LINCOLN — Richard Bell was an option quarterback out of Altadena, Calif., when he met Ken Clark as part of the freshman class at Nebraska in 1985.
Bell also would get to know Keith Jones, who already was a Husker, and in the future he would be introduced to Leodis Flowers and Calvin Jones at NU.
The common thread was that Clark and the others were all I-backs out of Omaha, and Bell found it hard not to wonder what kind of football was being played up Interstate 80 in the Metro Conference.
“I was real impressed with the backs coming out of Omaha,” said Bell, who lettered as an NU wingback from 1987 through ’89. “I always thought the talent in Nebraska would be subpar compared to California until I met those guys. They were as good as any back coming out of California or any other part of the country.”
Clark proved it over his Nebraska career — running for 3,037 yards, twice being named All-Big Eight and outdueling Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders in a 1988 showdown. The Omaha Bryan graduate is No. 7 on the Huskers’ all-time rushing chart, but was as high as No. 2 behind Mike Rozier after playing his final game in the Fiesta Bowl after the 1989 season.
Bell was among those shocked to hear of Clark’s death over the weekend from an apparent heart attack in Minneapolis. They shared an apartment as seniors and Bell considered him a close friend.
“He just got on the field and did what he was supposed to do,” Bell said Monday. “He was very careful with his private life and a little hard to figure out, but the guy would give you the shirt off his back.
“I’m saddened at the fact that at 46 years old he lost his life, and it just surprises me.”
Tim Bond saw Clark and the great run of backs coming out of Omaha. And, in fact, he saw Clark from two sidelines.
Bond was the head coach at Omaha Tech in 1983 when Clark ran all over his team as a Bryan junior. Tech closed and Bond moved to Bryan, where he coached Clark as a senior.
“He was a nightmare to play against and a dream to have,” Bond said. “It was just God-given talent.
“He not only was a great runner, but he could throw the ball 60, 70 yards. He could kick the ball into the end zone. He was a great defensive back. People say guys have a nose for the ball, he was at the ball.”
Bond saw Keith Jones, Calvin Jones and Flowers at Omaha Central in the 1980s and in the 1990s coached against George Achola (Creighton Prep), Damon Benning (Northwest), Clinton Childs (North), Ahman Green (Central) and Willie Miller (Bellevue West). Including Clark, all nine were Husker signees in a span of 13 recruiting cycles, although Miller converted to fullback at NU.
“He (Clark) was right up there at the top,” Bond said. “He was a good player for us — a very good player for us — but was a kid that I think got much better in college, too.”
After taking over for Keith Jones at NU, Clark ran for 1,497 yards in 1988 and 1,196 in ’89 as Nebraska led the nation in rushing both seasons. His breakout game came against Oklahoma State in ’88 when he had a 73-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage and carried 27 times for 256 yards in a 63-42 win over a Cowboy team featuring Sanders, quarterback Mike Gundy and receiver Hart Lee Dykes.
“We knew that he could do that, that he could have those kinds of performances,” said former NU quarterback Steve Taylor. “Offensively we just knew that week that we’d have to put up some points. His timing was great.”
The 256-yard game is the No. 4 single-game mark in Nebraska history. Clark followed the next week with 225 at Kansas State and finished his junior season as the No. 5 rusher nationally.
Clark was an eighth-round draft pick by Indianapolis in 1990 and played three NFL seasons with the Colts. His best year came in 1991, when he rushed for 366 yards and caught 33 passes for 245 yards with Colts star Eric Dickerson shelved at times by injury.
Clark was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009.
Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne on Monday called Clark “a very consistent and durable” back for the Huskers.
“Ken was quiet, but he became a very strong leader on our football team,” Osborne said in a statement. “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.”
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