College homecoming football games sometimes don’t carry much weight for players because many are either new to the school or new to the area.
That isn’t the case for Whitworth’s Jesse Clark. The former Mt. Spokane Wildcat has traveled a winding path to come back home. He’s played football all over the West Coast and the South, and in various sections of the Northeast and Southwest.
It has been both a rewarding and painful journey. But when Clark puts on his fourth different uniform to take part in his fourth homecoming game Saturday, his Whitworth Pirates No. 7 jersey will just feel right.
“I think I made a great decision to come to Whitworth,” said Clark, who starts at safety, returns punts and kicks, and occasionally lines up at receiver. “I loved it down in Louisiana (at Northwestern State) and we had some great recruits coming in, but when I was home over summer, some family stuff happened and I felt it was best to surround myself and be around family and friends.”
Whitworth, which entertains 23rd-ranked Willamette at 1 p.m., has that feel for Clark, whose twin brother, Joel, was a standout quarterback for the Pirates and earned second-team NCAA Division III All-American honors in 2006. During summer breaks between seasons, Jesse and Joel often worked out at Whitworth and Jesse is well known to Pirates players and coaches.
The Clark brothers both were aware of Whitworth as youngsters, but Jesse said he decided to take the junior college route “to mature as a player and a person.”
His first stop was College of the Redwoods (Eureka, Calif.), but he got a delayed start because of shoulder injury. In 2005, he made the starting lineup, switching from receiver to safety because the team lacked secondary personnel. When the head coach was fired and numerous players left the program, Clark headed for Feather River College (Quincy, Calif.) on the advice of a friend.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” Clark said. “They needed a safety.”
He earned first-team all-conference honors, which opened up several recruiting opportunities. He accepted a scholarship at Northwestern State, a Football Championship Subdivision school located in Natchitoches, La.
The 6-foot, 192-pound Clark again earned a starting spot at safety and finished seventh on the team in tackles last season. He was prepared to return to Northwestern State for his senior year when tragedy struck.
“June 18th,” Clark said. “The day my dad passed away. It was the hardest day of my life. I didn’t know how to react to it and it was the toughest thing I’ve had to deal with. He was the best dad for me and my brother, always there for us, real sports- oriented and he was our biggest fan.”
Football wasn’t a priority for Clark. He knew he wanted to stay in Spokane. He was well versed on Whitworth’s program. During a bye week several years ago, he watched one of Joel’s games at the Pine Bowl. Jesse listened to Whitworth broadcasts on the Web when it didn’t conflict with his playing schedule.
“To be honest, I wasn’t really planning on playing, but I thought I’d talk to the coaches at Whitworth,” Clark said. “It’s really the only school I considered and I only had one year left.”
The fit has been nearly perfect for both.
“He’s been a starter from the moment he walked into the program,” Pirates coach John Tully said. “He’s a great team player, just really likable. He’s just everything we thought he would be.”
The feeling is mutual. Clark likes that Whitworth is more program-oriented than some of his former teams, where individuals were always trying to catch the eye of recruiters.
“When we go out to practice, it’s fun and it’s about having fun, being a team and working together,” he said.
Clark expects more of the same when the Pirates open Northwest Conference play against the undefeated Bearcats. He also expects to experience a range of emotions with his mom, two sisters and Joel in the crowd at the Pine Bowl.
“I think it will be emotional, just because it’s homecoming for me and I’ve been away and my family hasn’t been able to see me play,” Clark said. “It might be a little emotional not having my father there, plus with my brother having played here and he’ll be at the game.
“After my dad died, the most important thing was to be with family – not only for them, but for me. I needed that support group. And he would really want me to be here.”