GREEN BAY – Maybe it was the home-cooked Thanksgiving meal or the tender, love and care only a mother can provide, but Kenny Clark sure has one fast-healing ankle.
The Packers defensive tackle, who was carted off the field less than two weeks ago against Baltimore, was back on the field when the team returned to practice Wednesday in preparation for this Sunday’s meeting with Tampa Bay.
It would have been hard to forecast such a quick recovery for Clark when the former first-round pick was doubled over in pain during the fourth quarter of the Packers’ game against the Ravens on Nov. 19.
The incident, which occurred at the end of an Alex Collins 2-yard run, led to scuffling between both teams when Packers players took exception to Ravens center Ryan Jensen’s actions against Clark once the play was over.
Clark’s mom, Leslie, was crying from the Lambeau Field stands at the sight of her son being carted to the locker room. While there was some initial swelling in the ankle, Clark’s X-rays came back negative and he texted her immediately he’d be OK.
The diagnosis of a high-ankle sprain came as a massive sigh of relief for all parties involved.
“I thought the season was over, man,” Clark said. “It was an unfortunate situation. It was ugly. My ankle was swollen. I thought it was worse than what it was, honestly. I’m happy it was a high-ankle sprain.”
The injury forced Clark to sit out last Sunday’s matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, marking the first game the 22-year-old defensive tackle has ever missed at any level of football.
It wasn’t easy for Clark to watch from the sidelines Sunday, but the consolation was he’d likely get the chance to play again this season.
High-ankle sprains have been known to sideline players for upwards of a month, but Clark said his is in the lower region of his leg. He has increased mobility because it’s not affecting his calf or shin.
As Clark started his rehab, his mom and extended family stuck around Green Bay through Thanksgiving. While he iced the ankle and took all the proper precautions, his mom kept him fed throughout the week.
“My favorite team was the Ravens growing up (and) she wanted to come up to the game and see it,” said Clark, whose father, Kenny Sr., was a big fan of star defenders Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata.
“She stayed the whole week after the game. She stayed for Thanksgiving. So I got some Thanksgiving cooking, too. They stayed and took care of me.”
Clark started last week in a boot, but was walking and jogging by the end of last week. He had a little trouble turning hard on the ankle at first, but he feels like “it’s getting better every hour.”
That’s good news for the Packers. The 6-3, 314-pound nose tackle was in midst of a breakout season prior to the injury. He currently leads the defensive line with 469 snaps and trails only Mike Daniels in tackles (32).
Clark said he holds no ill will toward Jensen about what happened two weeks ago. Shortly after the incident, the Ravens center texted Clark to offer an apology and told him he wasn’t looking to hurt him.
“It was just an unfortunate situation and unfortunate position I was in and all that,” Clark said. “He hit me up the next day and told me he wasn’t trying to do anything dirty. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I just let it go. It is what it is. It’s football. It happens.”
Clark is remaining optimistic about his chances at playing Sunday against the Buccaneers after feeling good running and doing some stunts during the walk-through period at practice Wednesday.
However, he concedes his availability likely will hinge on how his ankle responds to practice this week and the conversations with the doctors and coaching staff.
The biggest takeaway for Clark over the past week has been how teammates rallied to his aid on the play he was injured.
“You don't want to get hurt, but moments like that make you want to play harder for those guys knowing that we are in this together and they don't want to see their brother go down,” Clark said. “You want to play hard for them. That's part of the reason I'm optimistic about coming back, trying to make sure I'll get this ankle back right so I can go out there and play with them.”
Clark isn’t the only starting player on defense hoping to play Sunday against Tampa Bay. Linebacker Clay Matthews (groin) told reporters Wednesday he plans to play after sitting out against Pittsburgh.
“I did some running pregame Sunday and it wasn’t quite there yet,” Matthews said. “I don’t think I could have made it through a game. But every day I was getting exponentially better, so I feel really good today. I was able to take some team reps; granted it was a light practice, but I definitely envision seeing myself out there Sunday.”