ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — Frank Clark arrived at training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs last month noticeably trimmer, and with that menacing scowl that somehow seemed so befitting of a menacing defensive end replaced by a joyful smile.
His attitude? That was better, too.
The changes in appearance and demeanor were the byproduct of a decision the 29-year-old Clark made immediately after last season to clean up his life. He swore off alcohol, which had gotten him into trouble in the past, along with red meat and sugar that had packed about 15 pounds onto his 250-pound frame and fundamentally altered his performance.
Not since his early days at Michigan has Clark felt so good about his sense of purpose and direction.
"At some point you have to grow up," he explained "I have three kids, and other kids looking up to me every day. I have a 6-year-old daughter who's looking at daddy to make the right decisions. I can't afford to be drunk, to be missing times, dates, missing things that are important. I have too many important things coming up in this life."
The most immediate is his eighth NFL season, when Clark will be trying to bounce back from a disappointing year in which he managed just 4 1/2 sacks for one of the worst defenses in the league when it came to pressuring the quarterback.
Clark was still voted to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, but it was an honor that somehow rang hollow. The Chiefs blew a big halftime lead to Cincinnati in the AFC championship game, and their inability to harass quarterback Joe Burrow on that cold January night was a big reason Clark was left playing in a meaningless all-star game rather than the Super Bowl.
Yet it was somehow a fitting conclusion to a difficult year for Clark on and off the field.
It began when Clark, who was traded to Kansas City by Seattle in 2019, was arrested twice during the 2021 offseason on gun-related charges; he pled not guilty and the cases have yet to be resolved, though Clark said this week he hopes for some sort of resolution soon. And the problems continued into the regular season, when Clark missed three of the first four games to hamstring injuries and didn't pick up his first sack until Week 8 against the New York Giants.
"It was hard as hell when you're going through all the stuff I was going through," Clark acknowledged, "but I put that on myself. When you put that on yourself you have to deal with it. I'm a stand-up guy. You know everything I've been through. I face it as a man. You have to. That's the only way you can grow from anything."
Evidence of that self-growth was important to the Chiefs, who were unsure whether Clark would ever be the fearsome and productive pass rusher he was in Seattle, where he had 13 sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss during the 2018 season.
In fact, Chiefs coach Andy Reid met with Clark after the season and gave him a dose of reality.
"He was like, ‘I know the type of player you are. You know the type of player you are. You didn't show that this season,'" Clark recalled. "Me and Coach Reid are real. He's from East Los Angeles, I'm from South Central; it's the same thing, know what I'm saying? We're going to keep it real with each other."
It still took some give-and-take for Clark to return to the Chiefs, though.
The five-year, $105 million contract he signed after his arrival in Kansas City left a massive salary cap hit for the upcoming season, but the Chiefs also could have avoided most of it because of an out-clause after the 2021 season. Most took a look at the cash-strapped Chiefs and assumed they'd take the easy way out and simply let him go.
Rather than solve their pass-rushing problem, though, that move would have only exacerbated it. So the Chiefs and Clark managed to restructure his contract, bringing down his salary cap number and keeping him in the fold.
"You know, I think Frank would say this, too, that in the past he's been his own worst enemy," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. "But whether that be when I first got him here in ‘19 or, you know, kind of putting his body through a detox here and coming back in really good shape, he's always been extremely charismatic and wired with that team mentality. He has been that guy that does whatever the coaches ask and is always willing to help and mentor kids."
That mentorship has been evident throughout the first two weeks of training camp.
In a bid to bolster their pass rush, the Chiefs spent a first-round draft pick on Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis. And within a matter of days, Karlaftis had joined Clark off to the side for additional work after nearly every practice.
"He's locked in, man. This is the most locked-in I've ever seen him," said fellow defensive end Mike Danna, who has grown close to Clark given their shared alma mater. "He's getting everyone integrated, communicating — the whole line is working together. That's the biggest thing to having success. He's being a leader. We all look up to him."