From Suffolk to the World: Local football stars find careers in the NFL

Published 7:22 pm Friday, April 21, 2023

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By Matthew Hatfield

Contributing writer

Of the 100 most-watched primetime television shows in 2022, 40 of them were National Football League games, illustrating the booming popularity of football in America.

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The City of Suffolk is no stranger to producing talented football players on to the highest of levels, even the NFL.

One can trace all the way back to 1986 when wide receiver Jessie Britt out of Suffolk played a year with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the 1990s, there was another wide receiver that flourished from the city — John F. Kennedy graduate Johnnie Barnes. He went on to play in college at Hampton University, setting numerous receiving records.  

From there, Barnes was chosen in the ninth round, pick No. 231 overall, in the 1992 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers, where he spent three seasons.  After that, Barnes played a year for the Steelers and then in NFL Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals.

Drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots was Suffolk native Deatrich Wise Jr. 

Not only did Wise help the Patriots win Super Bowl LIII, but his steady development led to New England re-signing him to a four-year, $22 million dollar deal in March of 2021. Wise enjoyed a career-high 7.5 sacks to go with 59 tackles during the 2022 campaign while starting 16 games.

Recent Nansemond-Suffolk Academy alum Cole Christiansen won a Super Bowl ring with the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this year.

Then there’s Charles Clark, a King’s Fork grad who started in 40 of 52 games at Virginia Tech on his way to recording 292 tackles. Draft experts pegged him to be on the bubble of landing an NFL career. In the end, Clark was taken in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens.  

Midway through his third season in the league, Clark’s opportunity to ascend into a prominent role came when he was thrust into the starting lineup at free safety after Tony Jefferson sustained a torn ACL.  

Clark has quickly become a staple for a Ravens defense annually regarded among the sport’s best and was compensated for his performance, earning a three-year, $15.3 million dollar contract extension in 2020. Last season, he set career-highs in tackles, finishing with second most on the team in total stops with 101.

“One of the best guys that you ever want to meet,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh says of Clark, who was a nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award presented annually to honor a player’s commitment to philanthropy and community impact as well as excellence on the field.  “Heck of a football player.”

It has gone from a surprise to see someone reach the pro ranks from the area to now being more the norm. Simply put, great progress is being made.