The Perfect Exposure
By Raj Sagar,
Virginia Athletics Media Relations
High school football is a formative time for aspiring college players.
Donning school colors and practicing with the same guys you spend time with in school builds a unique esprit de corps. Film study, travel, and Friday night lights are all common bonds for high school players across America.
That is one of the things that makes Aaron Clark’s story so interesting. Now a senior playing collegiate football at the highest level, Clark’s journey did not being on a high school football field. It started on “a pitch.”
As a 14-year-old, Clark attended Lakenheath High School in Suffolk, England, while his father served in the Air Force. The site of the largest United States Air Force base in the United Kingdom, Royal Air Force Lakenheath is inhabited by approximately 7,000 Americans and includes an American school system, complete with a high school and a football team.
Clark’s experience was quite different than most of his counterparts in the State. For one thing, his team had to travel further to compete against other Department of Defense schools. Leaving for a Friday night game on a Wednesday was not uncommon with bus rides sometimes 16 hours long.
The team travelled on a double-decker bus with the cheerleaders on the bottom level and the players on the top level. At times they traveled through the English Channel Tunnel to get to mainland Europe where they would take the Aubobahn through the pastoral European countryside.
Though American-style football is not as popular overseas, Clark credits the distinct culture of growing up in a military setting for laying the groundwork of the way he approaches the game.
“What’s important to realize is that the competition doesn’t really drop off over there,” Clark said. “The sheer number of Air Force families allows for the talent pool to remain competitive. Generally, military parents are very strict, motivated people who are focused, hard-working and fully dedicated to the task at hand. Aside from getting acclimated to the travel, crowds and things of that nature, a lot of the values that were instilled on me while living on base are still things I try to carry over to the way I approach the game now.”
After the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the football season for Department of Defense schools was cut short. Since football was his primary passion, Clark made the decision to return to the States in order to give himself the best chance of playing collegiate football.
Clark began attending Rockbridge County High School in Lexington, Va., where the football environment differed from his sense of the game overseas.
Situated in rural, central Virginia, RCHS is in an extremely tight knit community, and Friday nights saw much of the area gather to root on their Wildcats. Clark thrived for three years as a two-way starter at defensive end and tight end. As a junior, he had 56 solo tackles, 24 tackles for loss and seven sacks en route to second team all-state honors at receiver.
His achievements did not go unnoticed and he became the first Wildcat graduate to play football at a Division I school. Virginia quickly proved to be the perfect fit for Clark and he joined 10 other true freshmen in playing their first year.
Though a daunting prospect, Clark says his immediate exposure to the collegiate game was vital in his development as a player, and toward understanding of the culture of Virginia football. When you compete against future NFL players such as D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe and Tom Santi every day in practice, these talents can have a tremendous influence on your approach to the game.
“The caliber of teammates here is something you might not realize until they are gone,” Clark said. “You practice with and against some of the best players in the nation. When you are competing against these guys, you can’t help but get better or you will get crushed. They set a tone for the team and everyone, especially the younger guys, benefit from it.”
After biding his time as an underclassman, and making varied appearances in 30 games, Clark entered the pre-season in 2008 with his sights set on the starting outside linebacker job, but it was one of his closest friends on the team, Denzel Burrell, who stood in his way.
“Competing with Denzel Burrell was an incredible experience because we are good friends,” Clark said. “We decided going into it that we were not going to let it tear us apart, but instead work together to make each other better. If one of us saw something that would help the other one, we would point it out, even if it hurt our individual chances of getting on the field. You would always rather it be your friend on the field instead of a complete stranger. There was an incredible sense of camaraderie in the competition.”
After winning the starting job, Clark tragically had his season cut short with a knee injury in last year’s season opener against USC. He spent his rehabilitation time studying the game from a different, perspective. Clark immersed himself in film study, and began understanding nuances of the game he may not have otherwise noticed.
Now with the 2009 season ahead, Clark has been voted by his teammates as one of six captains for Virginia football. It marks yet another key moment in his long football journey.
“To gain that kind of respect from my teammates is a humbling honor, and is something I take great pride in,” Clark said. “My exposure to the game of football has been wide and varied, and now, with the confidence of my teammates here, I relish the chance to lead this team.”