The Elusive Ken Clark

Times were different. I’m talking nearly 25 years ago.

This wouldn’t happen now. It probably shouldn’t have happened then, calling a Nebraska football player at home. But I was a newspaper reporter, and I had been told to call Ken Clark for a comment about something or other; I forget the reason. As I said, it was a long time ago.

Anyway, the number was readily available in a student directory.

Clark answered. I knew it was him.

“Ken?” I said, identifying myself.

“No,” he said. “Ken’s not here. Call back in 10 minutes.”

I called back in 10 minutes.

No one picked up.

So much for a comment from Ken Clark.

That’s how I remember him, a guy who didn’t much care for reporters and, more to the point, the attention that came with his success as a Husker I-back.

Nothing personal, as far as I could tell.

“He wasn’t looking for the limelight,” former Husker Broderick Thomas said in a phone interview Monday morning. “A ball under his arm was his favorite thing . . . a fine running back. Good guy, quiet; that was Ken. Most people would say he was very quiet.”

Most people would not say that about Thomas, a two-time All-American who was a member of the same recruiting class as Clark in 1985. The class was among the more publicized during Tom Osborne’s 25 years as head coach, in large part because of Thomas, Steve Taylor and LeRoy Etienne.

All three earned letters as true freshmen.

Clark was among the other 21 in the class, the Huskers’ first scholarship recruit from Omaha Bryan High School. “He came here under the radar,” said Thomas.

Maybe because he missed part of his senior season because of injury.

But Clark remained under the radar, to some degree, even after rushing for 1,497 yards in 1988, his junior season at Nebraska, the third-highest single-season total in Husker history at the time.

Only Mike Rozier had rushed for more yards, setting the record as a junior (1,689) and then breaking it as a senior (2,148), when he won Nebraska’s second Heisman Trophy.

As a result, the Huskers’ 1989 media guide featured Clark, No. 32, on its cover, under the heading: Heisman Trophy Candidate Ken Clark. The guide said that “with a great (senior) year and a little luck” Clark could become Nebraska’s third Heisman Trophy winner.

As a junior, Clark had flown under the radar in the Big Eight because of Oklahoma State junior Barry Sanders, who would win the Heisman Trophy and then declare for the NFL draft.

Clark earned first-team All-Big Eight recognition from the Associated Press only (not the coaches’ or UPI teams) in 1988, a head scratcher explained in the media guide as a result of Clark’s starting slowly in his first season as the regular I-back, succeeding Keith Jones.

Clark rushed for 1,016 yards in the final six games, with back-to-back 200-yard efforts, including 256 (and three touchdowns) in a memorable head-to-head matchup with Sanders.

That’s the game for which Clark is most remembered, understandably so.

He didn’t have much luck as a senior, dealing with injuries and missing one game. Even so, he rushed for 1,196 yards and 12 touchdowns and was first-team All-Big Eight, unanimously.

Mostly, writers know athletes for such things, what they do in competition, things that can be quantified and assessed and ranked. We see them with limited vision.

Yes, Clark is now seventh on Nebraska’s career-rushing list.

But he was more than such numbers, much more.

“I knew him fairly well,” Thomas said. “On the average, he was quiet. But certain people could bring him out of his shell. He’d laugh and joke, and the next thing you knew, he was quiet.”

Thomas learned about Clark’s passing, at age 46, on Saturday night.

Thomas will celebrate his 46th birthday on Wednesday.

“My prayers go out to the family,” he said.

Mine do, too.

I smiled the night I called Clark at home. I still smile at the thought.

I know it was him. He got me good.

Rest in peace.

(Photo courtesy of NU Media Relations)