TACOMA, Wash. – The framed jersey hangs on the back wall of Yaisa Criss-Greenwood’s office, along with a number of other posters of mementos in what is basically the shrine of her son, Boise State cornerback Jaylen Clark.
There are locker name tags. Photos of him modeling uniforms. A Christmas card. His own trading card. A 2022 Frisco Bowl Champs placard she picked up amidst a celebration last December.
But the black, size 38 jersey from the Frisco Bowl is the centerpiece. “First start” is inscribed on the front in silver Sharpie along with his signature. It has not been washed since the Broncos’ 35-32 win over North Texas almost 10 months ago, yet it looks brand new.
Perhaps the only real stain is the number: 41.
Clark never liked playing in 41. When he arrived at Boise State, he was asked to write down his top choices for a number. Absent from that list was 41. But, heading into this season, the redshirt junior was able to make a switch. He’s always been a fan of LeBron James and, well, single-digits look slick.
Story coming to @BNNBroncoNation tomorrow on Boise State CB Jaylen Clark.
— Jordan Kaye (@jordankaye_23) September 1, 2023
So this season, and presumably the rest of his Boise State career, Clark will be No. 6. It is perfect. Not the number, per se, but when anyone looks back years from now at Clark’s career, there will be a clear line of demarcation to separate the old Jaylen Clark and the new Jaylen Clark.
Though the fall looks promising — with Clark earning a starting spot at cornerback when the Broncos travel to his hometown for their season-opener at No. 10 Washington on Saturday — this summer has been stormy for Clark, with little things stacking up and then a tragedy that compounded it all.
His car got towed into impound during a holiday break. He didn’t know it had been taken in, which meant he returned to an astronomical bill. He lost his phone on a vacation after that. And, thinking there was fraud on his account (there wasn’t), his bank closed his account. He watched his sister graduate from college in Texas, a joyous moment spoiled because he had to see his father, someone who “walked out of his life at a very raw age,” Criss-Greenwood said.
It is easy to suppress feelings, to think we are all Superman capable of moving past whatever heartache or inconvenience that occurs. But poor foundations crumble in storms. Plenty of houses are sturdy — until there’s an earthquake that exposes all the faults we can’t see.
On May 29, Andrew Walker — a Boise State football operations graduate assistant — passed away at the age of 23. Walker’s mother, Mimi, taught Clark at Lincoln High in Tacoma. Walker, Criss-Greenwood said, was someone in Clark’s circle and it was Clark who was among the first people notified after the tragedy.
“He was taking on way too much responsibility,” Criss-Greenwood said. “He was like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ And I’m like, ‘Jaylen, there’s nothing you can do.’ … He took it hard, but I think he took it harder because of all the things that had just happened in his life.
“I had to reach out to coach,” Criss-Greenwood continued. “He was not in a good place mentally — I’m not gonna go into detail — but I reached out to (Cornerback coach Demario) Warren. I texted his girlfriend and said, ‘Don’t leave him. Please don’t leave him alone.’ Because he wasn’t sure that he wanted to see tomorrow.”
Boise State, knowing the impact Walker had on so many people in the football program and the toll loss can have on anyone, chartered a flight to his funeral in the Seattle area. It was where Clark, battling the tidal wave of emotions that leaves people feeling helpless, could be back around those who loved him. Teammates. Coaches. Friends. Family.
In Clark’s toughest times, Boise State football lifted him up.
“He was in a good place. He got help,” said. Criss-Greenwood. “And fall camp was right around the corner. It was like a saving grace that football was starting again.”
Football has always guided Clark. He has cared about playing the sport — OK, winning games — more than anything else. During his first two years at Kent Meridian High School in Washington, Clark’s grades were struggling, so bad that when he transferred to Lincoln as a junior, his GPA (2.1 cumulative) was so low that he was ineligible for the first five games.
That lit a fire in Clark. He learned that his grades affected his ability to play football and, thus, school became vitally important. After two years at Lincoln, his GPA rose to 2.7 — “which is really hard to do,” Lincoln coach Masaki Matsumoto said. His desire to be great off the field has grown to the point where he warms his mother’s heart talking about his May graduation date like it is a 21st birthday.
Clark has always been competitive, sometimes to a fault. There are those who care about winning — and then there is Clark, who can grow extremely frustrated with the idea of losing and even more agitated when it’s not him out there affecting the outcome.
“Sometimes we had to tone him down and remind him, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta keep our cool,’ said Matsumoto. “But that’s also what makes him great. There was a fine balance between, ‘Keep that competitiveness,’ and also, ‘Make sure you’re protecting the team.”
That spirit was passed down to Clark from his grandma, Marci Anderson (Criss-Greenwood’s mother). A native of the Midwest, she grew up an avid Bears and Cubs fan but started to get behind the Seattle sports teams when she moved to the Pacific Northwest. And even on her couch, losses stung — so bad that she was known to turn off the TV if one of her teams started to lose.
After she passed in 2015, Clark got a tattoo on his left forearm. His mom has the same tattoo, a concept she first sketched out on a Post-it note she’s kept all these years. It is a heartbeat bursting out of a heart with her initials — MKA — written on his wrist. And if you see Clark make a play and point to the sky, that’s who he’s signaling out.
“That’s just how close he was to her,” Criss-Greenwood said. “We’re not over it. It was in 2015 but you don’t get over that. My mom was — obviously will say this about their mom or their parents — but she was that person.
“We were just talking about this. She would have been at that game (The Frisco Bowl) with probably way too many layers of orange and blue, not matching, looking ridiculous. She’s that Nana.”
Perhaps she also passed down the confidence to her grandson.
Even the way Clark walks oozes swagger. He toes the line between confident and cocky, which is perhaps the demeanor a cornerback needs to be successful. And, when he plays, Clark has shown flashes of being a lock-down corner, notching three pass breakups and a pick in the Frisco Bowl.
“We really feel like his best football is in front of him,” Boise State defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson said of Clark.
It is hard to look at his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame and not think his future includes the NFL. But he has garnered little experience in three years, sitting behind a great crop of defensive backs. The potential is there. This is the year he can make it real.
He will have quite the test in Week 1, against a Washington passing attack that was the best in the country last season. Clark will have close to 40 family and friends at the game. He’ll have two more watching from above. And he’ll have the chance to show them just what the new Jaylen Clark looks like.
There is pressure this week — especially for the cornerbacks. Danielson knows that. His message this week is resilience.
“You’re gonna get a ball caught on you. Something is not gonna go your way,” he said. “And it’s how you play the next snap.”
Clark will be ready.