Nick Clark remembered for fierce work ethic, compassion

CANISTEO — If you needed him, Nick Clark was there.

The Canisteo-Greenwood football program was knocking on the door of the Section V finals when Clark took a vicious hit in the semis against Bolivar-Richburg. C-G’s senior star was forced to the sidelines, but not for long. Following a B-R touchdown in the waning seconds, Clark’s head coach, Jamie Freeland, sent him out to defend the extra point attempt, thinking Clark’s mere presence would intimidate the Wolverines into a miscue.

Clark limped onto the field and, sure enough, the Redskins escaped with the 27-26 win.

A few days later, Clark showed up with a note that said he was cleared to play. The C-G staff taped him up and Clark went to battle with his teammates in the finals that weekend.

The season complete after four more punishing quarters, Clark finally relented and got X-rays. Turned out his leg had been broken since that hit in the semifinals — a surprise to everyone, except, perhaps, Nick Clark.

“Just ridiculous willpower,” Freeland recalled. “He muscled his way through that because we needed him, the team needed him. He was that kind of guy.”

Tom Crook was an assistant coach that season. It’s one he’ll never forget. Pain leaves an indelible impression, after all. Crook was acting as the scout quarterback in practice one day when he went through the line and ran into a brick wall named Nick Clark. After a “good thump,” Crook had a broken nose and a lifelong memory.

“We always joked about that,” Crook said. “Nick was tough as nails and gave it everything he could. He was all heart. He would do anything for anyone. He gave everything every play, not just on the field but anywhere. He had a heart of gold.”

Football season was a warmup for the long months of winter, when Clark terrorized his weight class on wrestling mats in Steuben County and beyond. At a school with one of the strongest wrestling traditions in the state, Clark stood above the rest. He was a state champion who earned a scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, a Division I program.

After a year down south, though, he was called back home to the Southern Tier and enrolled at Alfred University, where his mother taught in the College of Business. At AU, Clark returned to the game of football, the ultimate team sport.

It was a natural fit.

Nick Clark’s legend grew in the Saxon purple and gold. He was the first Empire 8 athlete to earn multiple Defensive Player of the Year honors in the history of the conference. He broke AU’s record for career tackles, rushed for 26 touchdowns as a devastating short-yardage specialist, and piled up countless awards along the way. He was unstoppable.

Bob Rankl, AU’s current head coach, coordinated the running game during Clark’s career. Rankl has been around the team in some capacity or another for two decades, watching thousands of Saxons come through the program. There was nobody quite like Nick Clark, who had a rare combination of speed, power and agility to go with a motor that never quit. 

“He was as tough as anybody I’ve ever coached, as good as any player we’ve ever had,” Rankl said. “He will be remembered as one of the greatest in AU history. Not only was he an outstanding linebacker, but he was our short yardage back and scored a ton of touchdowns for us. He was a real valuable member of our football team, a great leader and a guy who always did things the right way.”

Clark’s work ethic was unrivaled. In addition to the usual football workouts, he spent summers as a farmhand on Brian Freeland’s ranch in Oklahoma. Clark would spend his days working around the ranch in 100 degree heat, his nights lifting weights.

“He had a very special bond with my brother and his family, his two sons,” said Jamie Freeland. “Everybody around him looked up to him. The success he achieved wasn’t a surprise because I witnessed the work he put in during the offseason. He worked hard during the season too, but his focus and dedication in the offseason is unparalleled in any athlete I’ve ever seen.”

Clark’s hard work did the impossible. His sweat, determination and sheer force of will turned a small-town boy from rural Steuben County, a Division III linebacker, into a legitimate NFL prospect. The Arizona Cardinals asked for some of Clark’s film before his junior season. A new challenge, a new opportunity crystallized, and Clark dedicated his life to the pursuit. His Twitter bio said he had one goal — to become an NFL player.

Clark signed with an agent, worked with professional trainers and attended a pre-draft combine for players from small schools. Through it all, he never forgot his hometown roots.

“The night before the draft in 2012, he was asked to come throw out the first pitch for the Canisteo Little League,” Freeland said. “Here it is one of the most nerve wracking moments in his life, and he didn’t hesitate. He spent a ton of time taking pictures with the kids and their families. That tells you what kind of person he was.”

Clark wasn’t drafted, although he did earn a rookie minicamp tryout with the Buffalo Bills. That was a victory in itself. The odds of a Division III player collecting an NFL paycheck are long — less than 10 D-III products were on opening day rosters when the 2017 season kicked off.

Still, Clark was treated like the biggest name in the game around the Canisteo-Greenwood program. Crook, then the C-G head coach, welcomed Clark to practice that fall, when he was still chasing the NFL dream.

“It was exciting for our program to have a player trying out for the NFL come back to a small town, come back to our weight room and work with the kids and help out at practice,” Crook recalled. “Everyone looked up to him. It was no ego, just integrity and doing the right thing. A guy like that gives kids some hope that by doing the right things, you can make it from a small town.”

Clark directed that drive towards a career in law enforcement in recent years. His focus at AU was Environmental Studies, with an eye on possibly becoming a Department of Environmental Conservation officer. His path shifted to the State Police and he graduated from the academy in September of 2015, a member of the 203rd class.

“You kind of always knew he would be in law enforcement in some kind of capacity with how involved he was,” Freeland said. “I remember being so elated for him getting into the academy and following that dream.”

Clark was initially assigned to Troop C in Sydney, later moving to Troop E’s Bath barracks in August 2017. That dream assignment brought him back home to Steuben County, brought him close to the C-G football program again.

Paul Keeley is the current varsity head coach. Keeley starred at AU shortly before Clark’s arrival. He later returned to the program as a graduate assistant, serving on the coaching staff during Clark’s final two years in uniform. He witnessed Clark’s passion during his playing days, and, in recent years, his pride for Canisteo-Greenwood athletics.

“He was a warrior, the guy you want with you on the football field or in a dark alleyway. He had your back,” Keeley said. “He was Canisteo-Greenwood through and through. He was very supportive and encouraging of our program, always coming around the weight room encouraging kids. He was a positive person to have around.”

Athletics weren’t Nick Clark’s entire life. He was a beloved son, grandson, brother, uncle, friend. Athletics were a public stage that provided a window into his private persona — determined, caring, helpful.

“People who only know Nick as an athlete are missing out on so much,” Freeland said. “He was a tremendous young man who gave himself to our community. He had a tireless work ethic. He gave so much. He’d bring along other players from AU and stop by youth football practices and help out our younger kids. He’d work with young wrestlers. He was always ready to help.”

Clark was doing just that in the early morning hours Monday, responding where he was needed. A suicidal man, a threat to himself and others, had a gun. Clark and his law enforcement brethren arrived at the scene to defuse the situation, to help.

That is Nick Clark’s legacy.

“He was a really special young man. I hope and believe he will continue to be an inspiration to everybody,” Freeland said. “He’s a symbol of what you can do with hard work and perseverance. Everyone has goals, but it’s about putting in the work to accomplish those dreams. Nick lived it.”