By Dennis Miller
Growing up in Pleasanton in the 1970’s was a special experience. The city was smaller then and it seemed like everyone knew everyone else.
You hung out with the kids that lived around you and the bond was golden with your group of friends. Kids I met back then have become lifelong friends and ones that I still talk with today.
So, when you lose one of that special group, it is as if you lost a family member. When I got the call from longtime friend Keith Clay recently that his younger brother Mark had passed, it was like losing a brother.
Growing up in the same area brought us together as friends, but it was through the sport of soccer that made us even tighter. If you played soccer anywhere in Northern California, you knew of Mark and Keith Clay.
Mark cut his teeth with the Ballistic United Soccer Club, then at Amador Valley and Hoover High in Fresno, before taking his talents to UCLA.
Playing for BUSC in those days meant playing anywhere from 50-100 games a season, with practices at least three days a week if not every day. That meant you spent a lot of time together, thus forming the lifelong bonds.
Mark was one person that will always bring a smile to your face when thinking of him.
“He always made people laugh,” said longtime friend and former teammate Mike Harris. “He was so smart, so you had to get his humor. Did we have some great times…”
Mark was big, strong, fast, and intimidating. He was two years younger than me, so I didn’t get a chance to play on the same team as Mark until we were adults, but he played for my Dad, so I had plenty of chances to see him play.
He was a force.
“He was a brick,” said Mike Nieto, a former teammate of Mark at BUSC and Amador, and then played against Mark at UCLA, when he was at Cal. “I remember him as a teammate that you were glad, he was on your team. You knew that he would cover your butt. He was that enforcer that every team needs.”
Clay also played football for the Amador varsity football team as a sophomore.
“He was a stud,” said Harris, who was also a football teammate of Mark. “He was so good, but football never was his passion. It was always soccer for him.”
Ballistic United Technical Director Kevin Crow, himself a Ballistic and Amador alumni, was older than Mark and didn’t see him play much, but he still knew of Mark.
“He was a talented and athletic player,” said Crow, a former United States National team member. “I always thought he had a good heart. He was the kind of guy that would always have your back.”
I received numerous messages from former Ballistic players expressing both their sorrow at Mark’s passing, but also their appreciation as to what he brought to the game in Pleasanton.
Some were from teammates, but a number were also from players that were younger, telling me about how Mark was a role model and inspiration for them as they grew up playing for Ballistic.
In those days you spent pretty much the entire day at the soccer fields, be it the Aquatic Park fields or the Pleasanton Sports Park. If you were on one of the Ballistic traveling teams in Pleasanton you played your game, then watched the other age groups play.
That’s the way BUSC rolled in those days and it gave the younger players someone to look up to. It was something we embraced as players and were always quick to pay back to the younger teams.
Besides playing at UCLA, Mark was also part of the U.S. Olympic training program and dabbled in the professional ranks.
After his playing days Mark parlayed his athletic ability and personality into the personal training business. Among his many clients was the son of comedian Eddie Murphy.
But everything changed 10 years ago when Mark was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that broke his jaw, neck and some ribs. He got back individually training people until recently.
One other thing some may not have known about Mark is he was am uncle to George Foreman Jr. When George Foreman was the heavyweight champion, he lived in Livermore and trained at the Alameda County Fairgrounds. He was together with Mark’s sister Pam and the couple had George Jr.
Mark and George Jr. had such a strong bond that after Mark passed, George Jr. posted a lengthy, emotional tribute to Uncle Mark on Facebook. It brought me to tears.
After I got done talking with Keith the first time, all that came to mind was that Mark was kicking the ball around with Marty Espinoza in heaven. Marty was one of my best friends from youth sports through college and then as we grew into adults.
Marty passed from cancer 10 years ago and I just know he was waiting for Mark, carrying on that tradition of older players at BUSC helping the younger ones. God bless both of you and we will see again someday.