Frank Clark strolled through the visiting locker room inside Estadio Azteca, high-fiving teammates as they recapped a few plays in the Chiefs' 24-17 win last Monday against the Chargers in Mexico City.
As he ultimately made his way back to his locker, someone stopped him — Chiefs general manager Brett Veach.
"I told you what happens when I'm healthy," Clark said loudly and forcefully as they shook hands. And then he repeated the line a couple of more times.
In a trying, frustrating, injury-ravaged introduction in Kansas City, the exchange felt fitting. On one end of the handshake stood a man previously unable to showcase his explosiveness, slowed by a pinched nerve. On the other, a man who never doubted the impact would arrive.
On Monday, Clark showed himself to be a player worthy of the Chiefs' compensation — first- and second-round draft picks and a $104 million contract. He sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. He made a run-stop in the backfield on third down. He demolished tight ends and tackles attempting to block him. He hit Rivers twice more, leading to one interception and a pass that should have resulted in another.
In his most complete game in a Chiefs uniform, Clark wrecked the Chargers' offense.
"At the end of the day, I know things ain't going to go in my favor all the time," Clark said. "I know what I bring. I know what I bring to the table. I know what's going to happen."
His influence wasn't a regular part of the Chiefs' defensive equation for the first two months, though in a five-year contract, the early conclusions about his ability were probably just that — too early.
And they were made without all of the facts, apparently. In a conversation with The Star after a loss in Tennessee earlier this month, Clark revealed that he has been dealing with a pinched nerve in his neck since training camp, severe enough to prompt burning sensations up and down his arm and numbness in his fingers.
In the debate of excuse versus reality, a return to health offers evidence for the latter. The Chiefs sat Clark for two weeks, allowing him time to heal. Sure enough, he's returned a different player — the edge rusher the Chiefs sought in their offseason trade with Seattle.
"I'm starting to feel better," Clark said in his postgame news conference Monday, standing in a room full of media. "I'm getting there. ... Just getting my body together. It's a football season. It's a grind. You gotta come with it."
The conversation with Veach, absent the podium and away from reporters' questions, proved most revealing. In one exchange with his general manager, Clark showed relief, elation and an acknowledgment of past frustration.
Over the previous four quarters, he had shown an ability that could have a significant effect on his team's stretch run — because his presence only expanded during Monday night's game in Mexico.
"I think Frank Clark probably jumps out at you for the job that he did," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "He had a heck of a game."
He plowed over defenders in a way that hadn't yet been seen this season — though it was often seen during his time in a Seahawks uniform. On a key third-down play in the fourth quarter, he shoved his blocker three yards into the backfield, withstood a potential hold from that blocker that wasn't called and still made a run-stop to force a Chargers punt.
On an early first-half hit against Rivers, Clark dipped his body at an angle so low that he ducked his head under an offensive tackle, a contortion that would be quite uncomfortable with a pinched nerve. At the back end of the play, he connected with Rivers' arm as the quarterback attempted to throw. The ball came loose, falling into the arms of Chiefs defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi for an interception.
Clark later sacked Rivers. And then he landed another hit on the quarterback that triggered a wobbly football lobbed into the air, what seemed to be a sure interception until it was dropped by safety Tyrann Mathieu. In all, Clark had seven quarterback pressures Monday.
It was like that all night.
Will it be like that all winter? The Chiefs allowed only one touchdown Monday, and that score never would have arrived without the dropped pick and a long pass interference penalty. They intercepted four passes, some of them preceded by a pressured quarterback opting to make bad throws. "Team defense," Clark called it.
He was a critical part of that Monday. And for a Chiefs team that's still a Super Bowl hopeful, it's becoming more and more clear that he must remain part of it in December and potentially January.
"Frank's getting amped up at the perfect time toward the end of the season," Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward said. "I mean, he's feeling himself. He signed a big contract, and he's proving he's worth it now because he's getting his legs back; he's getting healthy.
"Frank is going to be a problem these last five, six games and toward the playoffs."