Ken Clark graced the cover of Nebraska’s 1989 Football Media Guide.
By Randy York
The death of one of Nebraska’s top running backs of all time has been confirmed. Ken Clark, 46, died of a heart attack suffered Saturday in Minneapolis, according to his cousin, Stephanie Clark. Tom Osborne, Clark’s head coach and now Nebraska’s Athletic Director Emeritus, issued a statement through media relations this afternoon. “Ken Clark was an outstanding player for our football team, and he was a very consistent and durable running back,” Osborne said, adding that Clark led the team in rushing in both 1988 and 1989, and ran for more than 3,000 yards in his career, while averaging better than six yards per carry. “Ken was quiet, but he became a very strong leader on our football team,” Osborne said. “He was very tough physically and mentally. Ken graduated from Nebraska after his playing days were over and spent much of his life working with young people. He will certainly be missed and remembered by all who were associated with him.”
Clark was featured on the cover of Nebraska’s 1989 Media Guide (above) as a Heisman Trophy candidate, meaning, of course, that even those of us who have never met or been associated with Clark still knew of him. Personally speaking, his name is still etched in the minds of some friends of mine who live in Kansas City – friends who graduated from Missouri, Kansas State, Oregon State and Eastern Michigan and were seeing their first game ever inside Memorial Stadium. Clark made that game an extraordinary experience.
We bought six tickets in the North Stadium for college football’s showdown of the week – No. 7 Nebraska hosting No. 10 Oklahoma State, led by Barry Sanders, the leading Heisman Trophy candidate at the time and still one of Rex Burkhead’s foremost role models. Most national attention for this mid-October blockbuster focused on Sanders. On the drive to Lincoln, my buddies asked who Nebraska’s top running back was, and when they didn’t recognize the name, they indicated they wanted Nebraska to win that day but they also wanted to see Sanders post some serious numbers to make the game more memorable.
Both wishes came true, but no one could have guessed that in his first year as Nebraska’s starting running back, Ken Clark would out-rush Barry Sanders, who went on to win the 1988 Heisman Trophy. Before we describe more details in the highest scoring game in Memorial Stadium history, please pause and take the next 45 seconds to hit Kent Pavelka’s call on Nebraska’s first offensive play in that unforgettable 63-42 Husker win over the Cowboys. Clark dazzled everyone with a 73-yard touchdown run that was so remarkable – and I’m not kidding here – that Pavelka described Clark taking a hand-off from Steve Taylor and going so far left that he was at the 30, 32, 33 and 35-yard lines before ending up in the opposite end zone. The film shows Clark disappearing into multiple defenders before re-emerging and taking it all the way to the house. The play will remind you of Tommie Frazier’s signature touchdown run in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl win over Florida. Check it out on this OSU YouTube game video.
“Touchdown! Touchdown! Touchdown!” Pavelka shouted. “Holy cow! Unbelieveable!”
Indeed. On Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage in that historic game, Clark broke three tackles at the point of attack and then pushed the first button on a scoreboard that became a pinball machine. It was Clark’s most magical moment in a mystical game that still seems more like a fairy tale than a Top Ten showdown. Pavelka found the right words within a second of that shocking beginning. “Ken Clark does his Oklahoma State Barry Sanders imitation!” he said.
The good news is, that imitation kept going and going and going, and Clark’s electrifying touchdown lit the fuse. I couldn’t resist watching the entire first quarter of one of Nebraska’s craziest games ever - a game the Huskers elected to play in the afternoon instead of at night on television. Clark had three touchdowns in the game’s first 18 minutes and 18 seconds. Thanks to a 35-0 first quarter and Clark’s quick touchdown in the first three minutes of the second quarter, college football’s Showdown of the Week looked like it might become the Rout of the Season. We all looked at a scoreboard that read Home 42 Visitors 0. “Where’s Barry Sanders?” one of my buddies joked. “Is he hurt?”
Less than three minutes later, Sanders scored a touchdown and two minutes after that, he scored another one. Sanders then scored two more second half TDs to keep the winning margin respectable. The only other game in Nebraska history to duplicate the 105 combined points in that 63-42 game was the Huskers’ 77-28 win over Arizona State seven years later.
Let the record show that on a special autumn afternoon a quarter century ago, Ken Clark did more than imitate Barry Sanders, the nation’s leading rusher who went on to become perhaps the best running back in NFL history. Clark outperformed Sanders, who scored four touchdowns that day, but most were makeup scores in a game that got away from the Cowboys in the first 15 minutes. Sanders rushed for 185 yards on 35 carries. Clark rushed for 256 yards on 27 carries and scored three touchdowns that put the heat on early. In three years against Oklahoma State, Clark was all-world, rushing for 422 yards, averaging 7.4 yards a carry and scoring seven touchdowns.
Clark’s 3,037-yard three-year rushing total puts him No. 7 on the Huskers’ career rushing chart. He trails Mike Rozier, Ahman Green, Eric Crouch, Roy Helu Jr., Rex Burkhead and Calvin Jones. The rest of the top 10 is I.M. Hipp, Lawrence Phillips and Dahrran Diedrick. Talk about special company. If you don’t know as much about Clark as you remember from the others, there’s a good reason for that. Clark, it appears, was every bit as elusive with the media as he was for opposing defenses.
To drive that point home, I suggest you read Mike Babcock’s phone call to Clark nearly 25 years ago to understand why Nebraska football’s foremost historian decided to write about Clark’s general disdain for reporters and the attention that came with his success. “He wasn’t looking for the limelight,” Husker All-American Broderick Thomas told Babcock this morning. “A ball under his arm was his favorite thing .. a fine running back. Good guy, quiet; that was Ken. Most people would say he was very quiet.”
Perhaps that’s why Ken Clark, like Barry Sanders, let his vision and his legs do all the talking.
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