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Kadner: Quinn to sign ‘Rocky Clark Law’

Rasul 'Rocky' Clark  |  File photo

Rasul "Rocky" Clark | File photo

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Updated: September 3, 2013 7:05AM



Rasul “Rocky” Clark spent his last 11 years battling for every second of life the way he once fought for every yard on the football field.

It was his spirit that inspired a firestorm of media publicity that will result in Gov. Pat Quinn signing the “Rocky Clark Law” on Sunday at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island.

The measure requires that every student-athlete in Illinois be covered by up to $3 million in catastrophic health insurance.

“It was the small voice of Rocky Clark being heard by the Illinois Legislature, by the governor and eventually across the nation that resulted in this bill being passed,” said Deacon Don Grossnickle, co-founder of the Gridiron Alliance, who campaigned tirelessly for the measure.

Rocky was 16 in September 2000 when he became a quadriplegic after an injury during a football game at Eisenhower.

Community High School District 218 actually was one of the few in the state that voluntarily provided catastrophic health insurance to all students.

But after 10 years, Rocky had gone through all of that money. That’s when I, along with many other reporters, first met him in his Robbins home.

Unable to leave his bed without assistance, or even turn his head, Rocky had only one complaint — his medical costs were continuing, but his family had no money to pay the bills.

Grossnickle and the Gridiron Alliance have come to the aid of many such student-athletes in Illinois over the years. He can recite the names of four who have died (Clark, Michael Schwass, Travis Hearn and Ron Komosa) and three who remain alive (J.J. O’Connor, Kenneth Jennings and Steven Herbst).

“Each year, you know, school districts and coaches hold meetings with parents and their children to talk about sportsmanship,” Grossnickle said. “But in those meetings not a word is ever said about the potential for catastrophic injury.

“Each year 100 student-athletes or cheerleaders suffer from such an injury, but no one warns the parents that before they allow their children to participate maybe they should think about insurance.”

The cost of a policy that would provide up to $7 million worth of catastrophic coverage is about $1.75, the price of a cup of coffee.

One of the flaws in the Rocky Clark Law is that it provides $3 million worth of insurance for up to five years, whichever comes first, when the student’s medical expenses exceed $50,000.

“There are many students whose parents don’t have health insurance playing sports in Illinois,” Grossnickle said, explaining that even an injury that costs less than $50,000 could be catastrophic to some families.

But that sort of money could be raised by friends, family members and fellow students, if necessary.

The Rocky Clark Law, like many pieces of legislation, is a compromise.

An initial measure, sponsored by state Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest), which would have provided more than twice as much insurance, failed to pass the Legislature last year.

This year, state Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Flossmoor), a former pro football player and star at Northwestern University, took up the cause along with Davis. But to get the bill passed, it provided less money and has no specific source of funding.

“All it would take is for school districts to add a few cents onto the price of each ticket to a sporting event,” Grossnickle said.

“I tried to talk the IHSA (Illinois High School Association) into doing it, but they wouldn’t. Now they’re in charge of obtaining an insurance provider under the law.”

District 218 Supt. John Byrne has said the district provides $7 million in catastrophic insurance for every student for less than $2. He believes that by creating a larger pool of participants through the new law, the cost should be much less.

“This bill is a first step, a baby step,” Grossnickle said. “I am thrilled by what the governor is doing. Thrilled by the leadership of Napoleon Harris and Will Davis.

“But statistics show that an average of $1 million a year is needed to enhance the well-being of the post-injury comeback journey. And this ought to be a national crusade because most states and most school districts do not require any catastrophic health insurance for their student-athletes.”

It borders on negligence to allow teenagers to participate in sports competitions, especially football, without catastrophic insurance coverage.

It’s simply irresponsible on the part of school superintendents and coaches to have failed to advocate for state laws that would mandate such coverage.

I realize these are tough economic times in Illinois and throughout the nation.

But whenever I see a line of cars at Starbucks these days, I think of Rocky Clark lying in his bed, not complaining about his physical condition, but just asking for the funds to back his fight for life.

He died last year at age 27.

His mother has said she doesn’t want him to be remembered as a tragic figure but as a fighter. I simply think of him as one of the most courageous men I have ever met.

He looked forward to the future. Toward a day when some miracle medical procedure would repair his spinal injury and he would walk again.

I remember him as a young man who blamed no one for his predicament.

But this fall, there will be other 16-year-olds putting on helmets and pads, never thinking for a moment they could end up bedridden for the rest of their lives.

Thanks to Rocky’s personal fight and willingness to talk to reporters about intimate details of his life, at least some families may be able to pay for their medical care.

That’s Rocky’s legacy. But I think he would tell us all to keep up the fight for something better.



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