West Blocton’s Clements named 4A Making a Difference recipient

AHSAA Class 4A Making A Difference Recipient

West Blocton Coach Joseph Clements Vowed to Walk Again and he Did.

By Josh Bean

MONTGOMERY – Joe Clements made good on his promise.
Critically injured in a 2012 car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist to down, the West Blocton offensive coordinator vowed to walk down the aisle at his 2014 wedding. He did.

“Yeah, he pretty much stole the show,” said Johnel Clements, Joe’s wife.
Nothing, it seems, has been able to stop Clements, who has earned his mathematics degree, gotten married, and launched a promising coaching and teaching career at his alma mater since the fateful day in 2012 when his life nearly ended.

Doctors suggested Clements would never walk again and prepared his family for a lifetime of wheelchair use, but Clements credits his “hard-headed” attitude for refusing to believe it.

West Blocton head football coach Eric Hiott said Clements has become a walking, talking inspiration in the small Bibb County town of approximately 1,500 residents. It also explains why Clements is the AHSAA 2020 Class 4A Making A Difference Award recipient – one of seven individuals receiving the honor which recognizes coaches, teachers and administrators who make a positive impact in their schools and communities.

The crash

Clements remembers the date – April 7, 2012 – and many of the crash details.

A blown rear tire caused his truck to flip. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was ejected onto the pavement. He even remembers a medical helicopter arriving to airlift him to a Birmingham hospital after a bystander stopped and called 911.

Everyone, Hiott recalled, feared Clements would not survive. “It was horrible,” Hiott said of the accident scene.

Clements suffered multiple injuries, including a punctured spinal cord and fractures to multiple vertebrae. He spent months in the hospital before eventually moving to Spain Rehab just south of Birmingham. Once survival became likely, doctors and therapists began preparing Joe and his family for life in a wheelchair.

“They said, ‘Never,’” Clements said of his ability to walk again. “I said I would walk again.”

It was especially bitter news for Clements, a high school lineman om high school at West Blocton known for his tenacious leadership and toughness.

Today, though, he understands doctors were trying to be practical, not overly pessimistic, and were preparing him for the notion that physical therapy might not yield the results he planned.

Back to coaching

Prior to his accident, Clements spent a year as a walk-on lineman at Jacksonville State before beginning his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at nearby Bibb County High after moving home and enrolling at Shelton State Community College. Clements later arrived at his alma mater as a volunteer helping coach offensive linemen.

His path to full-time teaching and coaching took him to the University of Alabama – when others had to drive him to Tuscaloosa because he couldn’t – before earning his degree online through Southern New Hampshire University.

He attacked his rehab with the same rabid intensity he used in football workouts as a high school standout. “He didn’t want anyone to do anything for him,” his wife said with a laugh. “It was actually pretty aggravating.”

On the field, Clements progressed from coaching offensive line to offensive coordinator for Hiott, who said he expects “Joe will be a fantastic head coach one day. The kids respond to him, and he knows football.”

Clements admits he has found his calling in coaching. Though it all, he progressed from needing a wheelchair to using a walker to using crutches to using a cane … and now to nothing at all.

“That first step I take every day is a blessing,” Clements said.

Inspiring others

There are few secrets in a small town like West Blocton, and Clements’ near-fatal car crash is something nearly everyone remembers. Clements said he tries not to use his story too often when mentoring players or his math students. “I don’t want the kids to think, ‘Oh, here’s coach telling us about his wreck again.’”

Hiott, though, said everyone from players to fellow coaches find inspiration by seeing Clements walk down the hall or pace the sidelines on Friday night. So does his wife.

“I think he dealt with the crash a lot better than family members or I did,” she said. “He’s always been the stronger one, the backbone, and it was him just lifting up everyone’s spirits even when he was in the hospital. He still does that now.

“When he said he’d walk me down the aisle, I had no doubt,” Johnel added. “When he said he was going to do it, I knew he was going to do it. When I saw him take his first step, I knew it was all over and the doctors didn’t have a clue what was fixing to happen. … I just really lucked up when I got him.”

Learning from others

“When I think back about all the people that have helped me on my journey to where I am now, it is quite difficult. First is my family,” Clements said. “We did not grow up with a whole lot of money, but my brother and I never went wanting. My mom and dad always worked so that their boys could have the world. When I wrecked, my mom and dad were a week from buying a house of their dreams, and years of savings were going toward that house. I wrecked, and they put all that money into the trailer that we lived in so that it was handicapped accessible.”

His mom also quit her job to take care of her son. “She helped me rehab every day all day. She would drive me to therapy and school. While she did that, my dad would work many hours overtime just to provide.”

He said he and his wife had been dating three months and he was heading to a Birmingham mall to by her a gift when the accident happened. “She was told that night that her boyfriend would never walk again. She was told by me and several others to leave and live a life with someone capable of providing for her. She ignored all those people and stuck with me throughout all the many falls and failures.

“I am truly blessed. Because of her perseverance with me, I made a promise to walk her down the aisle, and I did. We have been happily married for six years and many more to come.”

He also credits his high school football coach Gregg Farnetti and current West Blocton head coach Eric Hiott. “Coach Farnetti was a major influence for me choosing education and coaching. He was an excellent head coach He taught me so much about the game of football and the most important, life. So much so, I wanted to be like him.  He is like my second dad, and I am proud to call him a friend.”

Clements says Hiott’s influence has come in recent years. “He has impacted my career as an educator and football coach significantly,” said Clements. “He has taught our team and staff how not to give up and how to endure through adversity. He lost his wife of 28 years a couple of years ago, and he and his son persevered through the situation. He would use this situation as a lesson to teach young men, including me, how not to give up just because something terrible has happened.

“He has impacted not only my life but many others. He is a great friend and inspiration.”

COMING MONDAY: Class 3A Making a Difference Award Recipient Walter Wellborn High School football coach Jeff Smith.