GREEN BAY – The day Kenny Clark once thought impossible finally arrived earlier this month.
Standing with his siblings, the Packers' two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman was overcome with emotion when his mother, Nicole, stepped forward to greet her husband, and Kenny's namesake, outside the doors of the California Men's Colony prison in San Luis Obispo.
After years of legal proceedings, appeals and heartache, Kenny Clark Sr. was a free man. It was the first time Kenny Jr. had seen his father outside prison walls in 19 years.
"It was just surreal. I don't know how to explain it," said the younger Clark after practice on Friday. "Watching him walk out the gates, it's like, 'Man, I can't believe this is really happening.' Honestly, I never thought it would."
The man Clark saw walk through those doors was the same one who signed him up for football and helped cultivate his love of the sport, even though Kenny Sr. hasn't seen his son play in-person since he was 8 years old.
Since 2004, Kenny Sr. has been incarcerated after being arrested, charged, and convicted of second-degree murder following the shooting death of a man outside a San Bernardino area liquor store. While Kenny Sr. maintained his innocence, he was sentenced to a minimum of 55 years in prison.
The circumstances surrounding the case are complex and include many twists and turns, including the prosecution's eyewitness recanting his testimony shortly after the trial. The Clarks mounted several appeals since Kenny Jr. was drafted by the Packers in 2016, but each time they encountered roadblocks to freeing Kenny Sr. or getting a new trial.
Through it all, Nicole was the glue that kept the Clark family together, both financially and emotionally. She often pulled double shifts as a nurse to provide for Kenny, his younger brother Kyon, and twin sisters Kennia and Kennise, while also relaying tips and advice from her imprisoned husband to her football-loving child.
On most weekends, Nicole would drive her children to visit Kenny Sr. in prison. When Kenny Jr. developed into a major Division I recruit, Nicole made sure dad was part of the process, too. Both UCLA and Washington traveled to meet Kenny Sr. in-person.
"I didn't have the mom-and-dad thing going on when I was younger," Nicole told packers.com in 2019. "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."
The Clarks had all but given up hope until last year. Kenny Jr. can't comment on the details of his father's case, but according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the turning point came in May 2022 when the California Supreme Court paved the way for Governor Gavin Newsom to grant clemency and an early parole hearing to Kenny Sr.
On Feb. 9, 2023, the California Board of Parole officially granted Kenny Sr.'s release from prison. According to the Chronicle, Newsom's deputy legal affairs secretary, Eliza Hersh, told the court that Clark "has demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation while in prison. He earned his GED, completed vocational training, and has participated in self-help programming."
On release day in early July, the Clark family waited more than two hours in the parking lot for Kenny Sr. to be processed and released. A swarm of hugs and tears quickly followed. One week later, Kenny Sr. and Nicole renewed their vows amid a small gathering of family and friends.
"That put me to tears right there … just seeing my mom, and her walking down the aisle," Kenny Jr. said. "My mom has stuck by his side all 19 years. She's a strong woman. More than anything, that's what I loved to see was them reuniting and her being able to get her husband back."
Kenny Jr. split the final two weeks of his offseason between working out for the upcoming Packers season and driving over to his parents' home to spend time with his father, who has closely followed Kenny's football career from afar.
Although Kenny Sr. couldn't attend games in-person, he spoke with his son over the phone before most of his games at UCLA and these past seven years in Green Bay.
"You just feel like everything's normal," Kenny Jr. said. "I get a chance to re-meet my dad, kind of. We still went up there all the time and visited with him, but it's different with him being at the house. We really get a chance to sit down and talk and hang out without the officers or feeling like you're in that space."
In an "Uninterrupted" video in 2018, Kenny Sr. was able to inform his son of his selection as the Packers' nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year. He also mentioned it was "one of my dreams" to one day see Kenny Jr. play football.
Following Kenny Sr.'s release, a once improbable dream is one step closer to reality.
"That's definitely a little extra motivation, for sure," Clark said. "My dad hasn't seen me play in 19 years. I gotta go crazy this year for him. That's just incredible. I'm just extremely thankful to God for that moment for me to experience that. There's nothing else to say but I was just thankful."