Just rent the room for two days and be done with it.
That’s all Nicole Clark heard in the days leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft. From every corner of San Bernardino, they made the same plea – plan a two-day draft party in the event her son, Kenneth Duane Clark Jr., should slip into the second round.
Nicole didn’t want to hear it. Not from Kenny. Not from anyone. It got to the point she started cutting people off before they could even finish their sentences.
There was an electronic billboard announcing Kenny’s draft party was taking place on April 28, so April 28 it would be. There was no point in booking the hall for a second day because it wouldn’t be necessary.
Her baby was going first round.
“I don’t want to hear any negativity,” Nicole would tell them. “You’re either on board with what I’m on board with or you’re not – and if you’re not, then keep it to yourself because I don’t want that energy.”
It wasn’t pride or prestige motivating Nicole’s optimism. It was faith – and maybe a little stubbornness – that everything her son had been through in his 20 years had brought him to this moment.
The pre-draft process introduced Kenny and his family to every team in the NFL. After the NFL Scouting Combine, their house flooded with T-shirts, hats and every piece of apparel imaginable. Family members picked the pile of 300 or so items down to a few parcels.
It was only then Nicole took something for herself, a small Packers beanie she noticed near the bottom. She brought that hat with her to the hotel on draft night and lingered on it for a few seconds after changing for the party.
“I’m standing in the door of my room and I looked back at that beanie and I said to Kenny, ‘What do you think that means, this is the only thing we have left from the combine stuff,’” Nicole said. “He said, ‘You never know.’”
The room was bursting beyond capacity, with more than 250 in attendance. Clark was calm at first since he wasn’t pegged to be drafted in the top 15, but that still didn’t stop Nicole from saying, “Who is that?” and “You’re better than him,” after every selection NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell read.
Finally, after the Packers went on the clock at No. 26, Clark’s phone rang with a call from General Manager Ted Thompson. As the gathered crowd began to roar, Nicole charged over to the oldest of her four children.
“I never saw her run so fast. I mean she sprinted toward the table,” Kenny said. “She just kept saying, ‘Who is that? Who is that?’ I’m trying to talk to Ted. I’m like, ‘Hold on, hold on.’ Everybody starts telling her, ‘It’s Green Bay, it’s Green Bay.’ She was the first one that started screaming. I couldn’t even hear Ted.”
This is Nicole Clark – straight, no chaser. What you see is what you get. She’s an everywoman who wants the best for her children and willingly carries the world on her shoulders without seeking any assistance or adulation.
Never one to seek handouts but always the first to give, “Auntie Nickie” welcomed dozens of cousins into the family’s four-bedroom home growing up. She cooked pots of spaghetti, corn and baked rolls. Kids would be sprawled out from one side of the house to the other during sleepovers.
Amidst the chaos, Nicole would sit peacefully in her room and listen to the laughter, stories and dreams. She knew the struggle and understood how far a good deed today can go tomorrow.
That’s because she’d seen it. She’d lived it.
“Where we’re from, the statistics aren’t good and I didn’t want my children to be a statistic,” Nicole said. “My kids were not going to be gang-bangers. They’re not going to be drug dealers. That was my mindset. I have to keep them focused.”
“Where we’re from, the statistics aren’t good and I didn’t want my children to be a statistic.”
Nicole Clark was raised by her great grandmother, Grace Brooks, a caring and disciplined woman whose doors remained open to all until she died at 103 years old.
“I was much more mature than the average 12-year-old because imagine an 80-year-old mother raising you,” Nicole said. “She was my mom, my dad. She was everything to me.”
Five years before she passed, Brooks set Nicole up with an apartment when she was 16. It would be a peculiar move in 2019, but Brooks was old-school. She trusted Nicole and Nicole never betrayed that trust.
From there, Nicole put herself through vocational school, worked as a nursing assistant and eventually settled down with her high school sweetheart, Kenny Clark Sr.
The Clark family’s story was told extensively leading up to the NFL Draft. In May 2005, Kenny Sr. was arrested, charged and later convicted of second-degree murder after a man was shot and killed outside a liquor store. While Kenny Sr. maintains his innocence, he’s serving a 55-year sentence at San Luis Obispo.
The incident rocked the family to its core. Kenny Jr. was only 9 years old at the time and Nicole suddenly was a single parent, charged with providing for Kenny Jr., his younger brother Kyon, and twin sisters Kennia and Kennise.
Nicole sold their house and temporarily pulled Kenny out of football for a year amidst the calamity of court proceedings. It was a hard decision to make, especially since football was what Kenny Sr. and Kenny Jr. bonded over the most.
The father started to plant the football seeds for his son when Kenny Jr. was only 5. Kenny Sr. would put him in front of the TV and show him clips of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis. Kenny studied Lewis’ game closely and started youth football as a middle linebacker.
Nicole wasn’t crazy about the idea of Kenny Jr. playing football at first because he was big for his age. To help his son squeeze under the maximum limit for 7-year-olds, Kenny Sr. would pull the padding out of his shoes and uniform.
“I don’t want my baby to play if he has to do all that, but he loved it. He absolutely loved it,” Nicole said. “When I took him out that one season, it devastated my baby. I just didn’t want to do anything that would hurt him. He had been hurt enough in my opinion.”
Kenny Jr. took his dad’s incarceration the hardest since he was old enough to understand Kenny Sr. wasn’t coming home, but not big enough to understand everything that had happened.
Confusion left him feeling angry, empty and abandoned. From Day 1, Nicole encouraged her children to express their feelings. She certainly expressed hers a time or two, but she’d also seen the effect fractured families can have on children.
“Forgiveness is big and it’s not for the other person, it’s for yourself,” Nicole would tell her son. “You need to sit down and tell your dad how you feel. You’re telling me – and I get it – but you need to tell your dad and you need to forgive your dad for not being there.”
Forgiveness wasn’t easy. Nicole could’ve been mad at the world, mad at her husband and even mad at God, but instead pulled her kids together every night and prayed before bed.
There were also nights Nicole would cry over bills or the physical demand of working double shifts as a nurse at the California Institution for Women, a prison in Corona, Calif., but she never allowed those emotions to surface in the presence of her children.
“Forgiveness is big and it’s not for the other person, it’s for yourself.”
As the kids got older and costs rose, Nicole picked up more and more doubles, reporting to work at 6 a.m. and usually getting home around 11 p.m.
“She worked really hard,” Kenny Jr. said. “We always had great Christmases, great birthdays. She always made sure anything that we needed – we never wanted for nothing, honestly.”
Kenny Jr. was tasked with making sure his younger siblings were fed and showered for school, and taken care of afterwards on days Nicole worked late. They’d always wait up to chat. This became their routine, their new normal.
“I’d get home and I would say, ‘I love you guys, I am exhausted. Tell me about your day as fast as fast as you can,’” Nicole said. “And we’d start over (the next day).”
A year after Kenny Sr.’s conviction, Nicole signed Kenny Jr. back up for football. She didn’t know the game like her husband – the family still laughs about the time Nicole bought Kenny Jr. baseball cleats instead of football – but Kenny Sr. would relay suggestions on what to do.
Kenny Jr. became Nicole’s rock by the time he was 12. To this day, she feels guilty thinking about how Kenny Jr.’s childhood ended years before it should have – regardless of how many times he tells her not that wasn’t the case.
However, Kenny Jr.’s maturity at a young age was critical. In a video with the online production “Uninterrupted” last year, Kenny Sr. credited his eldest son with maintaining the “cohesiveness” of their family.
“My kids were obedient and it started with Kenny,” Nicole said. “I really think that because he listened, they followed. Kenny was the older brother, even though they thought they were older than him at times.”
Things slowly got better, as the family moved from San Bernardino to Colton, back to San Bernardino and finally settled into a home in Rialto. They didn’t always live in the best neighborhoods, but Nicole kept her kids sheltered from the streets.
Along the way, Nicole took her nephew out of foster care and eventually began looking after her niece. She raised them both as her own. That open-door policy, Nicole says, had direct ties to what her great grandmother did for her as a child.
“She’s got a big heart,” Kenny Jr. said. “She wants nobody going down the wrong path. She always feels like she can help somebody out in some kind of way.”
On weekends, she’d drive her children to visit Kenny Sr. As years passed, Kenny Jr. no longer felt furious with his dad. They’d talk football, family and life. Slowly, the anger began to dissipate as Nicole hoped it would.
“I didn’t have the mom-and-dad thing going on when I was younger,” Nicole said. “I always said I don’t care what was going on in my life – if I ever had children that I would make sure both parents were involved. I would never be the one, shall I say, to separate the children from their father.”
There were no double shifts on Fridays in the fall. That day was sacred. No matter how hectic life became, Nicole was at her children’s football games – home or away.
Kenny Jr. shined in football since the day he started playing, but it was at Carter High School it started to become clear he was a special. Like, really special.
Playing football meant having good grades, though. When Kenny Jr. slipped up during his freshman year, Nicole quickly reminded him of what was at stake.
“You love football? Well guess what? You can’t play it if you have bad grades,” Nicole said. “Then, you end up working at Wal-Mart for the rest of your life or stand on the street corner and sell some drugs. Is that what you want to do? I gave it to them raw. I’m not a sugar-coating parent. I don’t do that – and he got it together.”
Kenny Jr. had 19½ sacks during his final two years at Carter and Nicole relished each and every one. Colleges soon started calling for Kenny Jr., a four-star recruit who drew significant interest from several teams in the Pac-12.
Nicole remembers the recruiting process as being “an emotional rollercoaster.” She wanted Kenny Sr. involved in visits, which led to UCLA and Washington traveling to meet him in-person, in prison.
Football was great, but it was even more important to Nicole for her son to get a four-year college education. While she left the decision up to Kenny Jr., Nicole would be lying if she said UCLA wasn’t her favorite.
The Bruins made Kenny Sr. a true part of the process, the school was close to home and the coaches were invested in Kenny Jr., the person, not the football player.
Nicole missed only a handful of games during Kenny Jr.’s three college seasons. She drove to Utah, Arizona and around Southern California with a rotating group of her children, her cousin and Kenny Jr.’s girlfriend.
Nicole has remained equally diligent since Kenny was drafted by the Packers, with her home cooking drawing rave reviews from several of her son’s teammates. “She’s going to make the enchiladas,” defensive lineman Montravius Adams interjects.
The past year was a challenge with her stepson playing high school football on Friday nights, Kyon now at Fort Hays (Kan.) State on Saturday afternoons and Kenny Jr. emerging as one of the NFL’s top young defensive tackles on Sundays.
She still makes it a point to be in Green Bay for every holiday and as many games as possible, even if it requires back-to-back redeye flights. However, Nicole says she’s done with cold-weather games after two harrowing episodes.
The first was having to sit through the sub-zero game against the Chicago Bears during Kenny’s rookie season in 2016. “It was like a negative-100 to me,” Nicole said. “I’ll never go back to Chicago unless it’s good temperatures.”
The other occurred shortly after flying in for the Packers-Cardinals game on Dec. 2. Walking to her rental car, Nicole slipped on black ice and fell awkwardly. She broke her foot and tore the meniscus in her knee.
Kenny and his girlfriend tried to convince her to go to the hospital or at least stay at his place during the game. Nicole refused both offers. Instead, she took a shower, put on her Packers gear and went to the game.
“I did not fly all that way to not go to my baby’s game,” Nicole said. “That was the first time I ever sat in the family lounge. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t walk down the bleachers … but I got to see my baby. So that’s all that matters.”
The day after the game, Packers physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie outfitted Nicole with a boot and crutches, and sent her home to begin rehab.
It doesn’t seem like it’s been three years since Nicole rented out that room for her son’s draft party, but here Kenny is today, barely 23 years old, with 10½ sacks in his last 18 NFL games.
Nicole celebrates her son’s on-field success, but the off-the-field endeavors are what bring the biggest smiles to her face. Serving as Kenny’s “mom-ager,” Nicole assists with her son’s annual football camps and holiday toy drives in San Bernardino.
Both events benefited Angel Tree Prison Fellowship, a program that provided birthday and Christmas gifts in the name of his father to Kenny and his siblings when they were children.
For his efforts, Kenny was honored last year as the Packers’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Nicole was standing in his living room the day he got the call.
“When he got the award he was like, ‘I haven’t done enough,’” Nicole said. “I said, ‘Shut up, you are a great human being.’ He sat there and was analyzing what he has and hasn’t done for a person, and I had to tell him you have done enough.”
She did. She brought up all the examples – from the day Kenny Jr. spoke at a school for at-risk teens and handed out his phone number afterward to all the blood drives in the area the family established. That’s not to mention the funeral costs the Clarks have quietly covered when local families didn’t have the means.
Perhaps Nicole’s proudest moment came during a local football game Kenny attended. He encountered a kid doing drugs who recognized him. The youth told him how he idolized him and wanted to do better.
Kenny gave him $80 to buy a new pair of shoes and told him to “start doing the right thing.”
“People were looking around at us and questioning why would we do that? We did that because you have to give people a chance,” Nicole said. “You can’t think someone is going to go out and do the same thing that they were doing before. You never know what that might do for that person. That might give them hope to change.”
Nicole lives by the standard that you never know what a simple “hello” might do for someone’s day. She witnessed how far that can go during her six years working at the prison.
She also stays on her son about making sure he does his tithing at church. If Nicole could find a way to give as a single mom raising six kids, then so can her son, the fourth-year NFL player.
“I don’t care how much money you got or whatever you’re doing, you have to always give back and make sure you’re doing your thing,” said Kenny of his mom’s advice. “Never forget where you came from and give back.”
“You can’t think someone is going to go out and do the same thing that they were doing before. You never know what that might do for that person. That might give them hope to change.”
Nicole takes time to reflect every now and then on her journey. Sometimes it brings her to tears, born out of thankfulness. She still doesn’t know exactly how she made all the ends meet other than “by the grace of God.”
Today, all of her kids are through high school. Her fraternal twin daughters are now following in her footsteps, pursuing nursing degrees. Under the terms of his early enrollment for the draft, Kenny told his mom he’d eventually return to finish his degree.
In his mind, it’s the least Kenny can do to pay her back for her selflessness and sacrifice to help him get where he is today.
“I love her, man. She’s so cool,” Kenny said. “For her to be where she is now and her to raise the kids that she has … that’s what’s motivating to me. That’s what I love about her. The motivation factor, how hungry I am, how I work and how humble I am – all of that is her.
“She raised some really good kids and good people. I’m just thankful that God put us with her.”