Clark family tale tragic, inspiring

Annette Clark still wakes up at 6 every morning to bathe her son, Rocky. Habits of caring and love and commitment don’t go away easily. She goes into Rocky’s room, but he isn’t there, of course. Neither is the hospital bed she had returned late last week, after Rocky, who was 27, had died.

She had the bed replaced with a couch, though, so she still can go in, sit down, pretend, remember.

“I’m still proud of him right now,’’ she said Thursday night. “Still proud. He was my inspiration. When I felt like giving up, he built me up.’’

In 2000, Rasul “Rocky" Clark, a running back at Eisenhower High School in suburban Chicago, broke two bones in his neck during a game. He became a quadriplegic. On Jan. 5, he died from complications of the hit and from his condition.

And for all those years in between, Rocky was a heroic story of courage and strength of human spirit. That story was told Saturday, when hundreds of people attended his funeral. He has touched that many people, and more.

But this is about the purity of love between a mother and son. It is already a beautiful thing when it’s whole. The Clarks’ love was challenged in so many ways. It was attacked. So many parts of life and dignity were stripped away. One by one. The healthy body of a young man. The entire outside life of a mother. And then, all of the family money after the coldness of a letter arrived in the mail from an insurance company:

August 15, 2010

This is to acknowledge receipt of your claim.

Please be advised that the maximum medical benefit under this policy has been processed and no further benefits are available.

Sincerely,

CLAIMS OFFICE

Can you imagine? Sincerely, CLAIMS OFFICE.

They deserved better from life in every way, shape and form. But Annette and Rocky never quit. They never lost their dignity, which is a lesson everyone can learn from. They are the best of role models. No matter how much was taken from them, they grew.

“I’m going down to the funeral home (Friday) afternoon,’’ Annette said. “I want to make sure they are taking care of him. I going to bury him in his No. 21 football jersey.’’

On Sept. 15, 2000, four plays into a game, Clark was tackled, and two vertebrae in his neck broke. He spent the next nine months in a hospital. It is impossible to comprehend what Clark went through — a young man on the football and track teams, stronger than most kids, a body so strong and in control. And then all of that is just gone, lost.

All of his bodily functions, out of control. He felt nothing from the neck down. And he was left to lay in bed, with his mother taking care of him, bathing him, brushing his teeth.

“He graduated on time,’’ Annette said. “Once he got home, he wanted to go back to school, that quick.’’

Yes, Rocky finished high school. And he helped to found Gridiron Alliance, a charity that helped families of kids who had suffered catastrophic injuries in sports. His old high school brought him in to be an assistant football coach. He continued his drawings and sketches and planned to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.

How? Naïve as this sounds, I told Annette, I don’t understand how that is possible physically. How did he coach? How did he draw?

“He drew with pencil and paper,’’ she said. “He had a mouth with a stick in it. Beautiful art. Images of a half face, a pit bull, an old car. Some type of monster figure. Nothing wrong with his mouth.’’

And coaching?

“Vocally,’’ she said. “The kids he would coach would tell me, ‘Ma?’ I say, `Yes?’

" ‘We love coach Rocky, but he works the hell out of us.’ One time he had the team over here and he brought them in the living room. He had them put in tapes of when he was playing. They fell down on the floor, exhausted.’’

She laughed at the story.

Then she wept.

What do you want people to know about him?

“That he was a caring, loving boy, and he didn’t feel sorry for himself,’’ she said. “He was a clown. If you talked to him, he had you cracking up laughing.’’

There is always a danger in painting a tragic story too sweetly. The reality is actually what shows his courage, and hers.

There were hard times, awful times along the way. Rocky never felt sorry for himself? Never? Never got down?

“He had his moments,’’ Annette acknowledged. “Just for a moment. But he showed me a lot of love. When I felt like giving up, he called me in if I was in the other room.

“`MOM,’ ” he would say. “I’d say `What?’ `I love you.’ `I love you, too.’ ’’

She remembered all sorts of things. The nickname “Rocky.’’ It reminds you of the movie, and the underdog fighter. Is that where it came from?

“No,’’ Annette said. “When he was younger, he threw some rocks and I had to pay for some broken windows.’’

For years, Rocky received what was mostly round-the-clock health care, through catastrophic medical insurance provided by the school district. But the coverage had a $5 million limit, and when that ran out in 2010, Annette was not in position to take care of her son the way he needed.

The school apparently could not renew the policy, or get another one. Insurance is a business, of course. But somehow, it had put a price on someone’s life.

A community rallied around the Clarks, including everyone from local pastors to the Chicago Bears, who reportedly donated more than $100,000 to help the family. It was big. It wasn’t enough.

“He was disappointed with the way the insurance did him,’’ Annette said. “He said he was being penalized for living too long.

“It shortened a lot of his medical supplies and real important medicine he needed. Some of the girls that used to work here, I paid out of pocket. They said there’s nothing else they could do for him.

“He had the Medicaid card, but what good did that do? It helped some. Some. But he’d need $1,000 on medications and the pharmacy would say they have to wait and see if it is covered, and see if anyone will pay for it. I couldn’t wait. He needed it. I got myself in a bad situation. Some . . . didn’t get paid.’’

She doesn’t know how she’s going to pay for the funeral, either, or for her mortgage and property taxes, or really, much else. She isn’t sure what she’s going to do from here, either. (For information on a fund to help out, go to www.rasulrockyclark.com).

Her life has been caring for her son. The burden is gone now, and she wishes it were back.

“I am definitely thankful for 11 years, 4 months of burden,’’ she said. “I wiped my feet and washed my hands to my life. I gave. I want to run away for a week. I want to get away.’’

For now, she goes away by going back into Rocky’s room. The walls are filled with his pictures and trophies, and autographed balls from the Chicago Bears.

“I look around at all his trophies, medals and pictures,’’ she said. “His footballs and everything. I just smile.’’

She hopes Rocky’s story will help other kids who get hurt in sports. She hopes it will lead to laws and rules changing so that insurance doesn’t run out for the next kid this happens to. She thanks God for getting her this far and hopes she can go on.

She hopes his story is about never giving up and about what Rocky used to tell people: Know that some people have it worse, that things can change in a second. And make the most of what you have.