It was late on Oct. 5 -- the day before his 20th birthday -- and Rowan center Pryce Bouchard was grimacing in a Dover, Del., hospital bed after suffering what he called the “worst pain” of his life.
Then, Robert Clark -- the former commanding officer of the submarine USS Connecticut and the 84th commandant of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy -- walked into his room at Bayhealth Hospital, and Bouchard’s pain was softened with wonder and gratitude.
“It kind of lifted my energy level," Bouchard said.
Clark, now the president at Wesley College in Dover, was there to deliver balloons, Sour Patch Kids candy, a Sports Illustrated magazine and a note with Clark’s personal phone number to Bouchard. A red-shirt freshman on the Rowan football team, Bouchard had broken the fibula in his left leg and dislocated his ankle in a gruesome pileup late in the 21-20 Wesley victory earlier that day.
So, knowing that Bouchard’s teammates and coaches had already headed back to South Jersey and that Bouchard’s parents were still in the thick of a six-hour drive from upstate New York to the hospital, Clark wanted to connect and console the injured player.
“I just wanted to reassure him that he was in good care,” Clark said. "How could you not make sure this young man, that was under your care, feels secure and safe? I could not have thought of anything else to do.”
Bouchard said his mood brightened even more when he noticed the candy Clark brought.
"Big guys like to eat,” Clark said.
Bouchard was not alone before Clark showed up that night. Longtime Rowan athletic trainer Colleen Grugan had stayed behind with Bouchard as he prepared for late-night surgery, and she, too, was surprised when Clark knocked on the door.
Grugan "said that she’s never seen that since she’s been here,” Bouchard said of Clark’s visit.
Later, longtime Rowan coach Jay Accorsi praised Clark for bringing "comfort to an uncomfortable situation.”
"I was like, ‘Wow!’ " Accorsi said. "I can’t remember a time in all of my coaching career of a college president ever doing something like that.”
“It shouldn’t be unique,” Clark said.
Bouchard’s injury was serious. His left ankle was bent to a 90-degree angle. He said he heard a “snap" and immediately collapsed in agony. Eventually, around midnight that night, just about as he turned 20, doctors inserted a plate and seven screws to repair the damage.
“It was kind of a shock to the system,” Bouchard said. “It felt like straight pain for an hour and 30 minutes. The pain was unbearable.”
Clark knows about pain and sacrifice and the thrill of athletics. A graduate of West Chester East High School in Chester County, he earned varsity letters in football, basketball and track and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2007.
He spent 32 years in the U.S. Navy’s submarine force, working in a variety of roles, and won awards for tactical excellence and leadership. The president at Wesley College since July 2015, Clark said he doesn’t want to be a typical college president who may rely on “laptop leadership.”
To that end, Clark attends as many Wesley events as he can and sometimes takes part in cardio workouts with the athletes.
On Oct. 5, Clark was watching from the Wesley sideline as Bouchard and his Rowan teammates battled Clark’s Wolverines. In the third quarter, Bouchard was blocking to his right when another player stepped on Bouchard’s ankle, and it bent awkwardly.
The 6-foot, 265-pound Bouchard dropped to the ground in pain, and players from both teams, seeing the grotesque injury up close, ran to the sidelines calling for assistance.
“Any time a player gets hurt, and you see the players running away from the injured player, you know it’s pretty serious," Accorsi said.
Bouchard’s father, Mike, who also played a year of football at Rowan, hadn’t missed a game all season. But he and Bouchard’s mother, Deirdre, had stayed home to watch a live stream of this game. They saw Bouchard go down but didn’t know if the injury was serious.
Then they got a phone call from a parent of another player.
“When it’s your son, and you’re watching it on TV, it’s crazy,” Mike Bouchard said. “You wish you were there. I said to my wife I’ll never miss another game. I don’t care where I have to drive.”
While the Bouchards were driving south to reach their son, Accorsi said he felt “horrible” about leaving Bouchard behind at the hospital. So he constantly called Grugan for updates.
Clark wasn’t supposed to be headed to the hospital, either. He had an appointment in Central Pennsylvania right after the game. But when he saw the severity of Bouchard’s injury, he canceled those plans and headed to the hospital.
Clark left before Bouchard went into surgery, and Bouchard’s parents got there minutes after the operation began.
The night before the injury, Mike Bouchard said, Pryce had called his father and told him how much he loved going to football practice. He still has the same excitement that he had as a 7-year-old, Mike Bouchard said.
So it isn’t surprising that Bouchard wanted to get the surgery quickly so he could return to the field this season. When doctors told him it would be four months until he could even jog, Bouchard changed his goal to returning for spring practice.
“It sucks,” Bouchard said. “I love football. Anything to get back.”
“He knows the difference between pain and injury,” Mike Bouchard said of his son. “He can play through pain.”
So Bouchard -- after terrible pain, huge disappointment and an uplifting visit from an unlikely new friend -- has a great story to tell. And how did it end that night?
When his surgery ended at about 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 6, “I woke up," Bouchard said, "and the first thing my parents say is, ‘Happy Birthday.’ "