Kenny Clark built to handle 1st-round pressure

Ryan Wood
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Kenny Clark had to smile. For anyone else, he knew this would be a natural concern. There are expectations attached to being a first-round pick. Instant pressure.

Green Bay Packers' first-round draft pick Kenny Clark (97) drills during rookie camp practice Friday in the Don Hutson Center.

For Kenny Clark?

“No. I’m good, man,” Clark said as he shrugged. “I’m good.”

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The Green Bay Packers first-round nose tackle wasn’t being cocky. The gravity of this opportunity hits him just like anyone else. When he entered the Packers locker room Friday before the first practice of his career, Clark took a few steps and stopped. He stared at his locker in the near, left corner. Two minutes passed.

Clark was still staring.

“It was a crazy moment for me,” Clark said. “I was just happy to be here, and everybody just welcomed me with open arms.”

He called Friday a dream come true. There was excitement in his voice. Raw, human emotion.

Pressure? No, Clark said, he didn’t feel any pressure.

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Maybe it’s because the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft is uniquely built to handle impossible expectations. Clark knows what it’s like to be the youngest player on a football field. He was 17 years old when his college career started at UCLA. Clark appeared in all 13 games as a freshman, with four starts. In the trenches, he shed blocks from opposing linemen old enough to drink a beer. Clark couldn’t even vote.

He still can’t legally drink. Not for six more months. Clark finally turns 21 on Oct. 4, five days before Green Bay hosts the New York Giants on a Sunday night at Lambeau Field. It will be Week 5 of his first NFL season. This time, Clark will shed blocks against linemen 10, maybe even 15 years older.

The NFL is a big adjustment for any rookie, let alone someone who was a teenager last spring. Clark has a trump card: His athleticism, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, will help the rookie make a smooth transition to the NFL.

"I would definitely say his tempo, tenacity and the fact of his background of balance, and I think you saw that today just in some of the drill work that I saw," McCarthy said when asked what impressed him about Clark. "I think he’s a guy that has excellent balance, always staying with his feet. I think that was something that was very evident on the video."

There’s another reason Clark doesn’t feel the pressure as he embarks on his professional career. Something much bigger than football. Off the field, his maturity is unquestioned. Life has been his greatest teacher.

As a child, Clark faced expectations no kid ever should.

When the Packers drafted him last week, Clark heard from both parents. His mother spent draft night with him at a celebratory party outside their hometown of San Bernandino, California. His father made a collect call from California Men’s Colony, a state penitentiary.

When Clark was 9, his father was convicted of second-degree murder. Kenneth Clark Sr. was given a minimum 55-year sentence with no chance for parole. He maintained his innocence and has fought for his release, but currently is spending his 11th consecutive year in prison.

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There were tears of joy when Kenny Sr. called on draft night, his son said. He was allowed to watch the draft. Allowed to be part of the biggest moment in his son’s life, as best he could.

“He was just so happy for his kid,” Kenny Jr. said. “It was a good moment for my whole family that was there.”

Kenny Jr. wouldn’t discuss his father’s ongoing legal battle Friday, only to say there’s “still hope” he will one day be released. He wants Dad to watch him run out of Lambeau Field’s tunnel. It’s one of the first things Kenny Sr. told his son over the phone on draft night.

Until then, Kenny Sr. will watch as many games as possible from prison. There is some fortune the Packers drafted his son. They are among the NFL’s elite teams, with an elite quarterback. Their stature comes with no shortage of nationally televised games. There will be at least five primetime kickoffs this season: three on Sunday night, one on Monday night and one on Thursday night.

The Packers' preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, also will be televised nationally.

Kenny Jr. always will be connected with his father. He already has decided to keep a close relationship. Kenny Sr. had a bigger role in his son’s upbringing than expected, given the natural barriers. He was an active part of his son’s recruitment to UCLA, with coaches visiting him in prison. During the past three seasons, coaches wrote reports on Kenny Jr.’s production and sent them to his father.

On Friday, Kenny Jr. said he plans to ask McCarthy to do the same. Anything to keep his father in the loop.

“You always need your dad,” Kenny Jr. said. “You don’t want to exclude anybody out of the family, especially when my mom and my dad are still together. You don’t ever want to exclude anybody out of the family. My mom raised us right, my dad raised us right. We just kept that type of relationship.

“He’s still the dad, you know what I’m saying? I go see him all the time and go talk on the phone all the time. I mean, the only thing I really missed was just him actually being here on a daily basis, but I got to see him all the time.”

Adversity, Kenny Jr. admits now, is a big reason for his maturity. It forced him to stay focused. He had to grow up fast. With life changing once again, he believes those lessons will help him face the lofty expectations that come with his first-round distinction.

Kenny Jr. will have a chance to be the Packers plug-and-play replacement for retired nose tackle B.J. Raji. He has a lot of work to do before then. Since UCLA has a quarterly system, NFL rules force him to return to school Sunday instead of staying in Green Bay with his new teammates. Kenny Jr. will have to work out and study the Packers playbook between finals.

He’ll return in June. Expectations will be waiting. It’s enough pressure to make anyone pause. Kenny Jr. might be the exception.

“I had a lot of pressure on me growing up and in college,” he said. and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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