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'BEYOND ANYTHING': Duce Chestnut, Alijah Clark reunite in Syracuse's secondary – The Daily Orange

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he death of his grandmother was the last straw for Alijah “Cinco” Clark.
Since the sixth grade, a continuous cycle of loss that included close friends, family members and the miscarriage of twins by his mother, Chekiha Rolen — which happened three weeks before his grandmother’s death — finally took the ultimate toll on Clark. But Clark, then a junior in high school, experienced the first loss of someone who “raised” him, his older brother Adrian said.
All Clark wanted to do was sit in his room. He stopped talking, even eating, and uncharacteristically missed his football practices. This was when his longtime teammate and best friend, Darian “Duce” Chestnut stepped in.
“The heartache and pain of loss, Alijah was battling that for a while, silently,” Rolen said. “He had decided that he didn’t want to play the game anymore.”
Adrian sat in the living room eating cereal and watching TV when he heard the front door open. It was Chestnut, who let himself in without knocking. When Adrian asked why he was there, Chestnut’s response was “I’m going upstairs.” He entered Clark’s room, flicked the light on and literally dragged him outside. They went to the football field nearly every day until Clark “just felt happy.”
“They do not just celebrate each other during their most amazing times, but they are together in their darkest days,” Rolen said. “Their connection is way beyond football, it’s way beyond anything.”
After playing at different schools in their freshman campaign, their bond brought them back together at Syracuse. Clark, who played cornerback for Rutgers, transferred to Syracuse in late January, becoming Syracuse’s third 4-star prospect on its roster while joining Chestnut for the fourth time in six seasons. SU lists Clark as its starting free safety while Chestnut will start at cornerback again.
The week leading up to Syracuse’s game against Rutgers was unique for Chestnut. Hearing his coaches create a game plan to combat his childhood friend in Clark during weekly film sessions was “crazy” to him. Syracuse’s main focus on Clark was his aggressiveness, especially on kickoffs.
Clark and Chestnut’s families held a tailgate outside the Dome, all wearing custom T-shirts that Rolen and Brown made for the occasion, which said either “Rutgers mom” or “Syracuse mom” on the front with a photo of either Chestnut or Clark. On the back, it said either “Duce’s mom” or “Cinco’s mom” with their respective numbers.
Chestnut said it was “a movie out there” when warmups began, especially when he saw Clark run to the crowd to sign autographs.
“Just seeing them both living out their dreams and their goals, we all were happy for them,” said Leslie Brown, Chestnut’s mother.
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Clark and Chestnut became familiar with each other playing on opposite teams at a very young age. When they were around nine years old, they faced each other in little league before finally playing together on a local flag football team in middle school. They played alongside each other on the Next Level Greats (NLG) 7-on-7 team in eighth grade.
The 7-on-7 style of football became the best way for Chestnut and Clark to apply what they learned from positional training in a more fast-paced environment, Marcus Hammond, their NLG coach, said. Since there’s no spring football in New Jersey, it allowed them to play year-round against some of the country’s top talent.
In 2019, the two then-sophomores reunited at Camden High School (NJ) after spending freshman year at Gloucester Catholic High School (NJ). Adrian believed Gloucester Catholic wasn’t a good fit for him since it wasn’t one of the two “powerhouse” schools in the area. That same year, NLG also won the 2019 NFA National Championship.
Chestnut and Clark split time between offense and defense. But due to a roster full of Division-I talent, they became more utilized on special teams during their defensive transition. Initially, they rotated through cornerback, nickel and safety, but their athleticism and size allowed them to excel mostly at defensive back, Camden’s defensive coordinator, Maurice Taylor, said.
“(Duce’s) always been electrifying, especially with the ball in his hands,” Taylor said. “But Chestnut took the defensive back position a little bit more personal…When Alijah came in, and just his size alone, it was just like, this kid, he can be something special because not only did he have the size, he could run.”
Taylor became the duo’s first defensive back coach, working with them on nearly a daily basis in the offseason before their junior year. The two were interchangeable on defense, leading Camden to two consecutive state title games in their sophomore and junior seasons.
“When they’re on the same side of the field, you could tell they knew where each other was at without them talking,” Adrian said. “You could throw a jump ball and Alijah knew Duce was back there, or Duce knew Alijah was back there and they wouldn’t say anything.”
Taylor remembers them battling over who would mark the opposing team’s star receiver. The first to ask Taylor to do so would get the job. The two would sometimes play rock, paper, scissors on the field to determine who covered the top receiver during a game.
Their versatility also carried over into Camden’s offense. Chestnut was an option at quarterback — a position he played for the final five games of his junior season — and Clark’s speediness made him a reliable receiver. During their junior year playoff run against Lincoln High School (NJ), the duo connected for a near 40-yard touchdown, one where Clark jumped over three players to score.
“When (Duce) does actually get a chance to get the ball, he usually makes something happen, he can take it to the house, things like that,” then-Camden head coach Dwayne Savage said. “Alijah, since he played quarterback and receiver, he kind of knows the routes so he’s able to jump routes and make plays.”
Still, their defensive talent earned them multiple D-I offers, which was when speculation began that they would attend the same college. Chestnut, a 3-star recruit, did not receive an offer from Rutgers, nor did he want to go, Brown said. It was the 4-star Clark that stayed close to home with the Scarlet Knights.
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At Camden High School, Duce Chestnut regularly threw touchdowns to Alijah Clark. The pair led Camden two consecutive state title games.Courtesy of Dwayne Savage
Chestnut played a “major role” in Clark’s decision to join Syracuse once he entered the transfer portal, Rolen said. While Clark spent only eight days in the portal, joining Syracuse wasn’t automatically a done deal.
“You could see at Rutgers, Alijah friend-wise was happy with his teammates there, but play-wise, he wasn’t happy,” Adrian said. “There were many conversations that I had with Alijah where he said he wanted to get out, he wanted to transfer.”
Clark received his first phone call within 15 minutes of his announcement, and the seven-school race for Clark began. On the seventh day, he narrowed the choices down to Missouri and Syracuse. But the thought of going “back with (his) brother to link back up again” was simple.
“It was time for them to connect again,” Rolen said.
It seemed like a decision that was planned out last September after Rutgers’ 17-7 win over SU. The two players met outside the Dome once the game was done. They embraced each other before conducting their secret handshake, clapping their hands back-and-forth on the sidewalk. Now they’ll be able to do it on the same field wearing the same uniform, carrying out their dreams together in Syracuse.
“It’s just definitely a family, we call each other brothers,” Chestnut said.
Published on September 1, 2022 at 1:25 am

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