Eric Clark loves football.
And for the past 10 years, he’s done exactly what he wanted to do, coach the football team at his alma mater, Northeast High School.
All football coaches love to win, and championships are the ultimate team goal for any coach at any level.
But Clark, who has spent the past 10 years on the Vikings sideline, the past three as the head coach, the Public League championships, the Thanksgiving wins over Central and all of the good things the team accomplished on the football field are nice. But they’re certainly not the best thing he did during his time as a Vikings coach, and it’s certainly not what he’ll remember most fondly.
Clark, 37, has stepped down as football coach at Northeast, the same school he represented as a player before graduating in 2003. It’s also the same school where Clark teaches physical education and health to his students. He’s staying on as a teacher, and while he’s no longer the football coach, he’ll always be there for Vikings, past, present and future.
“Wins and losses are amazing, but developing young men is amazing, that’s what the most important part of being a football coach is,” said Clark, who is stepping down to spend more time with his family, but will continue to help through football when the opportunity pops up. “Signing day is like Christmas for me. I get so excited to see them put on their shirts, from Power 5 conferences to Division III. That’s the proudest moment for me.
“I gave Northeast everything I could as a football coach, 10 years, three as head coach. I’m so thankful and blessed to have that job. I love the school. It meant everything to me.”
Clark leaving puts a massive void on the Vikings sidelines.
During his three years as the head coach, he led the team to two championships. His best team might have been the first one he was slated to coach, but the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season. Northeast played in the spring, but there was no Public League title, and three of his top players left for college before the spring, so they didn’t play.
Clark has sent a lot of players to Division I schools, but he also worked hard to make sure his guys got into other schools, and if they wanted to play football, he did his best to find them placement.
“I love what we did as a football team, but if you look at our players, they’re all great young men, that’s something that’s very important,” Clark said. “I’m most proud that we had 100 percent graduation rate, 100 percent college acceptance and 100 percent of them going to college, a trade school or a two-year school.”
The good news for the guys whom Clark has mentored is that he’s not really going anywhere.
He might be giving up the whistle, but he’s still going to be in the school, and just as he did his entire teaching career, he’ll help any student who needs it.
And he’s just following in his mentor’s footsteps.
Clark’s support system starts at home with his wife Shayla, his daughters McKenzie and McKayla, his parents, Eric Sr. and Antoinette, and his three sisters, Erica, Chanel and Michelle.
“My family is ridiculously supportive, I’m truly blessed,” said Clark, who lives in Cherry Hill. “I would come home from games, and my family would either be there or watch on the livestream (on Sports Fan Base Network), I would have hundreds of text messages.
“I’m a 37-year-old man, but like all of us, I love making my mama proud. When she tells me she’s proud of me, I’m like a kindergartener again. And my dad, he’s my mentor, the man I wanted to be like.
“My wife is the best wife out there. She’s so supportive. Great mom, and our girls, man, I love them so much. Not coaching is very hard, but when you see them, it’s time for me to be with them.”
Just as he preached at Northeast, and will continue to preach for the rest of his teaching career, Clark says family first. But just like his father, Clark learned a lot from his high school track coach Mel Hinton, who later served as the Vikings football coach.
Hinton and his staff, which included Northeast athletic director and former head coach Phil Gormley and Clark, were great football minds. But what made Hinton such a great teacher and mentor was his ability to relate to his players.
“You were never worried you were going to get your butt whipped (by Hinton), but you didn’t want to let him down,” Clark said. “If I could be 1 percent, one miniscule to a young man what Coach Hinton was to me, that’s everything.
“I was lucky because as a young African American, you see a lot of athletes and a lot of rappers. That’s what a lot of kids want to be like because they see it. I saw (Hinton) as a football coach. Here’s a man who looks like me. I can do it, too. Eric Clark Sr. is my role model, but Mel was a great mentor as well.”
Clark was to his players what Hinton was to Clark. And he’s happy to see other coaches, particularly young black coaches, doing the same thing at other schools. Even if it means the competition is getting better.
“Look at (Hakeem Cooper) at Lincoln and (Damon Brockington) at Frankford are doing,” Clark said. “They’re at their schools, building the programs, getting everything back to the way it was. I’m happy for Damon and even though they made the Public League finals a tough game for us, I love what (Cooper) is doing at Lincoln. It’s good for the league and the kids. I love the Philly leagues, public schools and the Catholic schools.”
All of the things Clark accomplished, as a player at Northeast and Towson, as an assistant coach with stops at Imhotep Charter and Northeast, and head coach at Northeast, Clark is a teacher first. He believes in coaching like a teacher and teaching like a coach.
“I love that I’m still in position to teach health and physical education,” Clark said. “I’m able to help children stay healthy, make sure they take care of their mental health, and help kids get into college. I’ll still help. I just will do it as a teacher, and not on Friday nights on the field.
“I call these kids my nephew. They’ll call me Unc. I love these kids, they’re my family. I told them, my final speech, I love them and it doesn’t end on the football field. I want these guys to carry my casket when I die. When they have a child, I want to be there. When they get married, I want to send the first gift. They’re my family. And family is the most important thing.”
Even more important than football.