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High Schools | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Clark Sees Reversal of Fortune

March 30, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

In the parking lot of the Southern Section office, Chris Clark started to cry.

He had sought a hardship waiver to play his senior year of football at Los Angeles Cathedral High last September, but his appeal was denied.

"I thought that was it," he said.

Clark had been a fast, athletic, big-play cornerback at Los Angeles Verbum Dei in 2001. When the school dropped football, he transferred to Wildomar Elsinore and lived with an uncle while his parents were finalizing a divorce. He ran track and won the league championship in the 100 meters last spring.

He transferred to Cathedral last fall, but a close look at his transcripts revealed he was in his fifth year of high school after having repeated ninth grade.

An attempt to gain a hardship waiver because his grades had slipped after a student threatened him with a gun while he attended Buena Park High as a freshman did not sway the Southern Section.

For nearly two hours, he stood in the parking lot with his parents and Cathedral Coach Kevin Pearson, trying to figure out what to do.

"My dad told me to let this incident fuel me to go further in life and never give up," Clark said.

But Clark knew the odds of gaining a college scholarship without playing his senior year were slim, even though Pearson promised to pass along his name to recruiters.

"He had every excuse to quit," Pearson said.

Clark decided whatever the future had in store for him, he wasn't going to stop competing.

"I wiped my tears off, worked on my grades and Coach Pearson wouldn't let me stop working out," he said.

In December, Bobby Hauck, an assistant coach at Washington, was hired as coach at Montana. Hauck had remembered Clark from track season at Elsinore and knew of his predicament. Clark sent him a videotape from a football game his junior year at Verbum Dei.

Hauck invited Clark to take a recruiting trip to Montana in January, then offered him a scholarship. He signed a letter of intent in February.

"It's nothing but a miracle," Clark said. "I was down to my last penny of luck and turned that penny into a pot of gold."

Clark had a 3.5 grade-point average last semester and is taking the SAT for the first time April 5. Pearson knows what kind of skills the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Clark has. As a junior against Cathedral, Clark returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns.

"He's not a physically huge person but has quick feet and is a great athlete," Pearson said.

And no one can question Clark's dedication. He lives in a Fullerton apartment with his mother and four younger siblings.

He wakes up at 5 a.m. with his sophomore brother and is driven the nearly 30 miles to Cathedral by his mother. To get home, he and his brother take two buses and two trains. "It takes three hours on a good day," he said.

Without a scholarship, Clark wouldn't have been able to afford college. But now that it has happened, he can't wait to begin the new chapter in his life.

"I'm going to love it," he said. "I feel proud because I'm showing my brothers and sister there's a life after high school."

Hauck said it's unusual but not unheard of for a player of Clark's ability to receive a scholarship after sitting out his senior year.

"The deal with Chris is he remained invisible because of the transfer of schools and he wasn't playing," Hauck said. "You had to be interested in him to track him down. I think he's a real talented player. I'm not sure if we would have had a chance to get him if he played his senior year."

His mother, Denise, said, "It was a turn of fate. He was like the great secret."

And what lesson did Clark learn from his months of adversity and uncertainty?

"Never give up because you never know where God might bless you next," he said.

Clark plans to major in business at Montana while trying to do his best playing football.

"Whatever happens with him, he's going to get his education," Hauck said.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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