Bill Clark's back surgery set for Monday
Bill Clark has had surgery before. He's had back surgery before, a discectomy decades ago. He's never had this back surgery, but as he said, "It's time."
Come Monday, if all goes as planned, Clark will undergo a spinal fusion that he hopes will be the solution to decades of back pain. That pain had become so debilitating in the last year that it led him to retire from coaching to have the surgery recommended by multiple world-class medical experts.
How is he feeling as the big day approaches? Hopeful and optimistic? A bit apprehensive? Simply ready to face this challenge, attack the lengthy post-operative recovery and get to a place where he's as close to pain-free as he's been in his entire adult life?
"All of the above."
He sounded in good spirits even though the off-season journey from a series of medical consultations to his June 24th retirement announcement to the weekend before major surgery has been almost as eventful as the eight memorable years he spent as UAB's head football coach.
One scheduled date for the procedure came and went because the doctor had a family emergency. Both Clark and his wife contracted COVID. The back pain that radiates down his leg, impervious for months to the cortisone injections that once gave him temporary relief, seemed worse than ever.
At a Birmingham City Schools event at Huffman High School's football field sponsored by the CoachSafely Foundation, which Clark serves as vice president, he excused himself from a conversation to go sit down to ease the pain. As the keynote speaker at the American Values Luncheon for the Greater Alabama Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the discomfort forced him to stretch during his speech.
It was odd behavior from an active, seemingly healthy two-time national coach of the year.
"I was so tired of that," Clark said. "It's no way to live."
Not for the son of a high school football coach who got his start in the profession by working as an assistant for his dad while still in college. Not for a man who recently celebrated his 54th birthday, who loves to walk and get in the gym to work out.
"The daily function of walking and standing is something we all take for granted," Clark said. "You learn to manage the pain until you get to that point where you can't and it's time to do something."
Something that's lifted Clark's spirits through the physical anguish that led to the painful decision to retire has been the outpouring of support and affection from UAB fans and beyond, which he called "very humbling" and "beyond gracious and nice." Numerous people who have gone through a spinal fusion have reached out to share their stories to prepare him for the challenging recovery ahead, which Clark expects to last about six months.
"I don't see being seen a lot," he said. "You hear you're going to be sleeping in a chair. Let's just get to where you're walking around. Hopefully, the next time everybody sees me, I'll be a lot better off."
A common thread runs through those personal experiences with the procedure. Clark said almost everyone who's been through it has told him, "I'm so glad I did it. Now, the first eight weeks are not fun, but you'll be glad you did it. That's what I'm hanging onto."
They've also shared another powerful piece of advice.
"You've got to let yourself heal," Clark said. "That's the biggest thing I had to commit to. Stopping to heal."
He's already starting to prepare for life without debilitating pain and numbness. He has ambitious goals like snow skiing but more pedestrian plans as well. Like walking and working out with intensity and not excusing himself from a conversation to find a place to sit down.
"There are things I couldn't do," he said. "That's what I'm hoping to take advantage of. There's a lot of life out there left to live."