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Game ball capped special day for Kenny Clark

On Sunday, Packers D-lineman played in front of his dad for first time in nearly 20 years

DL Kenny Clark
DL Kenny Clark

GREEN BAY – Kenny Clark isn't one to get overly emotional, but Sunday's regular-season opener in Chicago meant just a little bit more than his previous seven in the NFL.

It wasn't because of the Packers' 38-20 dominant win over the Bears or even the forced fumble Clark contributed to his team's cause.

No, what made this day special was the presence of one particular fan at Soldier Field who was previously unable to attend the Pro Bowl lineman's first 114 games with Green Bay: Kenny's dad, Kenny Clark Sr.

"It was awesome, man. He loved it," Clark said. "He was smiling the whole time. The atmosphere, just being up there. It was his first time getting on the plane, first time going to an NFL game."

Two months ago, Kenny Sr. was released from the California prison system after serving 19 years for the shooting death of a man outside a San Bernardino-area liquor store in 2004.

The elder Clark maintained his innocence throughout while filing multiple appeals and requests for a new trial. In February, Kenny Sr. was finally granted clemency and early parole by the California Board of Parole. Five months later, he walked out of California Men’s Colony a free man.

It's been an emotional year for Kenny Jr., who was just 8 years old at the time of his father's arrest. His love of football began with his father, who introduced him to the sport.

Over the past seven years, Clark has developed into a two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman, team captain and Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee in Green Bay.

Father and son conversed frequently during Clark's football career, breaking down games together over the phone, but it wasn't until Sunday that Kenny Sr. saw his son play in-person at either the high school, college, or professional level.

Clark said he knew for about a month that his dad would be allowed to attend the opener, but it was still emotional seeing his namesake in the stands with the rest of his family.

"Y'all see me smiling and stuff all the time but I don't really get too emotional and stuff like that," Clark said. "In the beginning of the game, it for sure hit me. … I had a lot of emotions, especially during the national anthem and all that."

Clark and the defense proceeded to ball out. The Packers' front kept Bears quarterback Justin Fields contained for most of the game and forced two turnovers, including a fumble Clark caused off a strip sack with Devonte Wyatt in the third quarter.

Fields finished 24-of-37 passing for 216 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions (78.2 passer rating), but a chunk of those yards came late in the fourth quarter after Green Bay began pulling its defensive starters.

Overall, holding Chicago to 3-of-13 on third downs and 311 yards on 70 plays was a good start for a veteran Green Bay defense with high expectations this season.

"I think we handled it well. A lot of people sleeping on us," Clark said. "We were very disruptive up front no matter who we had in there and what positions we had them in there. Everybody was playing hard, being disruptive, getting up field, getting off blocks."

Clark finished with two tackles, two hits on Fields, the forced fumble and a half sack in the win. In the post-game locker room, Head Coach Matt LaFleur awarded Clark a game ball for his performance on an emotionally charged day.

Moments later, among family, Clark presented the ball and his game jersey to his dad.

"We had talked about it the week before," said LaFleur when asked about the meaningfulness of Sunday's opener to Clark. "I knew that meant a lot to him with his dad being in attendance (and) I thought he played a really good game."

By Monday, Clark had already turned the page to the Packers' next opponent, the Atlanta Falcons. Inside the meeting room, the 27-year-old veteran reminded his fellow defensive linemen of the challenge in front of Green Bay.

That includes highly touted rookie running back Bijan Robinson, Atlanta's first-round pick who combined with Tyler Allgeier for 131 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in a 24-10 win over Carolina this past weekend.

While his dad watches on, Clark has plenty of internal and external motivation to keep the momentum going.

"I'm just blessed, man," Clark said. "I've been through a lot in my life, good or bad. I'm just happy that we were able to go out there and play how we did. It was a special moment, and it was special to share that with him, with my teammates."