ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — At a quick glance, it’s easy to take a quick glance at Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark and not recognize him. His trimmer than when you last saw him at the end of the AFC Championship game in January, his hair shorter and a different color.
“A little bit, a little of this, a little of that,” Clark said about his new look. “I had to get my stuff together, it was part of the whole mental thing.”
The Frank Clark who arrived on the Missouri Western State University campus for the team’s training camp is different, yet not different at the same time. His offseason makeover is built around becoming more mature without losing his identity as a relentless competitor that led the Chiefs to acquire him from Seattle in 2019.
“Hard as hell”
Clark’s public troubles began in June 2021 when he was arrested after a traffic stop in California and charged with felony firearm possession. A second arrest soon came to light that occurred in March 2021 involving felony possession of an assault weapon.
He reported to training camp with the legal cloud hanging over his head and tipping the scales at 262 pounds, his heaviest weight since his third year in the NFL with Seattle in 2017.
Clark has no qualms conceding that last season was “hard as hell.”
“When you’re going through all the stuff I was going through, it’s hard,” he said. “It’s life, but I put that on myself. At the end of the day, it’s like you put that on yourself, you’ve got to deal with it.”
He finished the season with just 4.5 sacks, his worst output as a starter and his lowest since his rookie season in 2015 when he picked up three sacks in a reserve role for the Seahawks.
“I feel like I wasn’t feeling my feet as much last year, I wasn’t as quick off the ball, I wasn’t as explosive,” Clark said. “And I mean it’s obvious, you can watch the film and see if I was way heavier, I had a gut, I was looking sloppy out there.”
Every player has an exit interview following the season with the coaches. Clark says Andy Reid was blunt and straightforward when they sat down together.
“It was flat out,” Clark explained. “He was like, ‘I know the type of player you are, you know what type of player you are, you didn’t show that this season.’ Flat out.”
There was some doubt whether Clark would return to Kansas City in 2022. His contract carried a $26.3 million salary cap hit, and the club could have reclaimed more than $12 million in cap space by releasing the veteran. After the loss to the Bengals in the AFC Championship game, he expressed his desire to stay with the Chiefs.
“Kansas City is home,” he said after the game. “I bought a house here. My daughter goes to school here. It’s home. I want to be here for the future, for the rest of my career but like you said, unfortunately, that’s the way business goes. Things don’t happen the way you want them to happen all the time.
“Offseason, I’ve got a lot of stuff to do.”
“Back in the lab”
The Chiefs and Clark eventually agreed to a restructured deal worth $8.275 million plus active game-day bonuses that could add $900,000 more. That dropped Clark’s cap hit to a more manageable $13.7 million for the 2022 season.
Along with the restructured contract, the Chiefs issued Clark a marching order. After the previous summer’s series of legal troubles and “TMZ” headlines, the club wanted a quiet offseason from Clark — that meant keeping his nose clean, staying out of the rumor mill and getting back in shape.
Clark started by changing his diet, cutting down on red meat. A second change came out about by happenstance. Clark underwent an emergency appendectomy in March 2017, and since then has been prone to stomach ailments. One flareup in 2019 caused Clark to drop down 238 pounds.
In February he developed another stomach ailment, and he stopped drinking alcohol. Suddenly he found himself feeling better.
“I haven’t had any since I stopped drinking liquor, and it kind of started making more sense,” Clark said. “As I’m going on, I’m training, I feel my body is responding to me, I’m able to get up, I’m able to work out all times of day, all times of night. It was a commitment I made.”
Clark never felt his liquor usage directly affected his play on the field.
“It’s not really the season,” Clark said. “The season I’m always focused, I’m always cutting stuff out, but it’s the offseason that’s the most important time. That’s what guys don’t really understand. You all don’t see us every day, and we’re not around coaches every day, we’re not getting evaluated every day. That’s when you’re going out, you’re going on vacation, you’re taking time off from working out.”
Off the field, however, the 29-year-old Clark confesses alcohol was taking its toll on his private life. He was no longer a college kid or young professional athlete going out with friends after a game or on a Friday night.
“At some point, you got to grow up,” Clark said. “I got three kids, I got kids looking at me every day. I’ve got a 6-year-old daughter who’s looking at daddy, looking at me to make the right decisions. I can’t afford to be nowhere drunk, nowhere missing times, missing dates, missing anything that’s important, and I’ve got too many important events coming up in my life.”
The 2021 version of Frank Clark wasn’t what he wanted to see on the field. That meant not just making physical changes but mental changes as well. Clark presides himself on being a professional and he now realizes he fell short of his own expectations last year.
“I know I needed to get back in the lab, I needed to refocus, get back focus on my craft,” Clark said. “First thing getting back focus on my craft was getting back focus on my body, taking care of myself, getting my mental health back together, getting back just right, getting back in the right place so I come out here, compete and have fun.”
Clark also hopes that a resolution is looming to his legal issues in California. The NFL will likely at that point determine any discipline under the league’s code of conduct. It’s still possible that any punishment Clark faces won’t be administered until after the season. He feels comfortable with the state of the process.
“Everything’s in the hands of my lawyers, I feel very confident in the case and everything,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of things proactively in my community and stuff in Los Angeles and Kansas City. But of course, obviously, there’s a lot of things I can’t speak about because the case isn’t over.”
“A dope rookie”
The Frank Clark on the practice fields in St. Joseph this summer has a purpose, one that was certainly lacking last year. Clark is a veteran who has been with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in Kansas City since 2019. The biggest thing Spagnuolo wants from Clark is to help the numerous younger players on the defense to thrive and succeed.
“I’m not going to put expectations on Frank,” Spagnuolo said. “I want Frank to be a steady player just like he has been. I want him in the fourth year in the system, like all these guys are in here for the fourth year, I would expect that the (mental errors) go way down. That’s an expectation on every veteran that’s been here for four years, so it would be the same with Frank.”
Clark’s own expectations have nothing to do with statistics and more about the players around him.
“To be the best that I can be, best teammate I can be,” Clark said. “Help these young guys, we’ve got some young guys in. I’ve got George, whose a first-round guy who’s got to be ready to play.”
George is of course George Karlaftis, the rookie first-round draft choice from Purdue whom the Chiefs — quite honestly — selected to replace Clark. But Karlaftis isn’t a threat to Clark. He’s more of an inspiration.
“George is dope, George is a dope rookie,” Clark says with a smile that reinforces the respect he’s speaking with about Karlaftis. “He listens. I honestly like him, he’s a favorite for me early, one of my favorite rookies ever because he listens and he wants to know, he wants to be good, he wants to figure it out.”
When Clark entered the league in 2015 with the Seahawks, his mentor was Michael Bennett, the Pro Bowl defensive end who spent 11 seasons in the NFL. “The Legion of Boom” was in its full glory when Clark arrived in Seattle, which meant he also learned from the likes of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Cam Chancellor, not to mention Marshawn Lynch, Cliff Avril and Bobby Wagner.
“Mike B always like, ‘Hey, man, you’re not getting off the ball fast enough,'” Clark recalled. “Cliff (would) come to me, always quiet, hoodie, he’d be like, ‘You got to bend that corner, bro, turn that toe. I don’t care if you’ve got to break that toe and turn the corner, knee’s got to touch the ground.'”
Clark admits the critiques and constant bombardment bothered him. Now he’s grateful the veterans took the time to care and hold him accountable, sharing with him the knowledge and experience they possessed.
“I was the youngest guy, the next age was like seven years,” It was like they bothered me, but at the end of the day, I think them. One thing if I was never able to say, I thank my older guys for being that hard on me because they gave me clarity on how to be a bet, it gave me clarity on how to work our rooks and bring them in.”
He understands that even more now working with Karlaftis, who seeks both advice and confirmation from Clark. During Saturday’s practice, Karlaftis approached Clark about getting off the ball at the snap, wondering how he can get faster. Clark shared with the rookie his keys for identifying how to time the snap and get off more quickly.
Near the end of practice, Clark walked toward the sideline following a series.
“I’m chilling looking at the sky, zoned out like end of practice,” Clark explained with a laugh. “He come running over to me like, ‘Bro, I did it.’ I’m like, ‘What dude?” He scared me. He like, ‘Bro, I did it, I did what you told me to do.’ I was like, ‘Cool, all right, good stuff.'”
It’s the inevitable football circle of life. Bennett and Avril mentored Clark as a rookie in 2015. The following season Clark filled in for the injured Bennett. In 2017, Clark supplanted Avril as the starter opposite Bennett. In 2018 both Bennett and Avril were gone from Seattle, and only the student remain.
Now Clark understands what Bennett and Avril likely felt in 2015 about him.
“It’s just the fact that he came over so excited, it was just like as going into my eighth year, watching a rookie be so excited, it was the most excited I’ve seen a rookie,” Clark said. “Basically his ability to retain that knowledge I was telling him and for him to go out do it and feel it and see the success from it, I was happy, and enjoyed his fruits.”
It’s also part of the reason why despite after season of turmoil and disappointment, Clark has found contentment where is right now.
“I’m in a great place,” he said. “You go through things, you’re supposed to go through things. I don’t know nobody who don’t. The thing about me is that I’m a soldier. I never waver, I don’t waver, I’m a standup guy. I’m not scared to face the facts. But at the end of the day, you go through it, you grow through it that’s a fact, that’s all I got for you.