Forty-one years after he started at Kennedy Field in Lafayette, Todd Clark has officiated his final high school football game. Before his officiating career was over, he worked six Indiana state championships, his crew making one of the most infamous calls in Class 5A history as Warren Central beat Carmel in 2009.
Before it was over, he lost two knees, wore out an ankle, started doing the same to a hip during the 2014 season. Before it was over, he saw strangers scaling fences and becoming heroes.
Before it was over, he almost died on one of those football fields. He did die later that night at a hospital.
That was nine years ago. Clark is alive today. If you’re confused about any of this, well, join the crowd.
“It’s been difficult to come to grips with why I survived,” Clark says of Oct. 6, 2006. “I have no idea why. Some people say, ‘Well, the Lord had things for you to do.’ That only makes it worse. I didn’t see a white light. I didn’t experience an afterlife. Here’s what happened: I opened my eyes and it was a week later.”
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Todd Clark is more than the events of Oct. 6, 2006. That sentence is for you, and him. He struggles with that night even now, nearly nine years later, wondering if that is all anyone sees when they see him. And he wonders why he lived when so many others have died.
“The more I learn about sudden cardiac arrest, the more I question why I survived,” he tells me up front, as he muses whether to talk further about that night. “I didn’t do anything to deserve it.”
Life doesn’t always give us what we deserve. Innocent children, hurt. Horrible adults, rewarded. Life makes no sense, I’m telling Clark — and he knows, believe me, he knows — but his story didn’t begin or end that night. He was born and raised in Gary, met Nancy at age 16, married her a few years later. Went to Purdue, became a veterinarian, had children.
Became a football official, an umpire on one of the best crews in Indiana, assigned to six state championship games. As a vet, he specializes in cosmetic surgery, piecing together dogs torn apart by other dogs, or doing the delicate work of removing a tumor from a cat’s eyelid.
As a vet, he adopted Burrnie.
When Clark talks about Burrnie, he’s talking about a cat, but I’m hearing a metaphor. The name is spelled Burrnie because he was covered in burrs when he was brought to Clark’s clinic in 1992, malnourished almost to the point of death, his fur so matted that Clark shaved him bald. No picture exists.
“Burrnie would’ve killed me if I’d taken that photo,” Clark says, and this is what he does. He talks of pets as if he’s talking of old friends, which he is. Burrnie was adopted by the clinic and has lived longer than any cat you ever saw, despite intestines that stopped processing most nutrients and legs that stopped working so well. Once 14 pounds, this big beautiful orange tiger cat dropped below 5 pounds.
“Burrnie wouldn’t die,” Clark says. “He wanted to live.”
I tiptoe up to this delicate topic, then fall through it like a plate-glass window:
“Dr. Clark,” I say, “do you see the similarities between Burrnie and yourself?”
He laughs softly.
“That never entered my head,” he says. “But there is some similarity, I can see.”
Now Clark tells me he has made up his mind. He’ll discuss Oct. 6, 2006.
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It happened so fast. Clark is working the Fishers-Lafayette Jeff game, and now he’s walking to the Fishers sideline, now sitting on their bench, now keeling over. Two fans from Fishers, nurses, scale the chain-link fence and sprint to his side. They rip off his shirt and perform CPR while Fishers coaches shoo away players, trying to block their view of this man dying on their sideline.
On the other sideline, the Lafayette Jeff trainer runs to the school for the portable defibrillator. In the Jefferson crowd an off-duty firefighter climbs the fence and crosses the field. Another set of hands for CPR.
Todd Clark was gone. Dead. Then he was brought back by the nurses, the firefighter. No shock from the defibrillator. That’s later.
Now he’s in an ambulance, now the trauma center at St. Elizabeth, and now he’s gone again. No heartbeat. Paddles press against his chest. “Clear!” someone shouts, and 750 volts of electricity explode into his heart. Then again, and again.
“They hit me 37 times with the paddles,” Clark says.
The first 36 times, his heart is still. He’s gone.
“There’s nothing there,” Clark says.
And so it ends. A doctor walks slowly into the waiting room and tells Nancy Clark, “Your husband’s spirit has left his body.” Behind the door, new movement. The doctor leaves, passing a nurse who quickly approaches Nancy:
Nurse: “Do you want to see your husband?”
Nurse: “He’s in ICU.”
Nancy: “He’s alive?”
The 37th paddle strike, that 37th jolt of electricity, jump-started his heart.
“The doctor was telling my family I was gone, but the nurses kept hitting me,” Clark is saying, “and when he came back, I had a beat.”
The next day Clark nearly died again — third time in 24 hours — from complications that sent hundreds of clots into his blood stream, ravaging his liver and kidneys. He was in a coma for a week. His crew’s referee of nearly 40 years, Mark Beck, was visiting when Clark woke up.
“He sees me and he says, ‘I don’t think I can work (the game) Friday,’<TH>” says Beck, the former maintenance crew chief of Ross-Ade Stadium. “I’m telling you, tears rolled down my face. That’s when I knew he’d make it.”
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Playoff game at South Central, one year later. Clark’s holding the football between plays when his chest heaves and he drops the ball. The defibrillator implanted in his heart, reading danger, had activated.
“He looked scared,” Beck says. “He said, ‘That’s the first time it went off.’ I said, ‘You’re out of here.’<TH>“
Beck sent him off the field, but Clark visited the officials’ locker room at halftime and said he was working the second half.
“We said, ‘No, you’re not,’<TH>” Beck says. “But that was his love for the game.”
There was more life for Clark to live. He had cats to save, 15 or 20 over the years who were brought in so flea-bitten, they were drained almost empty. Burrnie donated the blood that sustained them. Burrnie!
He had a rulebook to study. Clark’s family knew where to find him in his spare time. “Lying on the couch,” says his son, John. “Reading the rulebook like it was a novel.”
He had games to work, a crew to work with.
“Basically brothers,” Beck says.
Sometimes brothers have difficult times. Like the 2009 5A championship, when the back judge gave Warren Central a touchdown in the final seconds after a Carmel defender knocked the airborne receiver out of bounds. The call on the field: The hit, not the receiver’s momentum, forced him out. The truth shown on replay: The receiver was heading out of bounds anyway. That ill-gotten touchdown allowed Warren Central to force overtime, where it won in double OT.
After that season, Clark had both knees replaced. As the anesthesia was kicking in, he drowsily asked the doctors around the table: “Are any of you from Carmel? You may leave the room …”
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Clark is 67 and has officiated his last game, though he’ll stay involved as an IHSAA observer. He still deals with survivor’s guilt, calling the night of Oct. 6, 2006 as “pure luck” and saying “they did an amazing job pulling me back” and wondering: Why him? Why him?
Clark is planning his retirement as a veterinarian around his next death.
“I’ll retire when I’m dead,” he says.
I ask if he’s being funny.
“Not funny at all,” he says.
Burrnie left the job first. Unable to walk, unwilling to eat, it was time earlier this month. Clark picked up that orange tiger cat like he always did — cradling him upside down, scratching under his chin – and inserted the needle that sent Burrnie to his final sleep.
“One of the lowest days of my career,” Clark says.
Burrnie lived to be 23. For years he defied death, living when others would have died, and doing wonderful things with that life. And now I’m not sure if I’m writing about Burrnie or the veterinarian who saved him.