College Sports

January 9, 2011

Wichita's Zac Clark ready for another championship ring

There is a picture on the dining room wall. After more than a decade, it has begun to fade.

There is a picture on the dining room wall. After more than a decade, it has begun to fade.

In the picture, there are four small children, the sons and daughters of Steve and Patty Clark.

They are dressed for Halloween. The two girls, Destiny and Sadie, are princesses. The smaller of the two boys, Trace, still a toddler, is a frog.

The oldest boy, Zac, is dressed like a football player. His shoulder pads and jersey fit him perfectly. Two streaks of eye black frame his face. He cradles his helmet below one arm and leans into the camera. He looks as tough as he can.

His dreams, so big and so far off, are welcome in this home, where nobody ever tells him they can't come true.

What they tell him, instead, is that if you have a dream, you have to fight for it. You have to sacrifice. You have to be willing to do what everybody else isn't.

He listened.

Monday night, the road from the City League to the BCS national championship game in Glendale, Ariz., begins and ends with Oregon defensive lineman Zac Clark.

This is how he got there.

* * *

Patty's stepfather, Bob Anderson, helped recruit Steve out of Miffin High in Columbus, Ohio, to Kansas State in the late 1970s. He was a fifth-round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 1981.

" (Bob) was an elementary school principal in Manhattan, and he was a Catbacker," Steve said. "He knew I wanted to be an educator, so I met him and his family and we became friends."

Patty was a few years older and knew about Steve through her younger brothers and sisters.

"I was living in Arizona while he was just starting in the pros, and I didn't really know anybody out there so I wrote to (Steve), and he was nice enough to write back," Patty said. "So, to begin with, we got to know each other through letters."

By the time Steve was released from the Patriots after two seasons and a couple of knee injuries, Patty had found her way back to Manhattan. They spent a lot of time together that summer working out, with Steve getting ready for a tryout with the San Francisco 49ers. It was 1983.

"We were workout partners, then pretty soon we were running errands together," Patty said. "And then the next thing I knew, I was dropping him off at the airport to go to training camp."

That day, with the Manhattan airport in her rearview mirror, she realized something important.

"In your heart, you know when something changes," Patty said. "That day, I really felt like what was happening inside of me was different... it just struck me."

Steve hurt his knee again in San Francisco, and after some soul-searching, decided to come back to Kansas and get his life started.

Patty was waiting. They were married in 1985.

Two years later, they had Destiny. Two years after that, Zac. Then Sadie and Trace.

The Clark family was complete.

* * *

Kansas, K-State and Arkansas — where Destiny was on the volleyball team — all offered Zac a chance to come play for them out of North High, where Steve had been Zac's coach for his senior year after moving the family from Manhattan. The only problem was that all three schools wanted him to walk on without a scholarship.

And that just wasn't going to be good enough. With national power Butler Community College right down the road, he decided to roll the dice.

In the Grizzlies' 2007 season opener, future K-State defensive end Antonio Felder went down with a season-ending knee injury. Clark stepped in and didn't miss a beat.

"Zac just kept getting better, every single week," Butler coach Troy Morrell said. "The thing that still amazes me, to this day, is the work ethic... just the willingness he had to do whatever it took to win.

"It's hard to emphasize how rare it is to end up in the position he's in. We had one other guy, (offensive lineman) Howard Duncan, who won titles with us in 1998 and 1999 and then won it with Oklahoma in 2000 who was in the same situation. You're talking once in maybe every 10 years somebody gets to do what Zac is doing."

Clark won two national titles at Butler and by the end of his time there, a long line of major-college suitors wanted the services of a 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive lineman who could likely play all the positions on a defensive front.

He chose Oregon over Louisville, Boise State and Texas A&M.

"I made the right decision by going to Butler, and I made the right decision in coming to Oregon," Clark said. "Winning was what was important."

Clark's first year at Oregon ended in a Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State. He had a solid year, playing in all 13 games and finishing with 18 tackles.

This year has been different, both for him and for the Ducks. Oregon is 12-0 and will play for its first national title on Monday against Auburn. Clark had a breakout year, racking up 37 tackles, including 8 1/2 tackles for loss and three sacks on his way to honorable-mention All-Pac-10 honors. He's also on track to graduate with his degree in sociology this year.

"Growing up in Manhattan, the guys that played for K-State were like superheroes to me," Zac said. "Now, to be in the situation I'm in, I feel blessed."

* * *

Thursday, five of the six Clarks were in San Antonio, with Trace, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior defensive end for Collegiate who was participating in the junior combine before Saturday's Army All-American Bowl, a game for the best high school football seniors in the country. Trace is already getting lots of major-college interest, the majority coming from LSU and Oregon.

Zac's younger sister, Sadie, just completed her freshman season in volleyball at Arkansas State.

"We've been blessed, the kids realized we've been blessed," Steve said. "We started them young, with the focus on academics and athletics. Destiny really paved the way for the others."

All of the Clarks will be at the game on Monday, driving overnight from San Antonio to Arizona, where they planned to arrive early this morning.

The morning of the game, Zac and Steve will go for a walk. It's a ritual they've had since before Butler's national title game his freshman year.

The message has never changed.

"I'm going to remind him of all the sacrifices he made to get to this point," Steve said. "I'm going to remind him of all the hard work he put in, of all the things he was willing to do that others wouldn't.

"I'm going to remind him it all led to this."

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