Vahe Gregorian

Chiefs’ Frank Clark spent part of his childhood homeless. It shapes his identity now

On the outskirts of Country Club Plaza on his way to the Chiefs’ training facility for an introductory news conference on April 26, Frank Clark’s gaze became riveted to a sight many of us either are oblivious to or consciously avoid seeing.

Passing what he recalled as a bridge by Brush Creek, his scan locked in on what he instinctively recognized as homeless people. Even en route to his first public appearance since the Chiefs had acquired the defensive end in a trade from Seattle, he had an urge to get out of the car.

“I know where to look; I understand where they are and what they do,” he said during interviews with The Star on Thursday and Friday. “I have some pity.”

More specifically, he also has the empathy you could only feel if you’ve ever lived not knowing where your next meal is coming from or where you’ll sleep tonight, or doubting why you should have faith in the world.

“They might be on the edge of it, where they really don’t want to be a part of this stuff (any) more,” he said. “You get to a point where it’s, ‘Is life over for me? Is this the end?’ ”

Clark wondered that plenty as a child when he was in constant flux and distress as his single mother, Teneka Clark, contended with addiction and struggled for stability. That remains elusive for her even in the months since he signed a five-year, $105 million contract.

But his agonizing past and reverence for his mother are part of a journey he appreciates deeply and figures makes him who he really is — for better or worse, he’ll tell you.

Never mind that it’s been a turbulent expedition that has featured Clark entering into troubles of his own and his father dying in a fire last year.

Along the way, Clark has come to feel his parents in his blood every day, apart from him as they are for different reasons, as he sets about what he sees as a mission to use football to provide for family that includes a young daughter, Phoenix.

In the process, he’s also become immersed in what might be seen as a full-circle twist. Where once he grasped for the purpose of his life when he was trying to escape the streets, he now realizes this:

Some of his most meaningful purpose remains there.

All of which helps explain the thought he had coming off the practice field the other day.

Thinking of his mother and those who live in poverty and the Chiefs’ fan base, Clark decided he wanted to bring homeless guests to the home opener next week against Baltimore.

Shortly after practice, he said, he turned to the team’s community relations staff to present the thought.

Via the Chiefs, the idea morphed into reaching out to the Women’s Employment Network, which seeks to holistically support and empower women. Many are in tough financial straits, though clients are of all socio-economic groups, ranging from some who might be experiencing homelessness to those who have relocated here with their husband and want to network to many circumstances in between.

According to Ashley Williamson, WEN’s community engagement manager, seven single mothers who have graduated from the program and 13 of their children are expected to be his guests for what Clark calls “a treat” that will include a limousine ride to the stadium, seats in a suite and a postgame meet and greet with him.

Williamson said she couldn’t speak to whether any of the mothers had experienced homelessness. But she said all were in stable situations now and overjoyed by the opportunity.

“I’m so EXCITED I just want to scream!!! Thank you so much. I can’t even think right now,” one of the WEN clients who plans to attend with her children wrote the organization. “I was wanting (her kids) to go to Chiefs camp. I just didn’t know how to go about it, and how much it costs. …

“I can’t wait to tell them!!!! I needed some happiness in my life, thank you so much.”

Heart for single moms

Clark knows the game will make for just a brief interlude in their lives. But single mothers are what he has a heart for, said Clark, who relished the idea of giving them a day when “they could kind of take it easy and not have to worry so much.”

Like he’s tried to do for his own mother some 20 years now.

From the time he was 6 after an eviction, she has reminded him, he tried to console her that everything would be alright as he absorbed her anguish while they stayed at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

That was around the beginning of a period of about four or five years when Clark was a virtual hostage to a cycle of drug addiction and violence and gangs and guns and death and depression and desperation all around him in the harsh Baldwin Village section of South L.A.

“I was growing up too fast for my own good,” he said.

Living from shelter to shelter to a motel to the streets to a shelter, he said, he learned to stand humbled in community showers and appreciate meals like peanut butter and syrup sandwiches.

“It’s almost like the real Hunger Games — the real Hunger Games,” he said, smiling. “You go into that survival mode where you do anything just to try to put some food in your belly, you know?”

He learned to scour the ground for money and go to libraries and hit the “return money” button on printers to gather up coins. He’d skip school to hustle, because he came to consider that essential for his mother and him even if it meant he would spend some time in juvenile detention.

His mindset became, well, screw everything else: “It’s about my mom and me. It’s only us.”

That was a double-edged razor, though.

“Her feeling like she had let me down … that led me to try to do things to get money: I’m stealing, I’m doing all these different things,” he said. “(Because) if I’m the burden that’s making you sink into this, I don’t want to be the problem. I’m willing to go be in the streets if that’s what it takes.”

Sensing he was on a path to an early death, in 2003 she sent him to live with his father’s side of the family in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland and didn’t see him again until 10 years later.

(She didn’t see him play professionally until five years ago in Oakland — something he thought about this week as the Chiefs prepared to play the Raiders on Sunday.)

The move, though, was “no escape for me,” Clark said. It was similarly tough turf, he said, and complicated by the up-and-down nature of his relationship with his father, Frank Clark III, before they came to bond.

(It was shattering for Clark when his father was one of four family members to have died in a house fire last year. In a Tweet at the time, Clark called it “an arson fire.” According to an report from Seattle in January, Clark said authorities told him it was accidental but said he still had questions. “Some stuff you can’t deal with,” he said Friday, “but you just manage and try your best.”)

Chaotic as even the move to Cleveland was, it ultimately led Clark to the University of Michigan, Seattle and now to a life-changing contract.

Which comes with the realization that money can’t cure everything.

“I’m spending my life right now trying to get my mom off the streets,” he said. “The paychecks can come, the money, the resources, etc., etc. But if you’re still trapped in that place mentally, it’s going to show. You’re going to be trapped in that place.”

At peace with the past

That period of homelessness wasn’t the only time Clark felt trapped and feared for his future.

In 2014 after an alleged altercation with his girlfriend in a Sandusky, Ohio, hotel, he was charged with first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence and assault and dismissed from the Michigan football team.

He spent his three days in jail thinking “my life is over.”

He could only pray he’d get another chance.

And he did: The charges ultimately were reduced to fourth-degree persistent disorderly conduct, with Clark also completing a 25-week domestic violence course and paying court costs and fines.

Only months later, the Seahawks selected him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He’s had no known legal issues since.

Still, he understands that the 2014 allegations preceded him here and even seemed to embrace addressing his past when he was introduced.

He spoke about having to learn to be a better person and a better man. He framed it as a pivot point of his life, something that could make or break you and that he believed made him “more understanding, more compassionate … (and) my heart a little bigger.”

Maybe most of all, he emphasized being “real” and not sugarcoating or hiding anything.

“I (can) barely hide; it’s all out there,” he said, smiling and adding, “I know what (people) read. I know everything people see. And I know the perception people can have. And that’s easy, you know?

“But I just feel like the hard part is getting to actually know somebody. I feel once everyone does, that they’ll understand me as a person.”

That’s an inherent challenge for most, because few can relate to his path. Some naturally won’t want to try, either.

The 2014 episode invites scrutiny and skepticism, but his story is a reminder that we’re all better served by listening to try to understand … not just to reply or comment.

And that if we can’t hope for redemption and growth, what’s our purpose here, anyway?

“Now around here, we’ll be really rooting for No. 55; it’s not every day that somebody really understands,” said WEN’s Williamson, who hadn’t been aware of Clark’s 2014 arrest.

For all the personal challenges he knows may still be ahead, Clark says he knows one of his true purposes: to apply the unique experiences that make for a natural platform to continue helping the homeless as he did in Seattle, where he was in concert with Pearl Jam’s efforts and working with the Union Gospel Mission.

“We aren’t bringing an end to the homeless crisis in Seattle,” he said in announcing the #GiveYourBest challenge last year, “but we are shedding a little bit of light on it.”

A light that shines more because of his ability to connect to a plight that remains deeply personal. Without elaborating on his mother’s current whereabouts or specific status, Clark said he’d see her every day if he could. Instead, he sees her only “whenever she wants to see me — not when I want to see her.”

You might not be able to contact her, he says, but he knows how.

Truly reaching her, though, is another matter.

“I’m constantly working just to put her in a better place,” he said, “so I can be 100 percent happy in life.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.