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Steelers' Clark ready to play after trying season

Not much was normal -- or pleasant -- about the second half of the 2007 season for Steelers free safety Ryan Clark.

His spleen became infected after an Oct. 21 game at Denver. The intense pain he felt went misdiagnosed for nearly a month, until both his spleen and gallbladder were removed in separate surgeries. He missed the rest of the season, watching his team fall in a Wild Card playoff loss to Jacksonville.

On Nov. 26, there was even worse news: Clark's good friend and former teammate, Sean Taylor, was killed by an intruder at the Redskins star's Florida home.

Yet, for all of the trying times Clark has been through over the past months, things have gotten back to normal lately.

"I've just trained the same way," said Clark, a seven-year veteran from LSU. "I maybe ate a little more, trained a little harder, but nothing really had to be adjusted. I just had to make sure that I didn't get any sicknesses or illnesses that I had to go to the doctor for."

After losing 30 pounds because of his surgeries, Clark has his weight back up to 203 pounds, right where he and the team want it to be.

In fact, the only noticeable change with Clark may be his wardrobe. In practices throughout the offseason, he's been wearing a No. 21 jersey -- the same number Taylor wore.

"In my own little way, I'm trying to remember him every day," he said.

The NFL denied Clark's request to make a permanent switch to 21, which is also worn by Steelers running back Mewelde Moore.

"I'm going to do my little tribute to him out here, but I'm going to let it rest," Clark said.

With the 2008 season fast approaching, Clark is excited to play the game he loves and be among his teammates again.

"That's the fun part," he said. "That's the part you miss."

He will return to a Steelers defense that was tops in the league in total defense last year, despite struggling down the stretch. After opening the season 9-3 and giving up 12.9 points per game, the squad ended the season 1-4, giving up an average of 29 points over that span.

"If you think about it, (strong safety Troy Polamalu) was hurt," Clark said. "Aaron Smith, one of the best defensive ends in the league, isn't playing. People don't look at that. We still finished No. 1, maybe not as strong as we started, but we still finished No. 1."

In two seasons with the Steelers, Clark has one interception, five pass break-ups and 94 tackles. He was also the starter at free safety before falling ill. Anthony Smith replaced him last year, but Clark is likely to be the starter again when training camp opens.

Of course, he doesn't feel that way, but that's just another part of being back to normal for Clark.

"I don't ever feel like I'm just going to be the starter," he said. "I'm still trying to make the team, like I do every year. Nothing has changed. I'm trying to be a Pittsburgh Steeler."

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