Even at his most difficult moments, Rasul "Rocky" Clark was determined to live his life as an example for others, said Don Grossnickle.
"Didn't Rocky teach us?" Grossnickle asked the hundreds of mourners gathered at Clark's funeral torday, getting head nods and applause in response. "Didn't he show us the way?"
Grossnickle, co-founder of Gridiron Alliance, was just one of dozens of speakers honoring Clark, who was paralyzed while playing football for Blue Island's Eisenhower High School in 2000 and later fought an unsuccessful battle to keep his health insurance. He spoke in favor of ensuring proper insurance coverage for high school athletes who suffer catastrophic injuries.
Hundreds of Clark's friends, family, and supporters piled into New Friendship M.B. Church in Robbins to mourn Clark's death. They squeezed into pews, crowded into the church choir stand, stood along walls, filled the basement and spilled outside the front doors. The funeral service was scheduled to last an hour, but ended up continuing for more than two hours because so many people wanted to share stories about Clark.
Clark, 28, died on Jan. 5 at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey after undergoing surgery for complications with his bladder, said his mother, Annette Clark. He was also having trouble with his lungs and kidneys.
Clark, who grew up in Robbins, garnered national and international attention for his health struggles and battle for health insurance. He was just 16 years old and a backup running back for Eisenhower when he was tackled in a football game. His injuries left him paralyzed.
Clark used his injury to call attention to football safety. He helped found the Gridiron Alliance, which supported athletes in a similar position. He also lectured at local high schools and volunteered at his former alma mater as an assistant.
But Clark waged the battle of his life when he lost the private health insurance that paid for his meticulous care. After 10 years of having access to the best medical resources, the policy ended.
Most quadripligics live less than 10 years, but Clark was able to thrive, in part, because of the quality of care he received.
He used his experience to advocate for unlimited health insurance coverage for athletes.
"If he were alive, no athlete would enter the field without unlimited coverage," Grossnickle said.
At the service, Helene Elias, one of Clark's former nurses at Ingalls hospital, recalled Clark's humor and determination.
"We talked, we joked, and I would rub his face to make it easier for him to go through a procedure," she said. "He had a strong will and at times he was a brat," she said drawing laughter. "He had a devilish smile."
Others spoke about how Clark found the courage to overcome his football injury. He found joy in talking to his friends and offering encouragement. Once he attended a concert for the hip-hop group Outcast and was allowed to sit on the stage. He also celebrated his 21st birthday at a local night club with friends despite his injury.
Kenneth Jennings, who also became paralyzed due to an injury sustained at a football game, said he wanted to inspire Clark. But the opposite occurred.
"He became the person to motivate me," Jennings said. "Any time I had a problem I knew to call him. He went through a lot. A lot of heartache and pain."
But Jennings urged the audience to keep Clark's memory alive by taking up his mission.
"Everyone in here knows better now," he said. "We cannot sit back and allow another kid to go through a catastrophic injury and not be taken care of."
Annette Clark took time at the service to thank all the people who supported her and her son. She talked about her son's last days and special moments they shared. "My son never once felt sorry for himself," she said, her voiced tired and strained. "I'm just proud of my son. The Lord had something for him to do.
"Keep praying for me, that the Lord will give me strength," she said.
Denise King said when she met Clark she felt compelled to create a website to help spread the word about his life. Shortly after they met, Clark emailed her a poem he wanted posted on the site.
On Saturday, King shared Clark's poem:
"Life does not always give us what we expect...but what would life be if we did not have hope?"