Though he was born prematurely, JJ Clark surprised his parents by taking his first steps at about nine months old, and everyone’s been playing catch-up since.
This week, Clark will walk across the stage at Stowe High School’s graduation with a solid B-plus average and a varsity letter for almost every year of his life, having skipped the whole junior-varsity process from the moment he entered Stowe High School.
“I knew I was going to be pretty active during high school,” Clark said. “I started off on varsity and just stayed there.”
That’s 16 varsity letters — four each in cross-country running, hockey, lacrosse and golf — to go with at least five state championship titles. He could end up with a half-dozen titles if the boys’ lacrosse team wins this week. And he came exquisitely close last week to completing the quadfecta with a title in all four sports, as the Stowe golf team lost to Peoples Academy in the Division 3 championships by just two strokes.
“He was a little upset about that one,” said his mother, Monica Clark.
Joanna Graves, Stowe High School’s athletic director, said the school doesn’t keep records on the number of varsity letters earned, but 16 is a lot, requiring athletes to double up on sports within a season. That’s typically done in the spring, with a team-heavy sport such as baseball or lacrosse and a lighter-load individual sport such as tennis or golf.
Clark also skis in the winter and has been competing in Spartan races in the fall, placing in the top 10 in a 5-kilometer obstacle race in 2013 and competing in the 17-plus-mile Spartan Beast last year.
“He really is a great kid, and he gives 100 percent 100 percent of the time,” Graves said. “He’s certainly committed and loves it, helping out with the local teams, too.”
Doing it for Jack
Clark was born prematurely, weighing less than 2 pounds, and his mother and father were concerned about whether he’d make it. But when he starting walking a few months before his first birthday, those fears were allayed.
“When he was born, there was a 50/50 chance for survival,” Monica Clark said.
That tidbit about his first year wasn’t something that JJ Clark offered up. But he was more than willing to talk about his brother, Jack, who was also born prematurely but without the remarkable athleticism that JJ exhibited. Jack has cerebral palsy, which confines his body to a wheelchair, but does nothing to bottle up his love for sports.
“He’s my biggest fan,” JJ said. “He’ll come into the locker room and tell us what’s up. I’m playing for him. Every day he pushes me to the next level.”
Clark doesn’t want to leave Vermont and Jack too far behind; after a gap year in Maine, he figures he’ll go to the University of Vermont so he can be close to home, especially if he needs the super fan to come to one of his games.
The Clarks are a tight trio of siblings — sister Leocadia is in junior high and an up-and-coming sports star in her own right — and they spend time together each night at home, playing video games or other typical teenager things. Sometimes JJ and Leocadia will go outside and shoot hoops and Jack will come out with them to watch. Clark says his younger brother is “really sharp upstairs. He’s really good at Spanish, and he knows all the Rangers and Yankees rosters.”
“I love Jack. He’s our biggest fan, and a pleasure to have at the games,” Graves said, noting how she and he will talk about Rangers games from the night before. “And JJ is adorable with him, values having him as a fan. Every championship game he’s been in, he just goes up and hugs him right after.”
Chris Eaton, Clark’s coach in both hockey and golf, added, “His relationship with his brother is great and it also keeps JJ grounded when other athletes of his ability might start thinking more of themselves.”
Monica Clark’s eyes brim over when she thinks about how Jack is going to handle JJ not being around the house. She said he’ll likely start watching a lot more girls’ games after his younger sister enters high school. Although he can’t play the games, he understands their fundamentals more than most high school kids who participate.
“The way he sees the game, I always call him coach Jack,” Monica said.
Clark has been skating with Stowe hockey teams since the Pee Wee days, with players both older and younger than he, thanks to an odd birthday that allowed him to be the youngest on the team one year and then the older veteran the next.
“That worked out perfectly when I got into ninth grade,” he said. “Heck, when I was a kid, I was on the ice more than I was off of it.”
There are other overlaps for a multisport athlete in a small town, and sometimes your coach becomes your teammate: Chris Eaton coached Clark in both hockey and golf, but also played alongside Clark on the Slugs hockey team, made up mostly of adults.
Monica Clark said the Slugs players took on JJ while he was still in high school because of his enthusiasm, and took the young skater under their wings. In much the same way, Clark has taken Stowe youths under his wing, whether it was as a sophomore making sure his freshmen friends didn’t get too intimidated with high school, or putting in a few extra hours on the ice with the girls’ hockey team in the afternoon. And that’s all after skating with the boys’ varsity team at 5:30 a.m. and going to school all day.
“Every day, five hours of ice time and school?” his mother said. “That’s the only time I’ve thought maybe he was overdoing it.”
Clark said that, although his studies suffered a little during hockey season, he is still graduating as a “solid B-plus student,” and plans on attending a gap year at Bridgton Academy, a transitional “grade 13” boarding school in Maine, to prepare himself for college.
Graves, the Stowe High athletic director who herself is a force to be reckoned with on the ice, said she runs academic eligibility checks every couple of weeks.
“Certainly if somebody’s playing multiple sports and their grades are falling behind, I’d suggest maybe dropping a sport,” Graves said.
Clark has a reputation as a bit of a bruiser on the ice, and has spent a fair amount of time in the penalty box both in hockey and lacrosse. One example came in March, during the championship game at UVM. He leveled an opposing player who was skating with his head down. It’s worth noting that Clark didn’t go to the box for that hit.
Monica said the refs often don’t know what to do with a high school athlete like Clark, who’s simply bigger and tougher than other kids.
If he does continue to play hockey after Stowe, as he plans — he’s excited about rubbing shoulder pads with former Raiders during the wildly popular annual alumni game — that physicality could give him an edge in the more rugged leagues. In high school, though, it led more often to a timeout.
“They called him for things that other players might not get called for,” Monica said.
Not bad for a kid who was born early.