UCLA's Kenny Clark's path to the NFL draft shaped by his father's murder conviction

OTL: A father's shadow (6:53)

Outside the Lines examines how UCLA defensive tackle Kenny Clark Jr.'s relationship with his father, in jail for murder, will shape his NFL future. (6:53)

Kenny Clark Jr., all 6-foot-3, 314 pounds of him, settled as best he could onto the hard, courtroom bench inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in Santa Ana, California. The former UCLA defensive tackle squeezed in between his mom and brother, with his twin sisters and a cousin nearby. Soon after, his father, Kenny Clark Sr., walked into the room. The resemblance was uncanny -- two immense figures with big smiles and large, round faces. Except that while Kenny Jr.'s frame was easy to make out underneath his short-sleeved, green button-down shirt, his father's was not. Kenny Sr. was wearing a baggy, bright-orange jumpsuit: In 2005, he was convicted of second-degree murder. His sentence was 55 years to life, with no chance of parole. Escorted into the room in shackles by a pair of U.S. marshals, he smiled and nodded at his family before falling into a seat next to his attorneys from the federal public defender's office.

It was the first time in nearly 12 years that the Clarks had shared a room outside of a prison.

Three weeks earlier, Kenny Jr., a dominant player over three seasons at UCLA, had declared for the NFL draft. On this day, Jan. 19, he should have been training for the scouting combine. Instead, he was here, once again at the intersection of hope and disappointment.

Kenny Jr. was 9 when his father was sent to prison. From the time he began serving his sentence in 2005, Kenny Sr. has maintained his innocence and fought for his release. The result has been more than a decade of legal filings, hearings and appeals -- always with the same ending: Kenny Sr. still in prison.

Kenny Jr.'s mother had worked to shield her children from the drama, but now, for the first time, she was bringing them to one of Kenny Sr.'s hearings. This one represented their father's last, best hope at freedom. For Kenny Jr., on the precipice of a childhood dream fulfilled, the timing felt auspicious.

Kenny Sr. had introduced him to football. And even in prison, Kenny Sr. had maintained their bond through the sport: He would call before Kenny Jr.'s games to offer pep talks, after games to get full reports and even during games to get live-action updates from his wife. Father and son were so connected by football that two of UCLA's coaches visited Kenny Sr. in prison during the recruiting process. Sitting in the courtroom that day, Kenny Jr. dreamed of sharing the signature moments of the coming months with his dad: the NFL combine, UCLA's pro day and, of course, draft day.

Kenny Jr. knew well how justice had its own, deliberate pace, but he was convinced that this was the day. Months earlier, Kenny Sr. had been granted this rare hearing after a federal court reviewed his conviction and ruled that enough questions had been raised to suggest "a compelling claim of actual innocence."

"That morning I was planning on my dad getting out," Kenny Jr. says, "It was going to be so exciting because I'm going into the draft."

But the judge dealt Kenny Jr. something else instead: another test of his will in a life that, so far, has been full of them.

"I wanted my son to be able to play football so bad," says Kenny Sr., now 45 and seated inside Ironwood State Prison.

Before he was locked up, father and son were nearly inseparable. His wife, Nicole, worked long hours during the day as a nurse, which left Kenny Sr. to look after their oldest child. He made it a priority to pass along his passion for football.

"I was pretty good myself when I was coming up, and I didn't get a chance to get to where I wanted to be in football," Kenny Sr. told Outside the Lines during a two-hour interview at Ironwood. "And so when I had a son, I was like, 'Oh yeah, this is perfect, I get a chance to see myself in him.' "

Kenny Jr. says one of his earliest memories is of sitting with his father when he was 5 and watching the Ravens pound the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

"The defense was just balling that game, and he was telling me, 'Man, this is how you play football,' " Kenny Jr. said. "I was just like, dang. Yeah, it just put a big smile on my face."

But even as they bonded over football and similar personalities, it was clear Kenny Sr. was not perfect.

"My dad was in the streets," Kenny Jr. says now. "He was doing what he was doing. I'm not going to say my dad was just a holy saint."

Like their son, neither Nicole nor Kenny Sr. grew up with their fathers around for much of their childhoods. Both were raised by their great-grandmothers near Delmann Heights, a violent, drug-infested neighborhood on the west side of San Bernardino, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Although Nicole was on her own by 16, she steered clear of the trappings of the rough environment. Kenny did not. He sold drugs and, in 1990, at 20 years old, was convicted of robbery. He spent 20 months in prison.

At the time, he thought the experience had changed him.

"But as soon as you leave, you're back to reality," he says now.

Even after marrying Nicole, starting a family and moving to the north side of San Bernardino, Kenny Sr. had drug and alcohol problems and was unfaithful to Nicole. Sometimes, he would be gone for days at a time.

Still, his bond with his young son persevered. Kenny Sr. drove a tow truck during the day, and Kenny Jr. rode shotgun to his calls. But above all, there was football.

"One thing for sure that I know," Kenny Jr. says, "my dad was a great dad."

Then came the evening of May 22, 2004. Kenny Jr. was at home when he heard screams outside -- first from one of his 4-year-old twin sisters, then from his dad. He said he walked out and saw his dad on the ground bleeding, surrounded by police.

"He was just telling me, 'Go get your mom, go get your mom,' " Kenny Jr. said. "I remember I was just standing there in shock."

Nicole was inside the house when one of her twins came bursting in, screaming. She ran out to find a chaotic scene: The three other kids, including Kenny Jr., were hysterical, their dad surrounded by police, on the ground, in handcuffs.

"Take the kids in the house," Kenny Sr. kept repeating to Nicole, as he asked the police, "What did I do? What did I do?"

Two weeks earlier, a man named Misael Rosales had been shot outside Muscoy Liquor in Delmann Heights. Surveillance video showed Kenny Sr. in the store in the minutes before the shooting, when Rosales, a janitor at nearby Loma Linda University Medical Center, backed his car into Kenny Sr.'s SUV. There would be varying -- and, ultimately, changing -- tales about what happened next. But Monroe Thomas, a friend of Rosales' who was with him at the scene, would tell authorities that Kenny Sr. had come outside and hit him in the face, prompting him to run away. Thomas would say that he did not see the shooting but that he did see Kenny Sr. "with a pistol in his hand ... waving it around" before Rosales was shot. Now police had come to arrest Kenny Sr.

Nicole herded the kids and brought them back in the house, where she eventually got an explanation of what was going on: "An officer came in and then started explaining to me what had happened -- what they thought had happened."

The trial lasted eight days. Kenny Sr. was convicted in less than one. Outside The Lines was unable to locate any members of the Rosales family, but, at the trial's conclusion, his older sister made a statement. "I hope that you never see freedom again," he said, addressing Kenny Sr. "The night you took my brother's life you took your own as well."

Nicole was lost. She had four young kids at home whose father had received what amounted to a life sentence for a crime she didn't believe he had committed.

"I just kept praying. That's all I could do. And asking God to help me to be able to maintain my sanity," she says, beginning to fight back tears. "Regardless of what they said he was sentenced to, I just felt like he would be vindicated."

At 9 years old, Kenny Jr. was too young to process what happened, but he knew he was angry.

"After that situation, I really didn't like my dad. I was really mad, if anything, at my dad," he says now. "I didn't know what was going on."

All he knew was his dad was no longer at home and his mom made the family drive five hours round trip every weekend to Calipatria State Prison, a maximum-security facility where Kenny Sr. had started his sentence. The drive through the barren desert irritated Kenny Jr., and, each time they arrived, he wanted nothing to do with his dad.

He remembers one visit, with his brother and sisters, when it all overwhelmed him. "I just start crying, just bawling out crying," Kenny Jr. says, "I was like, 'I don't understand.' I think it was just confusing. I really did not understand what was going on."

It went on like that for a few years. At home, football was put on hold as Kenny Jr. was suddenly the oldest male in the house. He bathed his siblings, got them ready for school and did anything to make his mom's life easier. She continued to work long hours to provide for the family.

"I used to feel really bad about it, you know. As a parent you're supposed to be there for your kids," Nicole says. "Your kids are not supposed to have to do those things."

Kenny Jr., who calls his mom a "warrior," says she fought to keep the family from falling apart and urged the kids to be supportive of their dad. Eventually, when he was about 13, Kenny Jr. told his mom he was ready to forgive his father.

"She just prayed for me to just be strong and to be able to forgive my dad," Kenny Jr. says. "That was a big part of that process, being able to forgive."

First, Kenny Jr. told his dad on the phone that he was ready to move forward.

"And then, we went to visit and they had their powwow," Nicole says. "They were good. But he had a right to be angry."

Even as they grew closer, Kenny Jr. says he didn't feel the need to ask his father whether he actually was a murderer.

"I never really got to that point where I was just like, 'Dad, did you really kill somebody' or something," Kenny Jr. says. "I haven't really asked him that. I just never believed it. Just never believed that my dad would do something, he's not that type of dude, he's just not."

When Nicole eventually was able to move the family out of San Bernardino to nearby Rialto, Kenny Jr. was back playing football. During Kenny's games, his father would call Nicole from prison to get play-by-play accounts of the action. Sometimes, he would have her shout instructions down to Kenny on the field.

After enrolling at Carter High School in 2009, Kenny Jr. quickly developed into one of the top football prospects on the West Coast. By his junior year, he had received scholarship offers from nearly every Pac-12 school, but UCLA stood out.

Kenny Jr. built an especially close relationship with UCLA defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Angus McClure but did not initially share that his father was in prison. McClure began to have an idea the more he was around, but it wasn't confirmed until the coach was at the family home on a recruiting visit and the phone rang. The Clarks have a large group of extended family and friends, so the house was in an almost constant buzz. But McClure noticed an instant quiet when the phone rang.

Soon after, McClure and Kenny Sr. had a chance to talk on the phone, and the coach recognized that Kenny Jr.'s dad remained a powerful influence.

"I think when you have families that are split apart, they kind of stop the communication, but he seemed very much involved," McClure said.

So even after Kenny Jr. committed to UCLA, McClure and Lou Spanos, then UCLA's defensive coordinator, made the four-and-a half-hour trek to Ironwood State Prison, a remote spot in the desert near the California-Arizona border.

Kenny Sr. remembers the day well. In the same visiting room where he met the UCLA coaches about four years earlier, he lit up when asked about UCLA's "home visit." One message they delivered stuck with him: "We will take care of your son. Not only make him a better football player but also a better man."

For Kenny Jr., the visit was affirming. "That just nailed it right there," he says, "because they took time to just go see my dad, and he just really enjoyed the visit and he felt a part of the process.

"He's already gone, so I don't want him blind. I want him to see, hear and talk to everybody that I'm talking to."

Because of a record of good behavior, Kenny Sr. was granted television access, allowing him to watch his son when UCLA was on one of the broadcast networks. There were five such games in each of Kenny Jr.'s three seasons at UCLA, with the first taking place on the road against Nebraska in 2013.

Kenny Sr. hadn't seen his son play since he was 7, and he wasn't prepared for the emotion that came with seeing No. 97 in front of 90,000 red-clad fans at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. Alone in his 6-foot-by-9-foot cell, Kenny Sr. began to cry. It was out of character, he said, but he couldn't help it.

"There's 100,000 people there, but I was here," Kenny Sr. said. "I remember thinking I should be there."

Kenny Sr. and Kenny Jr. spoke four-to-five times a week by phone and developed a routine on game days. He would try to call his son three to four hours before kickoff to offer good luck, then again about an hour after the game was over. If he was able to watch, they talked about what he had seen. If not, he wanted to know what he had missed.

The Clarks never thought they still would be living this way. Within months of Kenny Sr.'s conviction, the state's star witness, Monroe Thomas, had recanted his story. Living in Ohio by then, he contacted Nicole by phone and told her an entirely different version of events, court records show. Thomas was on probation at the time of the murder, and he claimed to Nicole that police threatened him with a return to prison if he didn't testify against Kenny Sr. Now Thomas, instead of saying that Kenny Sr. hit him in the parking lot or that he'd seen him with a gun, was describing a confrontation with other men at the scene, saying one punched him and another had a gun.

Said Nicole: "I was angry, but I was relieved to hear the truth of -- his side of the truth, shall I say. I knew my husband's side, but I was relieved that he did reach out. I was very relieved. I was excited. I felt like, OK, this will be OK."

Nicole flew to Ohio to track down Thomas so that he could formalize what he'd said in a written declaration. "This has been a great burden on me," Thomas wrote, "and I didn't want to falsely testify for his conviction for the police because it was wrong I want this to be over and the truth is told in this declaration to the courts."

Thomas' signed declaration and a statement from Nicole about his initial call to her prompted the San Bernardino Superior Court to grant an evidentiary hearing in 2007. Thomas was there to tell his new story, adding now that he'd suffered from a decades-long battle with heroin abuse. However, after the judge strongly warned Thomas that he would face felony perjury charges if he contradicted his trial testimony, Thomas grew inconsistent (two other courts would later question the judge's approach with Thomas). When pressed by the judge, Thomas said he did not testify falsely at trial. Kenny Sr.'s petition was denied.

"You have a guy that calls and tells you he lied. And then, it's like he's playing tug of war with your life -- that's how I feel," Nicole said. "You feel for him in one aspect because he's had a hard time in life and I get it. But you're pissed, too, because you've ruined ours.

"I've wanted to punch him. I've wanted to hug him. I've felt all of that. I was just ... I don't know how to explain. My thoughts have not been pure about him, period, you know. But I can't do those things. So, I just pray for him. That's all I can do."

Six months after the hearing, Thomas filed another written declaration, stating: "Every day now, I see Kenny sitting there, doing life in prison for a crime I know he did not commit, all because on three occasions, when I had the chance to tell the truth, I didn't do it."

The court ruled Thomas' second declaration provided no new evidence and denied Kenny Sr. a second evidentiary hearing. Subsequent appeals to the California Court of Appeals and California Supreme Court also were denied.

"It's like, he's about to get out, he's about to get out, he's about to get out and then something happens," Kenny Jr. says. "Just something goes the wrong way ... the court system, it takes forever to do everything."

Over much of the past 11 years, Kenny Sr. has filed a series of appeals and petitions asking that his conviction be overturned. All have been denied. He has never testified and, on advice from counsel, declined to discuss specifics of his case with Outside the Lines because of ongoing litigation.

Now, he's in the midst of what's probably his last, best chance to be released. On June 27, 2014, after several written briefs and oral arguments, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled it was possible Kenny Sr.'s case might have featured a "fundamental miscarriage of justice." The Ninth Circuit ordered a rare evidentiary hearing in federal court.

It was that ruling that brought the Clarks together in January. Despite hopes that he finally could be freed, Kenny Sr. hadn't wanted his kids to attend.

"It's horrible. It's an emotional roller coaster," says Nicole, who has been married to Kenny Sr. for 18 years. "I have shielded the kids as much as I can. They're older now. I can't anymore. I have to let them see for themselves, you know."

Before the family arrived, Nicole prepared them for what they might hear. Not just about the events surrounding the murder but also about their dad's philandering and partying; specifically that, on the night of the shooting, he hadn't been home for two days because he was out with another woman. The kids still insisted on being there. "There wasn't going to be anything to stop us from going up there that day," Kenny Jr. says.

The two-day hearing, which featured new witness testimony, was emotionally grueling. At one point, Nicole abruptly got up and left for a few minutes.

"It's just overwhelming," she says. "I didn't want my kids to see me cry."

Monroe Thomas appeared via videoconference from Ohio. He was all over the map, describing his use of heroin in the hours before the shooting and saying he never saw the shot that killed his friend. But this time he was back to saying that Kenny Sr. had punched him and that he had seen Kenny Sr. with a gun.

Kenny Sr.'s defense team presented four new eyewitnesses, all with ties to Kenny Sr. Three described themselves as friends, including one who was with him that night, and the other said he knew Kenny Sr. from the neighborhood but didn't like him. Each essentially told the same story: I saw the shooter; it wasn't Kenny Sr. but rather a local drug dealer who was shot to death four months after Rosales. They all testified that they had been too scared to come forward before, fearful of being branded a "snitch."

Three of those four witnesses had criminal records, and one admitted he was dealing drugs outside Muscoy Liquor that night. Deputy Attorney General Ronald Jakob attacked their credibility. It was convenient, he argued, that they all pinned the murder on a dead guy. It was curious, he suggested, that only now, more than a decade after Kenny Sr.'s trial, were they willing to testify.

For Kenny Jr., the experience was almost too much.

"Yeah, it was nerve-wracking because, especially with [Jakob], you just felt like he's attacking you," Kenny Jr. says. "Just a part of you just wants you to stand up like, 'You're lying, my dad's not like this.' "

At the end of the hearing, Judge Jay C. Gandhi set a schedule for the lawyers to file written briefs, making it clear that it would be months before he ruled. Kenny Sr. would not, as Kenny Jr. had been so sure, go free that day.

Kenny Sr. did not testify, but he asked to address the court as the hearing concluded.

"I want to thank you for allowing us to present the truth to you," he said.

"Absolutely, Mr. Clark," Gandhi replied. "And I hope you feel like you've been treated fairly."

With that, Kenny Sr. was placed back in shackles. He was given about 10 minutes to speak with his family. There was no touching allowed, but they exchanged laughs and smiles, savoring a rare family moment.

Finally, Kenny Sr. was taken away by U.S. marshals.

When it was over, Kenny Jr. tried to make sense of it all. But really, how could he?

"I'm driving home, just playing it over in my head, like, 'What happened?' " he says, " 'How did this happen?' "

With the NFL draft approaching, Kenny Jr. has had less time to see his dad, although they have continued to talk regularly by phone. Even as it has become clear Kenny Sr. would remain in prison come draft day, he has followed the mock draft rumor mill closely, hearing from guards about which teams were high on his son.

"He gets excited when he hears about teams," Kenny Jr. says. "He starts talking about all the players there and how I fit into the defense and stuff like that. We have conversations about that. It's pretty cool."

It's in these moments that Kenny Jr. fully has perspective.

"I've already been through tough times," he says, "My dad went to jail. There ain't no reason to be worrying no more.

"You've just got to be mentally tough to live this life. Because you just never know, man. Stuff can change."

On April 12, as a result of good behavior, Kenny Sr. was transferred from Ironwood to California Men's Colony, a lower-security prison in San Luis Obispo, about 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

His defense team filed its final brief in support of his innocence claim on April 13, but it still could be weeks or months before the judge rules. Even then, regardless of the decision, both sides are expected to continue to press the case in court.

Around their home, the Clarks treat Kenny Sr.'s potential release as an inevitability -- as if they can will it to happen.

"We speak it into existence. We're like, 'When Daddy comes home, this is going to happen. That is going to happen,' " Nicole says. "It brings joy, you know, the thought of him coming home."

Says Kenny Jr.: "I truly believe he's going to get out soon. I truly believe that. Now I'm really just trying to stay strong and really believe that my dad's going to eventually get out of prison."

Nick Aquilino, a producer in ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit, contributed to this report.