IN THE underbelly of the Great Southern Stand, Howard Clark rested on a massage bed to quietly reflect on emotionally-charged final. St Patrick’s College has just fought hard for back-to-back Sun Shield victories at the MCG for the first time in the school’s football history. The school would go on to a record five-straight Shield wins.
Players were crying in the rooms from the enormity of what they had achieved as a team and also, as captain Nick O’Brien told The Courier after that 2011 match, for their coach’s determination and dedication. Clark had come out of hospital, under check from his oncologist, to coach the final amid treatment for long-term health struggles. Then went back to hospital.
Health has always been a factor in Clark’s coaching career. Of the past 10 consecutive Shield finals, Clark spent six in hospital for treatment the immediate week before or after.
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Clark said the boys had always been patient with him. He chose to be open and authentic. What he finds in return never ceases to surprise or humble him.
Clark now steps down as St Pats’ first XVIII coach after 18 seasons at the helm. The legacy he hopes to leave on his players and coaches along the journey is respect. The past eight or so years as coach for Clark have stopped being about football.
“It’s more about making a difference in the lives of young men, when they leave St Pats what life skills they will have,” Clark said. “If we can’t develop them as young men, then we are failing them. I hope they will go on as future role models .”
Honesty and authenticity is important to Clark in working with young men as a teacher and coach. He said the trust and respect this builds can help young men to find their authentic selves.
This honesty with players, also goes with his health journey through cancer and the complex issues that continue to crop up. Clark hoped in some way, his story had sparked some inspiration among players, sharing resilience, for the long run.
Clark was on the cusp of an AFL career, picked up by Melbourne fresh out of Xavier College via zoning in November 1982. His career was over three months later when diagnosed with a seven-centimetre malignant tumour on his spinal cord.
A bombardment of drugs and radiation followed and took Clark to dark places.
It was in recovery that Clark opted to try teachers’ college with his twin sister and turned his football passion into coaching.
One class in 1989, doing gym at Villa Maria, Clark felt back pain. He underwent an MRI, one of the first in Melbourne. So confined was the space that he could stick out his tongue and feel the roof of the machine. About 20 more tumours were discovered in his body the next five years.
The complex nature of his body, and treatment, has left Clark without feeling from the waist down. He has issues with balance, his bladder and chronic neuropathic pain. Life since has been riddled with serious infection.
There was a 110-day period in which an Clark was hospitalised with an infection, yet he only missed five days of school. He built a routine about school, teaching with an intravenous drip in his arm, going to the hospital to be checked, going home to have dinner with family and back to hospital where he would sleep monitored before getting back up at 5am to do it all again. Most at school never knew.
“The school has been remarkably good to me,” Clark said. “There have been times I have not been well enough to properly do justice to the role but the boys have given me so much energy in what they have given me as a person.”
Clark had been teaching at St Pats eight years before he took over coaching in a time when the then Ballarat Rebels were forming in a new elite under-18 competition. There was division among players on where to devote their time on field. St Pats’ football culture was low.
A strategic plan in partnership with Rebels talent manager Phil Partington built St Pats into one of the most successful football programs in Australia through the next two decades. The 2012 squad alone fielded 12 players who went on to play AFL. Five boys featured in last year’s AFL grand final between Richmond and Adelaide.
Off-field achievement in the program was just as important to Clark.
Like the story of Jake Neade, a young Aboriginal boy from Elliott, a community of 200 people halfway between Darwin and Alice Springs. His family home became a community house for those seeking refuge from conflict between the north and south of town. Neade, drafted to Port Adelaide in 2012, boarded at St Pats and was one example of the great contribution indigenous boys made to the greater school.
“Only a small number of the indigenous boys can play football well, but they have all given our school a soul,” Clark said. “One of the great influences is the way we talk about reconciliation – it’s living in our school.”
Clark said it was important young men find and be able to express their identity. And it was vital they learn ways to speak how they are feeling and not be afraid to show affection.
Football could be a handy tool to lead by example, often modelling what it means to be human and to face difficulties.
St Pats Old Boy and AFL great Danny Frawley led a special training session ahead of the Shield final. Frawley opened up about his battles with depression that he only made public late last year. He and the boys were all crying.
Clark does not want players to be afraid of tears.
He broke down when informing St Pats headmaster John Crowley this final would be his last as coach.
“I don’t know whether it was a release or realisation that it was over, something that had meant so much to me,” Clark said.
Timing, rather than health is the reason Clark is stepping back as coach. Clark was calling time, but staying on as football director, to allow someone else the same joy and privilege he has experienced for one-third of his life.
Early in his coaching, Clark was told he was unlikely to be much of a football coach. He was not loud enough. Clark said really, coaching was ultimately all about showing respect.