TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Sometimes in football, a touchdown is worth a lot more than six points.
That was the case with the University of Alabama’s final score against Ole Miss last Saturday, which prompted an emotional celebration on the Crimson Tide sideline that even Nick Saban had to admit that they probably should have gotten a penalty.
It would have been worth it, because everyone who was exuberant about junior Ronnie Clark’s first career touchdown knew the full story. It’s more than an athlete coming back from major injuries. It’s about seeing someone overcome so much that you can’t help but root for him.
So, yes, the touchdown was special, as was the reaction of his teammates. Nearly a week later, Clark wasn’t sure which meant more to him.
“They’re both about the same because I hadn’t scored a touchdown since high school because of all the stuff that I’ve been through,” he said. “It was just kind of shocking to me. I was amazed at the same time, but I was happy that I had got it done.”
— BamaVideo (@BamaVideo_) October 1, 2017
Yet the reaction on the field was just the beginning. Friends and teammates spoke proudly and took to social media. One of his former high school assistant coaches, Jamie Scruggs, posted, “This young man has been scoring touchdowns on and off the field his whole life! I’m so happy for you.”
“We all love Ronnie Clark to death,” junior tight end Hale Hentges said.
“Ronnie’s one of those dudes that he cares about everyone, like everybody,” sophomore running back Josh Jacobs said.
Saban referred to him as the “consummate, ultimate great story about any program and what college football should be all about.”
All that about Alabama’s ninth touchdown against the visiting Rebels.
— Damien Harris (@DHx34) October 1, 2017
What most Crimson Tide fans know about Clark are his prolific high school years before signing with Alabama, and the injuries he’s endured since.
In 2013-14, Clark was considered one of the top-5 recruits in the state after a stellar career at Calera High School that resulted in invitations to play in both the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game and the Under Armour All-America Game.
His high school career had gotten off to an early start in eighth grade. Coach Wiley McKeller made Clark a slot receiver because he was already better at the position than anyone else on the roster. Three years later, the coach moved him to quarterback because he was already the leader of the offense, while also playing him on defense.
Clark never complained about the different roles. As a senior, he completed about 70 percent of his passes, accounted for more than 2,500 yards and 35 touchdowns while leading the Eagles into the state playoffs.
“He is an ace of a guy,” said McKeller, now the coach at Vincent High School. “I’ve had the luck to coach some really good athletes, but the way he carries himself and his demeanor and work ethic is what really sets him apart. He’s the standard by which I judge all other kids with above-average ability now. I can’t help it, it just pops in my head, like ‘Ronnie Clark was never late to a practice’ or ‘Ronnie Clark was never tardy to a class.’
“You see so many guys that do have a sense of entitlement because they might be a little bit bigger or a little bit faster in high school, and here’s a guy who’s just completely selfless. Tremendous leader, tremendous guy.”
Touchdown Ronnie Clark!!! @Rc1_era
(Now carry the ball in your left hand.) Congrats my man!!!! Lol!!!!
— Wiley McKeller (@CoachMcKeller) October 1, 2017
Alabama’s coaches were initially thinking defensive back with Clark, but they ended up placing him with the running backs. He redshirted in 2014 and played three games during the subsequent season when during the individual drills of a practice he gave a burst, felt a pop and went down in a heap. His left Achilles had torn, the first major injury Clark experienced.
Naturally, he was heartbroken.
“Definitely,” he said. “The Achilles is how you walk, you know what I’m saying? It’s a thing that you need because you walk every day. It was kind of a struggle at first.”
An Achilles tear is more common in basketball and gymnastics, but there are certainties about the recovery process. It takes a long time, often a full year until an athlete can compete again, and they’re often unable to do so at the same level.
“You pretty much have to learn how to run again, learn how to walk again,” Clark said. “Once you tear it you’re not walking for a couple of months and then once you start back walking it’s a process. It’s a long, nagging process and it’s a tough one to come back from, too.”
Clark did come back only to have the same thing happen on the right side, this time while working with the punt team. It was near the end of the Crimson Tide’s final spring practice, and he didn’t even need the trainers to tell him what had happened.
“I tore it the same way, just taking off to run,” he said. “It felt the exact same as the left one felt.”
— Amy Bragg (@BraggAmy) October 1, 2017
Some people would have said that’s it, enough is enough. No one would have blamed Clark if he had bowed out gracefully.
He says he never considered quitting.
“I’ve always been a competitor, and I’ve always wanted to compete and play football, that’s what I love to do,” Clark said. “The love I have for the game, the passion I have for it, I never thought about it through the injuries and everything.”
The “everything” he alluded to serves as his inspiration, motivation and sounding board — his mother.
Kimberly Clark has muscular dystrophy, which is a group of disorders that leads to progressive loss of muscle mass and loss of strength. When she watches her son play for the Crimson Tide it’s from a wheelchair.
“I think about her,” Clark said about putting his injuries into perspective. “There’s nothing that compares to what she’s going through.”
Not only did she need assistance with day-to-day things that most people take for granted, like walking, washing and dressing, so did Clark’s grandmother, who moved in with the family while dealing with a brain tumor.
With his father’s job for a railroad company frequently taking him out of town, Clark had to do a lot of things that most of his high school peers couldn’t begin to fathom.
“I started at about 13, 14,” he said about helping his mother and grandmother. “It kind of matured me into the young man I am today. It made me see a lot more than what the average teenager sees.
“It taught me a lot.”
Like patience, perseverance and not being afraid to step up or speak out when necessary. Yet the experiences didn’t alter who he was at the core, and intensified his ability to lead. For example, when first asked about last week’s touchdown, Clark’s initial response was: “I’m not an individual type of guy, I’m a team guy. I scored this for my team.”
— NEW III (@newaldropIII) October 2, 2017
With his latest comeback, Clark spent time working at tight end but he’s a full-time running back now with 15 carries for 70 rushing yards this season. He nearly scored during the final minutes at Vanderbilt, but understood why the coaches opted to take a knee at 59-0.
He didn’t have to wait long for opportunity to come around again, a 9-yard run with 6 minutes, 51 seconds to go to cap Alabama’s 66-3 dismantling of division rival Ole Miss.
For those who have stood by Clark all these years, the score was irrelevant. You bet they were celebrating.
“It felt good,” Clark said. “It was unbelievable.”
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