'Return that appreciation': How Jalen Clark thrived in the Alabama Christian community

Nick Alvarez
Montgomery Advertiser

Before a recent football game, a group of volunteers, mostly players' fathers, painted the field. They striped the sidelines and colored the Eagles' logo at the 50-yard line.  

Jalen Clark, Alabama Christian Academy's senior quarterback, was also on the field. He was in the early stages of his pregame warmup when he spotted one volunteer, Lowell Thomas, hard at work. Clark walked over, thanked Thomas and offered to help the crew next time. 

Thomas nodded and smiled. The gratitude wasn't unexpected, Thomas later said. Clark's gesture reminded Thomas of Micah 6:8 - act justly, love mercy, walk humbly. It's a common passage quoted around ACA's campus and some find it an apt description of Clark, who's embedded himself in the ACA community. 

If Clark's origin is rooted in Louisana and Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, then Montgomery is the cradle of his development. Teachers have helped mold Clark into not only a football captain but a campus leader. And Clark has charged the Eagles (9-2) into the second round of the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 4A playoffs.

His final high school season (Clark is committed to the University of Louisiana) is a testament to Clark and ACA's symbiotic relationship. 

"(Clark) is gonna return whatever commitments you put into him," Mike Horn, a former teacher and coach of Clark's said, "He's gonna return that appreciation and love back to you."

Horn taught Clark in a middle school Bible studies class. Clark and other classmates sometimes came in with questions. When they heard of an Auburn or Alabama football player getting in trouble off the field, they'd ask Horn about it. Clark participated in discussions with his classmates over pizza and soda in Horn's office. They talked about what they wanted to be.

Years later, Clark has etched his name into the football program's history. He's totaled over 2,500 offensive yards with 43 touchdowns (setting a new single-season touchdown record). Twenty-two have come on the ground, 20 have been passing and one was a trick play score that allowed Clark to break the record with a receiving touchdown. 

Nikki Clark, Jalen's mother, has watched firsthand the ACA community embrace him. As Clark quickly went from the new kid to one of the most well-known, parents of other players started reaching out to Nikki online. "I love this kid," one wrote on Nikki's Facebook page. " ... Just a really great person."

Nikki became a popular face on Friday nights, too, as parents constantly checked in. And a few feet away, on the sidelines between drives, Clark's charisma oozed. He's an avid dancer, a trait partially harnessed at Alabama State University, where Nikki enrolled Clark in lessons. 

"He'll tell you that he's shy," Nikki said, "but I don't see that." 

Alabama Christian quarterback Jalen Clark poses with his mother, Nikki, after receiving an award.

Clark's connection with ACA is distilled into his relationship with Tripp Newton. A student in Alabama Christian's lower school, Newton wrote a letter about someone whom he admired. That was Jalen. The two had lunch together and kept in touch. Following most games, Clark signs the shirt of his self-proclaimed No. 1 fan. 

Eagles coach Nate Sanford has relied on Clark all season as an on-field cheat code and captain. Clark led ACA to its longest winning streak in program history (eight). During the run, Clark scored six touchdowns in a 47-41 overtime win against St. James.

The physical toll of the contest would cause Sanford to adjust ACA's game plan to rely less on Clark ahead of the playoffs. But that night, postgame, Clark went over to Nikki postgame beaming, "We did it, Mama," he said. The aftermath of Hurricane disheveled the family, but they've found stability in Montgomery.

On Oct. 16, Clark and Nikki lined up on the Eagles' sideline for senior night festivities. Clark handed her flowers and a letter. Nikki jokingly asked if there was money in the envelope. Instead, there was a letter from Clark titled, 'The reason I do what I do!' 

“You are one of the strongest people I know," Clark wrote, " … You are my backbone and my ‘why.’”

Clark thanked Nikki for all she had done: successfully moving the family from tragedy, cheering at every game and providing him opportunities like ACA.

Following the Eagles' most recent home game on Nov. 9, Clark posed for pictures with his mom on the field. He signed Netwon's shirt. Sanford told an equipment manager to get "water bottles and music." ACA had just routed West Blocton, 56-14, with Clark scoring seven total touchdowns.  

Over the public address system, an announcer read the score of the Jackson-Jacksonville game. The crowd roared and Clark smiled. The second round of the playoffs would be an Alabama Christian home game.