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Mother’s MS keeps MSU’s Clark grounded

Phil Clark was parked outside his favorite bagel shop Saturday in Cincinnati, talking on the phone with a reporter about the underrated importance of sensation in the fingertips.

“You never realize how valuable that is until you don’t have it anymore,” he said.

It’s the latest thing his wife, Jacque’, no longer has. It’s the latest thing multiple sclerosis has taken from her. It joins a list that includes the ability to work, drive, walk and get to the bathroom on her own.

“Some people with this disease have ups and downs,” Phil said of his wife of 24 years, who has lived with MS for 16. “With Jacque’, it’s a steady decline.”

That’s when she beeped in on his phone. She wanted to know when their son, Michigan State senior offensive lineman Donavon Clark, would be home. Phil told Jacque’ that Donavon had to lift and pack, and that he’d be home by mid-afternoon.

And then, after their brief conversation, Phil said: “I told her the same thing this morning.”

Those are the struggles, so distressing at times that Phil belongs to a support group for caregivers. Here’s the reality for Phil and Jacque’ as they prepare to head to Arlington, Texas, to cheer the No. 3 Spartans (12-1) against No. 2 Alabama (12-1) on Dec. 31 in the Cotton Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal.

“We’re having the time of our lives,” Jacque’ said.

And the only child they were able to have, an underrated player and leader for a team that is two wins from a national championship, can trace his achievement to adversity. That’s an overused word in sports, an appropriate one for the Clark family.

“It’s been kind of hard over the years, dealing with my mom’s situation, my dad and my family sometimes have to make sacrifices for the better of her,” Donavon said. “But my dad has been able to come to every one of my games while still watching over his wife. It just shows you how much character he has. … What I do is easy compared to that. And my mom, I’ve learned so much from her. I learned that whatever situation you’re put in, you’ve just got to keep pushing.”

Phil ribs Michigan State defensive lineman Damon Knox, a Muskegon (Mich.) High grad, about that catch in 1982. Sure, Knox was still a decade from birth, but Phil has detailed for him the winning touchdown he grabbed as a senior tight end for Flint (Mich.) Northern to beat Muskegon that year.

That was the career highlight for a 6-foot, 170-pound player who didn’t have the size to continue playing after high school, but who battled against the likes of Flint and MSU legends Mark Ingram and Andre Rison as a kid.

He also battled the despair of losing his mother as a teenager. Ernestine Clark was 41 when she died in 1980 of stomach cancer.

Tom Clark, who worked at GM’s Fisher Body plant in Flint until he retired in 1987, kept it together for his five children. Three were out of the house. Phil and his younger sister, Penny, were still at home.

“We didn’t miss a beat — my dad put aside his life and he dedicated it to us,” said Phil, 50, whose father passed away in 2010 at age 74. “That helped prepare me to do this, to pick up when things are rough and continue with life.”

Phil’s life after high school took him to suburban Chicago and DeVry Technical Institute, then to Cincinnati where his older brother, Michael, worked for Procter & Gamble. Michael was a fraternity brother at Purdue of Bobby Williams — the former MSU head coach and current Alabama assistant coach — and he went to school with wrestler John Allen, father of MSU starting linemen Jack and Brian Allen.

Phil got a job selling computers and then was hired as a systems integration specialist with GE Aircraft Engines. Penny moved to Cincinnati after graduating from Western Michigan in 1989 and got a job selling insurance.

She thought her co-worker Jacque’ Young might like Phil, and she introduced them at church. Their first date was just before Memorial Day in 1990. They were engaged a month later.

“She was just a very nice, down-to-Earth woman, she had nice qualities about her,” said Phil, who now works in the Information Technology department at the University of Cincinnati. “You could say we were both homebodies.”

Or in the words of Jacque’: “The kooky lady meets the kooky guy. We’re two kooks.”

“Phil proposed to me on the phone,” Jacque’, 48, said. “I put the phone down, then I picked it back up and said, ‘Did you just ask me to marry you?’ He said he did and I said, ‘Oh. OK. Yes.’ ”

They married in 1991 and planned a family. Late in Jacque’s pregnancy with Donavon, who was born on Nov. 12, 1992, she was diagnosed with toxemia.

The condition, also called pre-eclampsia, involves high blood pressure and can be dangerous to mother and baby. Donavon was delivered safely via cesarean section, but the Clarks were told they couldn’t risk another pregnancy.

“But we had our boy,” Phil said.

Watch enough slow-motion footage of MSU’s offensive line in action and you’re bound to encounter a glimpse of one of Donavon’s legs bending in an unnatural way. This is a 6-foot-4, 325-pound man who can do the splits with ease, and whose “double-jointed” knees have come in handy.

MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten said film sessions come to a halt at those moments, with some players groaning and covering their eyes and Staten saying: “Holy cow, did that just happen and is he OK?”

“That guy’s like Gumby, I’m telling you,” Jack Allen said of Donavon, who starts at right guard. “If I got put in the positions he’s been put in, I’d be in a wheelchair watching from the sideline.”

Flexibility is an underrated trait for an offensive lineman, and Donavon is an underrated component of this MSU offensive line. Jack Allen and junior left tackle Jack Conklin are the All-Americans, but Donavon is an NFL prospect as well, a guy who has played every position but center and started at left tackle as a redshirt freshman at Michigan in 2012.

“He doesn’t get the attention he deserves,” Jack Allen said of Donavon, who did get All-Big Ten third team recognition this season and has been invited to the prestigious East-West Shrine Game for senior pro prospects on Jan. 23 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“He’s so athletic, so important for us,” Staten said. “And he’s become a leader for us. He never complains and he’s very selfless. Football is fun to him, it’s a joy.”

Donavon is known for his dreadlocks — teammates often joke about cutting them off — and for a bellowing laugh he said “can be heard from miles and miles away.”

“It’s very, very obnoxious,” he said. “But it’s just me.”

His parents aren’t sure where he got that, nor are they certain whom to credit for the large, flexible, athletic body. Jacque’ joked that he ate so much growing up, they almost built him a “Snoopy house” in the backyard.

Donavon Clark