Grappling with demons
Clarke fighting his way to prominence for Fort Hays State
There is no guidebook for teenagers, or 21 year olds for that matter.
Things do not always go as planned, often due to poor decisions made by student-athletes.
Walker Clarke's journey to the top of the Division II 184-pound rankings has been filled with plenty of potholes, most of them dug with his own personal shovel.
Winning wrestling matches was never an issue for Clarke, a three-time state champion for Stillwater High in Oklahoma. But a lack of discipline in and outside the classroom have made things anything but easy.
His collegiate journey started across town at Oklahoma State University.
He did not last a semester.
"I hit a pretty rough patch, most of it of my own doing," Clarke said. "I threw away plenty of opportunities and I hurt my family. It takes a lot of money to support a drug addict."
"Walker had all the ability in the world, but he wasn't ready for our program," Oklahoma State head coach John Smith said.
The next stop included Labette Community College in Parsons, Kan., where, in the spring semester of 2009, he still didn't quite buy into the responsibility of college. His grades suffered and he was still battling old demons.
"I had to make a big change if I was going to do anything," Clarke said.
He returned to Parsons, and under the tutelage of Labette head coach Joe Renfro, things started to turn for the better in the fall of 2009.
"I kind of floated through the semester and came home over the summer," Clarke said. "I had to decide if I was going to go back to school, take it more seriously. Coach [Renfro] really helped me out."
Again, success on the mat was not a problem. Clarke was a national junior college champion at 197 pounds in 2010 and finished as runner-up at the 2011 NJCAA Championships.
A couple of classes last summer gave Clarke an Associate's Degree in Secondary Education.
"It was a pretty big deal, a first step," admitted Clarke.
The search for a new home began. There were not a lot of suitors due in part to a reputation for trouble.
"It was my fault; it was probably deserved," he said. "I like to think that is why, not because I wasn't a good wrestler."
Chaz Thompson, head coach at Fort Hays State, on the western edge of Kansas, gave Clarke a shot. Through a semester of classes and competition this season, Clarke has been a solid addition to Thompson's wrestling room.
"He's done everything we've asked so far," said Thompson, a native of Parsons. "He's a good leader in the room and he's developing into a young man."
|1||Walker Clarke||Fort Hays St.|
|2||Tanner Keck||Central Okla.|
|3||Derek Skala||St. Cloud State|
|4||Mitch Schultz||Upper Iowa|
|5||Dallas Smith||Ouachita Bap. (Ark.)|
|6||Adam Walters||Findlay (Ohio)|
|7||Mitch Brown||Newberry (S.C.)|
Heading into a Jan. 19 dual against No. 11 Adams (Colo.) State, this junior 184-pounder is a solid 11-1 for the 15th-ranked Tigers of FHSU.
Clarke's high school coach, Doug Chesbro, noticed a difference when he spoke with his former pupil over Christmas break.
"He looks as good as he's looked in a long time," Chesbro said. "He had a real positive attitude about everything. When he first got out there [to Fort Hays] he was pretty isolated. We had a good conversation about things. He had just really gotten comfortable at Labette and now he had to make another change.
"What stuck out to me was him talking about graduating, about how focused on school he was. It was great to hear him say that."
Around Stillwater wrestling circles, Clarke isn't quite a legend but the current generation of young wrestlers certainly know his name.
"He put his stamp on our program," Chesbro said. "He's just a hard-nosed kid. He may not have always had the most discipline, but he never backed down from any kind of challenge either, which got him into trouble sometimes.
"He's been through a lot but he seems to have stood the test."
Clarke's first DII season includes two tournament titles, the Bob Smith Open and Newman Invitational. Two of his victories came against fellow Oklahoman Tanner Keck, an NCAA qualifier last season for Central Oklahoma.
"We've been friends for a while," said Clarke of his relationship with Keck, a native of Marlow in Oklahoma. "It's kind of a cool thing being one and two in the rankings. We're friends, but once we get on the mat we will bang heads and battle."
Clarke's goals are simple: Be a national champion in two months and stay on track.
"I'm really not trying to prove anything, just to go forward from here," Clarke said. "What do they say? Walk a while in my shoes?"