LATROBE – Being the free safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ryan Clark understands that he’s the last line of defense.
So on Wednesday, when big Limas Sweed had a step on him deep, Clark burst frantically to catch up and he leaped as high as he could to intercept the pass. Clark fell, bounced up off the ground, patted Sweed on the back and howled with delight as he showed off his new football.
“I’ve always been a jerk,” he said with a laugh.
Clark is having fun out there, and it shows.
He’s the same guy who went to Denver in full health last season, but came back near death because of the way the altitude affected his sickle cell trait. Clark didn’t play again after having his spleen and gall bladder removed, and he ambled around the locker room like an old man as his weight fell to 172 pounds. But he’s back. He’s 206 pounds and playing as if he’s re-born.
“I’m a little better,” he said. When asked why, Clark said, “I don’t think I care as much.”
Of course, Clark cares about winning and he cares about playing well, but after last season, when he felt disrespected by the coaching staff, and his health crashed, and one of his best friends, Sean Taylor, was murdered, he asks: “What can they do to me? What can you do that’s going to be worse than last year?”
Clark felt he clearly outperformed his teammate and friend Anthony Smith in camp last year, but was still forced to share playing time into the season. Then came Denver, and then Smith played poorly, and then the team realized what it had back when Ryan Clark was still healthy.
“When I came back, everybody was different,” Clark said. “Even Ben (Roethlisberger) was coming up to me saying, ‘Man, it’s so different with you out there.’ Even walking up (the stairway off the St. Vincent field) last year when I was signing autographs, everybody was like, ‘Ryan try hard, but I think Anthony’s going to beat you out.’ There’s none of that anymore. It’s, ‘We’re so happy to have you back. We’ve been praying for you.’ Things like that.
“But I think it’s sad,” he continued. “I didn’t want to see them do bad. It’s hard to watch a game from the hospital, but it’s harder when you’re losing to the Jets. I didn’t want any of that to happen. I think it’s a shame that to be appreciated I had to get sick and my friends had to not do as well as they usually do.”
Right now, as he’s back on the field going full tilt every day and every practice, Clark says he’s not worried about his health, and that doctors have told him another trip to Denver wouldn’t affect him because “the only organs that would be attacked are gone now.”
Does Clark really buy that?
“No,” he said. “I’ll be honest. It’s definitely a situation where we’d cross that bridge when we get to it. … Really, what I’m hoping for is the AFC Championship game’s not in Denver.”
Clark still must take six injections a year for his condition, and he still can’t travel everywhere he wishes. If he gets an infection, he must go to the hospital. And he can’t just pop a Tylenol when he has a fever. “I’ve got to take my medicine, stay on top of that,” he said. As for his wife and three children, they don’t mind that he’s dragging his body back out onto the field for more punishment.
“The funny thing is my wife’s not into football,” he said. “But she is so excited about this year.”
Clark explained that his wife Yonka took personally the respect the coaching staff gave Smith during the 2007 training camp and the season. “But this year, as I was training, and she’d see me gaining my weight back, she’d get so excited. She’d say, ‘Baby, I can’t wait for this season.’
“She wanted to come to practice the first day. I told her I can’t be the guy who has his wife at the first practice. I’m not going to be that guy. So I told her to come to the second one, so she came out here yesterday and smiled the whole time.”
So, no worries at all?
“No,” Clark said. “Really, we weren’t the ones with the worry. When y’all were coming to me and asking questions about it, I thought maybe you knew something about me that I don’t.”
Clark was reminded that the questions were only natural of someone who seemed to have the grim reaper perched on his shoulder.
“I remember,” he said. “Believe me, I remember.”