioration, his mother required assistance walking, changing clothes, bathing, and completing many daily tasks. Complicating matters, Clark’s father was frequently out of town, working as a train conductor for BNSF Railway.
“At a very early age Ronnie had to take on a huge responsibility, he had to step up and be the man of the house,” his mother, Kimberly Clark, said. “When you asked him to do something, he doesn’t pitch a fit about it, he doesn’t argue about it, he doesn’t get upset, he just does it. … Over the years his character has built up and we’ve always taught him to make sure you help somebody else. It’s not all about you, it’s all about you helping somebody else.”
Not only did Clark never complain to his parents, he found something invaluable in his challenging home life.
“You want to be able to have fun and be with your friends, and not worry about that,” Clark said. “But it helped me mature a little as I got older. Now I know what responsibility is, to take care of all those things, playing football, getting good grades, doing everything else.”
As if that weren’t enough responsibility, Clark’s grandmother, Gertrude Gayden, moved in with his family as she battled a brain tumor.
“My mom was 82 years old at the time,” Ronnie Clark Sr. said. “My mom could hardly walk. … You don’t find too many young kids that would give their grandmother a bath, pick her up out of the tub, dry her off, help her put her clothes on, and pick her up, and put them in the bed. I know grown people that wouldn’t do that. By him doing all that, he made my job a lot easier, because I had to support the family.”
Somehow, between cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and caring for both his mother and grandmother, the younger Clark found time to excel in school. He currently holds a 3.6 grade-point average and is one of the most respected students on campus.
“His personality is naturally likable and kind. I have stood back and observed him in the halls and out in society, and people gravitate to him,” Calera’s assistant principal Michele Edwards said. “He has continued to show humility and gratefulness during this exceptional representation of Calera High School this year.”
Basketball and track had been his focus growing up, but at the suggestion of local youth coach EddiePosely, Clark tried out for football several years ago. Instantly he proved a natural. By eighth grade, the 5-11, 165-pounder earned a place as Calera’s varsity slot receiver. Over the next three seasons, he became the Eagles’ most versatile, prolific player. During his career as a defensive player, he posted 156 tackles, 14 for loss, with six sacks, seven interceptions, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. On offense, he led the team with 747 receiving yards and a school-record 52 receptions as a junior.
“In his career here he played a lot of different positions for us, played a lot of different roles for us,” Calera coach Wiley McKeller said. “He is just an athlete. I jokingly tell people if I showed him how to get on a horse, he’d be a great polo player. He’s going to be successful no matter what position he plays just because he has a lot of raw ability and natural competitiveness about him.”
Proof of that came during the 2013 season when Clark, who blossomed into a 6-3, 212-pound senior, switched to quarterback. Without hesitation, McKeller and his staff entrusted him with the tremendous responsibility that the move included: fine-tuning his accuracy, touching the ball on every play, serving as the leader in the huddle and knowing the playbook inside and out.
“Besides me, he knew the offense, what we were trying to do, as well as anybody,” McKeller said. “He was like having a coach on the field. The kids all followed him. So I said ‘Why couldn’t he be a great high school quarterback?’ ”
On the strength of Clark’s passing (98 for 141, 1,376 yards, 16 touchdowns, two interceptions) and rushing (156 carries, 1,621 yards, 19 touchdowns) Calera went 9-1, earning the No. 2 seed in Alabama’s Class 4A playoffs. The Eagles won their first-round matchup against Tallassee, 21-10, then fell to Dadeville, 35-24. In those two postseason games he accounted for six touchdowns, rushed for 356 yards on 52 carries and threw for 201 yards on 18 of 32 attempts.
“I would have never went anywhere without the guys I played with,” Clark said. “The guys and the coaches and the community and the people that were behind us the whole year, my senior year was great.”
Given his electrifying speed, size and on-field acumen, dozens of major college football programs hoped Clark would sign their letter of intent Feb. 5. After narrowing his decision down to in-state rivals Auburn and Alabama, Clark donned the Crimson and White cap last week.
Transitioning to the SEC will require a great deal of effort — improved strength and footwork — but Clark’s dedication and maturity led to so many coaches recruiting him after he became one of the nation’s best players.
“All that stuff prepared me for my college days,” Clark said. “Work ethic won’t be a problem, I love to work, I don’t like to take time off. I love to get in there and do extra stuff. All that stuff returns to what I had to do when I was younger. It made me become a young man.”
And while the story of Clark’s career at Alabama has yet to be written, the legacy he’s already crafted at Calera High is indelible.
“I get asked this a lot, ‘What are you going to do when Ronnie Clark is gone?’ ” McKeller says. “The easy answer is, ‘You don’t replace a guy like Ronnie.’ Those guys, you can’t replace them. But what you hope stays behind are all the things he stood for. The way he carried himself in the locker room. The way he carried himself on the field. The way he carried himself in school, in the community. His general respect for everybody that he came in contact with, that’s what you hopes stayed behind as a model for all of our players, all of our young guys.”