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‘Rocky’ Clark, paralyzed prep football player, dies at 27

In this photaken Thursday April 5 2011 Rocky Clark smiles his bed his home Robbins Ill.  | AP

In this photo taken Thursday, April 5, 2011, Rocky Clark smiles in his bed at his home in Robbins, Ill. | AP

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Updated: February 7, 2012 8:32AM

Rocky Clark’s mom doesn’t want her son to be remembered as a sympathetic figure, even though he spent the last 11-plus years of his life as a quadraplegic.

“I want him to be remembered as a fighter,” Annette Clark said Thursday evening. “Playing football, baseball, track and field.

“He still wanted to go to college. ... and (remember him for) trying to help others. I want him to be remembered like that.”

Rasul “Rocky” Clark, the former Eisenhower High School football player who was paralyzed from the neck down when he was tackled during a game in 2000, died Thursday evening at Ingalls Hospital in Harvey. The Robbins man was surrounded by family and friends when he died about 6 p.m., according to the Rev. Anthony Williams, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Robbins. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Clark was a starting running back for Eisenhower in Blue Island. On Sept. 15, 2000, four plays into a game against Oak Forest High School, Clark was tackled and suffered two broken vertebrae in his neck and a devastating spinal cord injury.

After the injury, Clark required constant care. Coverage from a $5 million insurance policy with Community High School District 218 ran out this year, leaving his family to face mounting bills, but Clark always stayed positive, Williams said.

His problems attracted national news media coverage.

“I think he exemplifies the spirit of what it means to be human. He was never bitter, always positive,” Williams said. “He lived his life walking by faith and not by sight.”

Greg Walder, who was Eisenhower’s head football coach at the time of the injury, said he was inspired by how Clark responded. He said Clark had been “the total package” as a student.

“Regardless of his athletic ability, which was exceptional, he was a great kid,” Walder said.

He called Clark “the model student-athlete” who could be found in the weight room during the offseason and turned in homework on time and kept good grades.

“He was a great young man,” said Walder, now the associate principal at Shepard High School in Palos Heights.

Walder said that Rocky lived so many years after the paralyzing accident “is an inspiration.”

“He made it longer than anybody could imagine,” he said. “He made a lasting impression on all the teachers and students at Eisenhower.”

Walder said he had not kept in touch with Clark and his family as much as he would have liked, but “never once did I go to sleep at night without a prayer for Rocky. A day did not go by that I didn’t think about him.”

Current Eisenhower football coach Travis Moore made Clark a staff member when he took the program’s reins five seasons ago.

“If you learned anything from Rocky, it was to be tough and strong,” Moore said. “No matter what happens in life, regardless of the situation or tragedy, he demonstrated you could still move forward and achieve the goals that you set out for. He’s the definition of a ‘Fighting Cardinal.’ ”

Moore was a senior when Clark was a sophomore at Eisenhower.

“If not for a talented running back named Torri Stuckey, Rocky would have been a starter on the varsity as a sophomore,” Moore said. “Physically, he was so much stronger and faster than most kids.”

District 218 Supt. John Byrne said he had visited Clark several times, including during a visit about two weeks ago with members of the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame, who presented Clark and his family a check for $25,000.

“It’s very sad. He was such a fighter. There will be a gap in our world,” Byrne said. “The day before Christmas Eve he looked great, better than I had seen him in the last few times.

“Our heart goes out to Rocky and Mrs. Clark, and we will still try to support them as best we can.”

Clark was still at home in Robbins for that visit, and appeared to be in good spirits. After his family got the check, he said, “Prayers go up, and blessings come down.”

His bedroom still was adorned with several trophies and ribbons he earned at Eisenhower, and he wore a broad smile as he listened to words of encouragement from Hall of Fame board member Emery Moorehead, a former tight end for the Chicago Bears and a member of the 1985 team that won the Super Bowl.

After Rocky’s death Thursday, Annette Clark still wanted to recognize all who contributed.

“It meant a lot,” Annette Clark said. “I thank the Lord for everyone all over the world who helped out. I really appreciate them.”

For almost 10 years, Clark had excellent care with around-the-clock nurses in his home, access to pain medication, prescription drugs and medical supplies, according to his website.

But when his insurance ran out, he became a symbol of the national problem of how to fund health care. The family also fell behind on paying its property taxes until the Hall of Fame donation.

“Our hope is that his living (as a paraplegic) has not been in vain,” Williams said Thursday. “We need to pass legislation for young athletes who suffer these types of catastrophic events. We hope all Americans will look at the fact we need national health care across the board. We’re facing a tough economic situation, but we’ve got to take care of our citizens.”

Contributing: Matthew Bruce and Mike Nolan

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