BY NICOLE BELL | PHOTO BY LAURA DIERBECK
Playing professional football has always been the goal for Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark.
First introduced to the competitive sport by his dad, Clark cites the 2000 Super Bowl as a pivotal moment in driving his passion for the sport. And he’s never looked back.
“It’s always been my plan to be in the NFL,” says the California native, relaxing in the Green Bay home he shares with his girlfriend and their rambunctious puppy. Clark just wasn’t sure how he was going to make that mission happen.
“Going to high school, I never really knew what exactly I wanted to do, but I had always known I was really good at football,” says Clark. “And, I never really knew too much about college, either; I always thought it was just high school and NFL. I never really watched college football. Growing up in California, it’s not really a huge thing where I’m from. A lot of my friends didn’t go to college.”
But recruiters came calling for the talented teen.
Clark’s first offer came from Washington University. When the coach accepted a position at UCLA, he offered the young Clark the opportunity to come along. The chance to play in his home state, he says, made his mother incredibly happy.
“She was able to come to every game,” Clark grins. “She is right down the street. And it was literally an hour away from the Rose Bowl. So, she came to every game. If I needed anything she was right there, right down the street.”
For Clark, who is close with his five siblings, family is his biggest motivator.
“I’m a huge family guy,” he says. “They’re a big part of the reason why I am who I am. They keep me humble, they stay on me, they’re a lot of fun and they’re just great people. And, my mom, she raised all of us, really. We all look up to her, just the type of person she is and how hard she fights for my family.”
Clark’s time at UCLA led to the next big step — the two-day, 2016 NFL draft. Clark’s mom was adamant about hosting a drafting party for her son, their family and friends on the first day of the draft, never entertaining the possibility of Clark being chosen in the second round.
“She was just confident with it, so, I was like, ‘All right, let’s do it,’” Clark says. “ A [Wisconsin] number just popped up on my phone and I’m like, ‘Oh, it must be Green Bay.’ I answered and it was [Packer’s former general manager] Ted Thompson. The Packers were telling me they were going to draft me and that was one of the most emotional days of my life. It was just so cool because almost the whole city was there and it just gave them so much confidence and motivation seeing my dream come true.”
Though the transition from sunny California to chilly Wisconsin took a bit of getting used to, Clark says that he’s had only positive experiences here in the Dairy State, from dedicated fans to strangers he encounters on the street.
“A lot of people here, they love football,” Clark says. “It’s like a family atmosphere here and there’s no distractions. … It’s just a different perspective. I grew up in Cali. You’ve got a-million-and-one things to do out there. Nobody really cares about anything you’re doing; it’s not really a family atmosphere out there besides your actual family. Here it’s just slower; it’s not a big city at all. Most of the people know each other around town. So, that’s definitely different.”
Along with the legendary Midwestern friendliness, Wisconsin sports fans are notorious for our dedication to our teams, a sense of pride and ownership that makes fans feel like they’re part of the action. Clark says that devotion drives him to work even harder on the field.
“They’re great fans, and the Packers have been winning for so long — winning championships, winning games, having winning seasons — so people get used to the constant winning,” says the 2019 Pro Bowl selection. “That’s what they want to see and that’s what puts pressure on you as a player and as a whole organization, to give the fans a championship and give yourself a championship. You don’t want less than that, because there’s only a couple of teams in the NFL that can actually say every year ‘My team is going to be in the discussion for winning a championship’ and really, honestly believe it. I feel like that’s what every player, or every organization, should want is [for] their fans to be passionate and always feel like they can always get something great out of the season.”
Clark is just as devoted to his time off the field, dedicating his spare time to charitable efforts in Wisconsin and back in California. He is a proud supporter of Angel Tree, a branch of Prison Fellowship that sends birthday and holiday gifts to children of incarcerated parents — a life-altering situation Clark himself experienced when his father was jailed in 2005.
“[Angel Tree] helped my relationship out with my dad and my family, because I remember all the Christmases and birthdays growing up, I was always like, ‘Oh, Dad sent this? How’d he send this?’” Clark recalls. “I never knew until I got older, but I know it put a smile on my face growing up. So, I always wanted to show my appreciation for that once I found out Angel Tree was the one.”
Clark remembers getting phone calls from his dad after the gifts arrived, which, he adds, helped keep their bond strong.
“He called me when he’d get a chance to call and he’d be like, ‘Did you get your gift?’” Clark says. “And you get the chance to talk to him about it and he gets to hear how excited you are about it. That’s cool and it felt good for my mom to see that, and my dad to hear my voice and see how excited I was to get the gift.
“It just keeps our family together,” Clark continues. “They go into prison and you don’t get to see them every day, so just to get a present from your dad, knowing he’s thinking about you, it’s always cool.”
In 2019, Clark donated Thanksgiving meals, helped helm a Christmas toy drive, and hosted a football camp over summertime — efforts he repeats each year. Through his Kenny Clark Foundation, the NFL star enthusiastically gives back wherever he can.
“I’m always looking to just do all kinds of stuff for my city and for the people of Green Bay. I’m still trying to figure out everything that I want to do, but I’m constantly just trying to lend a helping hand,” Clark says.
Had his NFL dreams not come to fruition, Clark says he would still be a part of his beloved football — just from a different position on the field.
“[I’d] probably [be] doing some type of coaching or something that I can help out young teenagers, young kids trying to figure out their way,” he says. “Just being constantly around them, talking to them and staying in their ear about doing the right things — going to school, working hard and doing what they’ve got to do to be successful.” MKE