It was over two years ago, in July 2011, when Mark Clements decided that Villanova was the school where he wanted to play his college football. The talented cornerback was going to follow his friend and former South Jersey high school teammate Craig James to the suburban-Philadelphia school. It was a program filled with other South Jersey kids and it felt like a family to him, but he had a gauntlet of challenges in front of him before he could sign.
"I think it was [July] 1st," Clements said about his 2011 commitment to Villanova. "The reason why I committed was because I just . . . I just felt like it was just more family oriented than most of the schools that were recruiting me and I knew a lot of people there, so I knew I would fit in."
Villanova had recruited Southern New Jersey hard, and successfully. James, Joe Sarnese and Antoine Lewis were all players from the Cape Atlantic League who were suiting up in the Wildcats' blue and white. Meanwhile, wide receiver Norman White was a former basketball and football star who was generating some NFL buzz at the time.
"I just felt like I would fit in there because there was just a lot of South Jersey guys there. So I felt like a good vibe coming from them, even when I went to the football camp, it was just a good connection that goes by with all the coaches around."
The Worst Year Ever Begins
Committing to a full scholarship to a Division I school is a high point for most high school seniors. At the end of a long process, the committed athlete can finally exhale. Clements, however, was only at the beginning of his arduous journey to college football.
"It was actually that same month," he explained about his brother's death. "It was a week after. It happened in July, I believe it happened on July 11th.
Trumaine Clements was found dead by police in his car. He had been the role model who paved the way for his two younger brothers to succeed.
"Losing my brother affected me a lot," Clements recalled. "It was only me and my two brothers when we grew up, like my dad, you know, none of our dads were around, it was just my mom, so like we, we had a very strong bond. It hit us hard.
"We got the call that night and when my mom — my mom is very optimistic and she's a strong woman — she wanted to see for herself because she just didn't believe it. Then we rode to the spot where it happened and it just like, it was just unbelievable. It was heartbreaking, it was just . . . I can't even explain it, it was just terrible; you just never think stuff like that would happen to your family."
That was just as Oakcrest High School was gearing up for the Fall football season, and Clements would play that season in Trumaine's honor. He asked his coach to let him wear number 10 as a senior, the same number his brother had worn a decade earlier for the school.
Sitting and Waiting for SAT
Handling his brother's death as best he could, Clements charged ahead on the football field and in the classroom. Even for football players, Villanova has pretty selective admissions requirements. Clements had checked all of the other boxes, but he would need to make the grade on his SATs before admissions would green-light him to sign his Letter of Intent.
His first attempt at the standardized test wasn't going to open the elevator doors of Nova's ivory tower.
"My one score in my junior year, it was really low my first time taking it. So in my senior year I did lots of prep - lots of prep - and then my score went up. I think, like seven hundred points."
Clements wasn't about to become the poster-boy for Kaplan SAT Prep courses, though.
"I actually had a local tutor; he lives in Linwood (New Jersey). He goes by the name of Dr. Loggi, he was a Villanova graduate, so he helped me out a lot to prepare for SAT. I went to him ever Thursday from August all the way up to November for that November SAT.
"I took the test and I was pretty confident, I was really confident actually, so I waited it out and . . . I think it’s like twenty days or something that goes past before you can get those scores and my scores weren't up. My mom and me were wondering what was going on because we need them, because Coach Reardon was telling me, 'you need to let us know, this is the score you need to get past,' so and so."
He kept checking for a score to post, but while his peers were all getting the news, good or bad, Clements stayed in the dark.
"Then they called my mom and let her know what’s going on and then, I think sometime in January, they just let us know they weren’t going to release it."
The College Board was holding his score indefinitely. He had reached the mark that he needed for Villanova, but the Wildcats' would never be able to see it. It seems that Clements had done too well.
"They actually thought I cheated on my SAT," he elaborated. "So they had to go do that and investigate the whole thing.
"To be honest with you, I really didn’t know why they didn’t release [the scores]; because there was no proof in any type of way that I could have cheated on anybody in the test room."
In what seems like a scene straight from the movie Stand and Deliver, the College Board administrators had accused him of cheating based on nothing but the score itself. There wasn't much that Clements could do to get a qualifying score on record before the end of January. Villanova football was going to have to play without him in Fall 2012.
The Change of Plans
Clements wasn't the first recruit that the football coaches at Villanova couldn't get through the admissions process, however. A year prior, they dealt with a late scratch of Corey Majors, a big linebacker recruit, who was dinged by the admissions office before signing day. The Wildcats wanted Clements as much as anyone in that class, and like Majors, they wanted to keep that door open.
They had connections to Worcester Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts that has a strong football program and a reputation of getting kids ready for college.
"So [offensive line coach] Mark Ferrante was calling me about Worcester Academy, and I could go there for a year and then enroll at Villanova the year after that," described Clements. "I thought as though that was a good deal, like it gives me another year to mature and just get better at football."
After that conversation, the South Jersey cornerback ultimately decided to head to New England for a year. Villanova was his decision the preceding Summer, and he wasn't about to back down from it just yet.
A Check-up Gone Wrong
One thing about Clements that should have been mentioned earlier is that he has diabetes. Diagnosed at age twelve, the disease hadn't really slowed him down much over the years. In order to manage the disease, however, he had to adjust to the regimen of keeping his blood sugar levels in check.
"I check my sugar three times a day breakfast, lunch and dinner. I take insulin in the morning and then I don't take any insulin at lunch because the dose of insulin I take in the morning covers through breakfast and lunch, and then I take a shot at dinner, and sometimes before I go to sleep.
"I always tell other kids when I’m talking to them, to control the diabetes and don’t let it control you because if you don’t control it, it will bring a lot of effects to your body and it can make you feel really nasty, just not good."
Clements did start feeling nasty, really nasty in Spring 2012. There was a lump on his neck, and while it hadn't slowed him down yet, it was about to bring his life to a screeching halt.
"When I went for my diabetic checkup, they looked at my neck and they said they're going to do some checkups because they wanted to make sure it's not anything and when they did tell me, they were like, it could be cancer. So we got the blood test done and nothing came up, nothing came up for that at that point. My doctor, Dr. Gala, he asked me to get a biopsy done.
"I think probably like a week later my mom and my uncle sat me down, and then they told me like, ‘you have Hodgkin's Lymphoma,’ and at first I was like, ‘what is that?’"
It was something that would potentially destroy his plans of going to college and playing football.
"They told me what it was and the type of cancer and honestly, the first words that came out of my mouth were, ‘can I still play football?’ When they told me, they were like, it’s highly unlikely and we don’t know if you can play again.
"I honestly just ran on out because I was just thinking about everything, I was just like all the stuff I had been through over the course of the year, the whole SAT thing, not being able to go to Villanova when I wanted to . . ."
The news of his cancer was delivered at the end of April, and while he reflected sullenly upon the turn of events initially, he didn't have much chance to grieve over his situation. His first chemotherapy session was in May.
Dealing With It
"At eighteen years old, you don't want to believe it because you sit there like, you hear about stuff like this, on the news maybe, you see it on TV about kids having cancer and never really fully think that it would happen to you, it never registers in your mind, it'll happen to you."
It was a heavy weight. Less than a year prior, Clements had it all, a scholarship to a prestigious university and a healthy body that made him a star on the gridiron. Now, the world had chipped away at all of these things. Most adults wouldn't handle that very well, but after a brief moment of panic, Clements jumped back on the horse.
"I got maybe thirty minutes of sleep that [first] night and I told myself that I'm going to play football again," he claimed. "I knew I was going to play football again because, I was just a hard worker, so I'm like, I'm not going to let this one hiccup stop me after going through everything that I'd been through, from losing my brother in the summer to the whole SAT thing and then like having to go to Worcester and just the cancer.
"I sat down and I prayed a lot, and I just — you just got to keep God first — and I had the people around me too so, I had good influence to tell me 'you're going to play football again.'"
While most eighteen year olds were working summer jobs and hanging out by the shore, Clements was enduring three months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation that summer. It was no cakewalk, but when the treatments were over, he had work to do.
"After all that like, my mom, she said I want you to just take it easy," Clements said, but he was determined to get back to work. "The first few weeks, we started off light weight, just like put in a lot of reps, so I could ease my way back into it."
"I actually didn't lose that much weight when I went through chemo, I only lost about eight pounds."
It only took him about a month, he says to put the weight back on, and then some. Starting at 160, Clements said that he gained between fifteen and twenty pounds quickly once he started working out again.
Back on Two Feet
On September 2nd, 2012, he was free from cancer.
"I went to University of Penn[sylvania] for my radiation therapy where they have this little thing where you like go up to the bell and you ring the bell and it signifies that it's your last therapy," he remembered. "So I did that then a couple of days later, my doctor told me, you should be fine, you're good, you shouldn't have any problems now. So, I was cancer free."
The Doctors cleared Clements, but he still needed to get back on the college track. The gates to Villanova or elsewhere weren't going to magically open for him. Instead, he still needed to take the long road. While his friends and contemporaries were packing up for their respective colleges and universities, Clements was working toward taking the first step to his goal — Worcester Academy.
"[Worcester] coach Tony Johnson was such a big help in motivating me," he recalled. "He thought I was coming that year, and I had to break it to him, I think, around June. I had to tell him and he was just like, ‘wow, I can't believe it'
"Throughout that whole year like, I was like sending videos of me working out, sending pictures of me doing stuff and he was like ‘I can’t wait for you to get here."
He got there this Fall. Being back at school and setting foot on the gridiron again for the first time in over a year was a special feeling for Clements.
"It's a great experience right now, just like it's so diverse, there's so many people there, it's like, it's so multi-cultured there. You know, like, the football team, it's just great to be back on the football field, it doesn't matter what football field it was, for me it was just . . . I would always tell them it just feels great to play with you guys, and it was."
The season didn't go as well as Worcester had hoped. Struggling with injuries, the prep school could only manage a 2-5 record. Clements, however, managed to stand out, earning All-League and All-New England honors. He grew as a football player as well. He brought his own brand of South Jersey football energy to the team, trying to push his teammates to leave it on the field.
"It felt really good and it was a really good experience, just with Coach Johnson, with a whole new coaching staff. All I knew was Oakcrest coming up there."
Clements has his plan in place now. He will finish up the year at Worcester before heading home and preparing for his next challenge.
"I just plan on working real hard while away for the winter and then, coach Tony Johnson, he's actually the track coach too, so I'm going to end up running track in the Spring. Then in the summer, I work at a pool, I'm going to like work out, work at the pool, I'll probably do pool work outs and stuff like that. Just get ready to go to Villanova. I can't wait."
The rise and fall of Mark Clements matured him quickly. It changed his outlook and understanding, and forced him to alter his plans. A former teammate helped him to change his perspective.
"At first, when they first told me, my attitude was bad, like the first couple of days like, this is like any other kid, you just wouldn’t want to be bothered, because you can’t believe what’s happening to you.
"So you like having a positive attitude, you just got to stay optimistic. That’s what, Craig James actually told me that. He told me that after the whole Villanova thing happened, he was like, ‘you’ve got to stay optimistic,’ and I just remember that.
Staying optimistic helped Clements through his cancer treatments and has remained a motto throughout his rise from the ashes.
"When I was going through the chemotherapy I was like, I just got to keep a good attitude, because when you get down, that’s how you let the cancer win, because you just, you feel defeated. I never want to feel defeated, I always want to feel like I could just do anything and after having cancer, after beating cancer, you feel like you can do anything, you feel different. You just look at life totally different."
When Signing Day Comes
The vast majority of Division I football recruits who will sign a binding Letter of Intent with their future college next month, will do so on February 5th and Clements plans to be among them. Villanova's secondary coach, Tony Trisciani, checked in with Coach Johnson and the Worcester staff regularly while he was there, never dropping him from their radar.
Finally signing that piece of paper — the one he was meant to sign two years ago — will be a catharsis for South Jersey product. After everything he has been through to get there, the pain, the hard word, the mental toughness that it took, it isn't hard for him to describe the feeling he will have.
"It’s probably going to feel just as good or maybe even better as when I put that helmet on for the first game back at Worcester Academy. I actually cried. I’m not going to lie. I cried because it just felt so good just to be back in a helmet and when I have that piece of paper to go to Villanova, it’s like . . . it’s going to be what I dreamed of since I committed there. So, this is going to feel great, amazing."
After the worst year an 18-year-old could have ever had sent Clements on a two-year sojourn through hospital wards and prep school halls, he finally returns to where he intended to be — the table where he signs his NLI to Villanova.
Clements' story isn't one of individual resolve, but a story of the power of a great support system. He credits his family; his mother and brothers John and Walt with motivating him along the way, but his network is bigger than that.
"I would like to thank my boy Sidiq, Walt, Quan, Mike Blackwell, Mike Arrington, Josh McCoy, Chris Camper, and Akmed— that’s my best friend, he’s been there for me since I was like four. All those guys are like just family . . . they were the first ones at my door when my brother died and we had a group hug right there in the middle of the street. Then when I got cancer, they were the first ones to come too.
"There’s nothing like good friendship that could get you through any hard time."