At its core, football is an instinctual game defined by split-second decisions made by players and coaches. Timing is of the essence, and margin for error is usually slim. Victory and defeat are often associated with those who act decisively and those who act tentatively.
On Saturday, September 21, Clear Fork (Ohio) High School’s Zac Clark found himself faced with a similar snap decision, except this time he wasn’t on the football field and the potential outcomes were life and death.
Spreading mulch outside his family’s home in Butler, Ohio, with his mother, Lora, Clark noticed his neighbor performing maintenance from underneath his Volkswagen Passat in the driveway.
Without warning, the 3,000-pound vehicle fell off the supporting jacks and landed on the neighbor’s chest. The bumper now crushing him, there was but a small window of time to save the man’s life – and it was closing quickly. As cries for help rang out from the man’s wife, Clark and his mother recognized the situation and rushed over immediately to help.
“I looked over and heard a ‘bang’ and the first thing that came to mind was ‘just try to go help,’” Clark said.
In a true act of heroism, Clark lifted the car just high enough for his mother and the neighbor’s wife to pull him to safety.
“I saw that the car was on top of him and my instincts just kicked in and I got under the car and just started lifting as much as I could,” Clark recalled. “The main thing I was thinking was, ‘I have to help him as much as I can’ – no matter what it takes for him to be safe.”
Miraculously, the most significant injuries the neighbor suffered were a few cracked ribs, but doctors later determined he would have died had Clark not been in the right place at the right time. With his thoughts clouded by adrenaline, Clark was initially unaware that his legendary lift had spared the man.
“It did not dawn on me that I had saved his life until probably an hour after (the incident),” Clark said. “I called (Clear Fork head coach Dave Carroll) because I was in shock and he just goes, ‘dude, you just saved his life.’ That was where it all just clicked.”
At practice the following Monday, Carroll called the team together to recognize his sophomore left guard, and later acknowledged him from the team’s Facebook account in a post that has since received more than 1,300 engagements from people across the country.
Reports of Clark’s actions were initially met with incredulity on the part of his teammates, but they soon realized that what seemed like a story out of American folklore, was completely true.
“They couldn’t believe it at all,” Clark said. “It wasn’t until the news stations started coming through our school that they started saying ‘dang, you really did that.’”
Clark’s valor, however, came as no surprise to his head coach.
“He just has a huge heart,” said Carroll in an interview with People. “He’s a young man who has been through tragedy himself with his father passing last summer, and he didn’t hesitate at all – went over and did what he had to do.”
In addition to adrenaline and Carroll’s rigorous weightlifting program at Clear Fork, Clark credits his ability to lift the car to “angels watching over” him. One of those angels, he feels, was the spirit of his late father, Rodney, that motivated him to prevent the neighbor’s son – who also attends Clear Fork – from experiencing that same feeling of loss.
“I can imagine what he would go through if he lost his father,” Clark said. “So that kind of helped me push through it all to get (the car) up just enough for (the neighbor) to get out.”
Clark also points to his father when discussing the necessary poise and composure to perform such an act as a teenager.
“My dad was a (corrections) officer and he always taught me if something ever happens to just stay calm,” Clark said. “‘Try to help, and if you can’t help – call the police or an ambulance immediately.’”
As one can imagine, the months since the incident have been a whirlwind of attention for the 16-year-old, as he has done numerous media interviews, and says someone from his community mentions his heroism to him “almost every day.”
“It’s been kind of crazy,” he said. “I never thought I’d be on the news and go on talk shows – it’s really just mind-blowing. I’m only 16, and I have all these people coming to me and thanking me; I’ve been getting cards from all over the country sent to my house, too.”
Clark has personally reflected on the situation in that time as well, and has developed a humble gratitude for his role in such an impactful event.
“I just thank God for letting me be able to do that and putting me in that position,” he expressed. “It was the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.