Seahawks' Frank Clark's heart remains heavy a year after a fire took his family

Frank Clark has carried the weight of losing his father and three other relatives in a fire all season, which has been his best as a pro with 14 sacks. Shaun Brooks/Action Plus/Getty Images

RENTON, Wash. -- Around the time the Seattle Seahawks reconvened for training camp this past summer, Frank Clark spoke in front of the team's rookie defensive linemen. The expanded offseason roster meant there were several more players in the room than there would be when the season began.

And that was the crux of Clark's message: Cherish relationships while you still can.

It was a piece of advice that hit painfully close to home for Clark, whose Seahawks face the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round of the playoffs on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox). Clark's relationship with his father was a complicated one that got a late start and ended abruptly when Frank Clark III was killed in a house fire along with three other family members last January.

After speaking with the rookies, Clark later addressed his father's death again in front of the rest of the defensive linemen. His close friends in that group -- Jarran Reed, Branden Jackson and Quinton Jefferson -- all knew what had happened. But until that point, Jackson hadn't seen Clark open up or show outward signs of his grief.

"You could tell he was getting emotional," Jackson said. "He didn't cry or anything; that's not his thing. But you could hear it in his voice -- the passion, the pain and kind of all that. It was there."

'I deal with it myself'

For Clark and his dad, there was no chance for a final goodbye. No solace to be taken in a long life lived, a peaceful death or any worse fate that it spared.

There are gruesome visuals and unsettling suspicions.

Frank Clark III was staying at his uncle's home on Cleveland's east side when a fire broke out overnight, killing them both and two children. Clark's great aunt survived after jumping out of a second-story window.

Clark suspected arson and referred to it as such when he shared the news on Twitter a week later. He said authorities told him it was accidental after conducting a standard investigation, but he still has questions.

The way Clark understands it, his great uncle made it out of the house but went back in to try to save the children. Clark was told that his dad's body was found holding onto one of them.

"I feel like they died because they was trying to save other people," Clark said. "That lets you know what type of men they were."

Clark has been carrying the weight of the loss all season, which has been his best as a pro. There are times, he says, when football is the last thing on his mind. He hesitates when asked whom he has been able to lean on for support.

"Honestly, nobody, man," he said. "I'm going to keep it real. I deal with it myself. I feel like nobody really understands. I feel like it's hard because I've got brothers but I'm the oldest. I was my father's oldest son. They're a little younger than me so they don't really understand death. In my life, I've watched people die, I've watched people get killed, I've seen it, I've seen death. So it's like, to people around me, it's kind of hard for me to want support or me to lean on somebody when you don't understand what's going on. I can't really lean on a person where it's like, 'Have you experienced this ever?' And they're like, 'No.' It's like, 'I can't really talk to you then because you don't really understand what I'm going through. You can have a feel, but you don't understand. You have no idea what I think about.'"

A tight bond

Scroll through Clark's Instagram profile and you'll find a few pictures of his dad. There's one posted a week after the fire of dad holding his infant son. Another, from June 17, wishes him a happy Father's Day. The most recent, from September, wishes him a happy birthday -- it would have been his 45th -- next to a picture of the two from Clark's senior prom.

In the captions, Clark refers to his dad as "my twin." It's not just that they look so much alike. They talk the same, they are crowd-pleasers, and as Clark learned while watching film of his dad as a defensive back at Bakersfield College in the early 1990s, they play the same.

Clark's dad made that big of an impression on his son in a relatively short time.

View this post on Instagram

My twin, my creator, my daddy. Rest in Heaven.

A post shared by Lord Skid Row (@therealfrankc55) on

Clark was too young to remember having his dad in his life as a kid. But they reunited when Clark moved to Ohio while he was in middle school. Clark spent his early years in Baldwin Village, a gang-riddled area of South-Central Los Angeles known as "The Jungle" where Clark and his mother were in and out of homelessness. Clark said he probably wouldn't be alive if she hadn't sent him to live with his dad in Ohio. She figured that he was getting in so much trouble, it was his best way out.

"I would always ask about my father and nobody would really give me a straightforward answer about it or make me understand what was going on or where he was," Clark said. "And then finally, it was just like, out of nowhere, it seemed like it just made me understand that he just came into play and wanted to be part of my life."

There were growing pains, but the two quickly bonded.

"I was young, but he used to be like, 'Come on.' I was his oldest son, so once I started getting of age, 13 came around, 14, he's like, 'Man, come on, Let's go. You coming with me.' Next thing I know, I'm in a bar somewhere. I'm 16 years old, 15 years old. He's got me in a bar. I'm playing pool, sitting in the corner. So that was what was dope, the times we had where it was like real father-son, how you see a father-son bond."

Clark speaks honestly and openly about his dad's missteps. He said bad decisions were the reason his dad was staying with his uncle at the time of the fire. Clark said he wants to be there for his 2-year-old daughter, Phoenix. He never wants her to be in the position he was as a kid, when someone would ask who his dad was and he wouldn't have an answer.

But there's no bitterness.

"It was the dopest relationship I've ever had," Clark said. "That's why my heart's so heavy for my father because people don't understand how close and how dope of a relationship we really had. Nobody does because everybody always sees the other side, they see Frank not being there, Frank being a bad father, him having this going on. People hold onto stuff for so long and they want to always bring somebody down. They don't want to see the positive sides of things."

The backbone

For Clark, closure has not yet come almost a year later. He feels like he hasn't had the time.

There was contract uncertainty on his mind last offseason. He's in the final year of his rookie deal, and after a career-high 14 sacks to give him 33 since 2016, he is headed for a huge payday, whether it's on a franchise tag or an extension.

Clark had hand surgery over the summer, and along with everything else he has taken on the burden of being the emotional backbone of his family. He views himself as a father figure to his two younger brothers on his dad's side, 20-year-old Christian and 15-year-old Zavier.

"It's not about being tough, it's not about being none of that," he said. "I just know my role, and I know some people can't handle it. It's just so hard, but somebody has to be that person, somebody has to be the person willing to put themself through it for the sake of everybody else. Because you're going to be the one who goes through it the most, but you're going to be the one to be the reason that everyone else is all right, that everyone else in your family understands that it's OK to accept death or it's OK to understand why things happen like they happen."

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll offered his thoughts on Clark.

"It doesn't go away. Something that tragic doesn't go away, so he's taken it with him, but he's put it in a place where he can be productive and help people out," Carroll said. "He's helping his family in enormous ways, and he'll be able to do more of that in the future."

'What could have been'

There are still those split-second moments that reality escapes him and he forgets that his dad is gone.

Every week, Clark said, he briefly thinks he's going to get a call or a text from his dad. Maybe he'll want to talk about Clark's last game or his next one. Maybe he'll want to fly to Dallas for the Seahawks' wild-card matchup against the Cowboys.

He still has their text thread on his phone and reads it all the time. There's a screen grab of one exchange on Clark's Instagram. It was from Dec. 31, hours after the Seahawks' season ended with a loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Clark's dad told him good game, said he loved him and wished him a safe New Year. Clark thanked his dad for all of his support and for blessing him with the DNA to play in the NFL.

"I recognize you had to sacrifice a lot to make my dreams come true," Clark texted. "I love you forever. See you soon!"

"Love you baby boy."

The fire was four weeks later.

At the time, Clark was planning on getting his dad out of Cleveland and bringing him to Seattle.

"That's the hardest thing," he said, "is just knowing what could have been."