ROBBINS, Ill. -- Rocky Clark sometimes dreams he's running track, racing around the oval as he once did, his heart pumping fast and his long legs a blur as he crossed the finish line.
Just thinking about it makes him smile.
Some nights, though, he has another recurring dream, this one pure fantasy. He sees himself in white shorts and track shoes, running again, then stopping, kneeling in prayer before a church door, somehow unable to make it inside.
When he awakens, Rocky Clark inhabits a world largely confined to four walls. Surrounding him are glass-encased autographed footballs and cherished memories of his glory days: Blue-and-gold ribbons. Trophies. And giant varsity letters from Eisenhower High School, his alma mater.
Clark can do little but swivel his head. He can't move his arms or legs. More than a decade ago, he was paralyzed from the neck down after being tackled in a high school football game. After nine months in rehab and a hospital bill approaching $1 million, he went home.
As a quadriplegic, his long-term prospects were slim. And over the years, there have been regular hospital stays and health scares – no surprise, considering Clark's fragile condition. He has just one working lung. His right lung is partially paralyzed; certain infections could kill him.
And yet Clark has endured. His doctor credits top-notch, round-the-clock home health care paid for by the school district's $5 million catastrophic health insurance policy. But that's run out, so the nurses and money are gone, replaced by his mother, growing financial pressures and a new sense of foreboding.
Rasul "Rocky" Clark beat the odds. And now he wonders if he's paying a price for his survival.
A week before his injury, Rocky Clark vowed to his mother that he'd strike it rich as an athlete one day and buy her a house.
Annette Clark remembers her son as an acrobatic kid who mastered back flips at age 7, ran too fast for a spanking and was always throwing balls and rocks – the inspiration of his nickname, bestowed upon him by an uncle. He took up track, football and baseball and excelled at all three, collecting ribbons, trophies and medals.
"I love awards," he now says. "It's a need thing."
On a warm September night in 2000 just four plays into the game, Clark – a high school junior and running back for Eisenhower's Cardinals – was grabbed by the shoulder and tackled. His head hit the ground. At first, he recalls, there was silence.
"When I started coming around, I heard a bunch of ringing," he says. "My whole body was vibrating, like a spring. I felt cold air. I tried to get up, but I couldn't."
Clark's neck had been broken in two places.
He spent about nine months at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, wondering if his injury was some sort of cruel payback for something he had done in his 16 years.
"I said to myself ... `Maybe there was something I said I shouldn't have said. Maybe there was something I did that I shouldn't have done,'" he recalls. "I didn't do anybody wrong. I didn't get in trouble. ... I prayed every day. I didn't go to church all the time ... but I was good."
"Then," he says, pausing for a breath, "I realized things happen. Life doesn't always give us what we expect. I've got a spinal-cord injury, but there's nothing wrong with my brain. I've got a strong spirit and courage. You've just got to learn to deal with it."
Clark finished high school, donning cap and gown and having a friend wheel him across the stage so he could accept his diploma. He took some college courses, but a full-time schedule proved too difficult. (He'd like to return, but can't afford it.) He became a volunteer coach at Eisenhower, attending games.
All of it was made possible by the care provided through the district's insurance policy. And Clark says when the $5 million policy ran out several months ago, he assumed it would be renewed.
But it was not.