Sickle cell hits 'closer to home' for Clark

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009

Football isn't a game of life or death to Ryan Clark, yet he knows first-hand the risk of playing in the high altitude could make it one.

That's why the Steelers' starting free safety still hasn't decided whether he will play against the Denver Broncos next Monday night.

"I think it would be big for me to play," Clark said Saturday afternoon at South Hills Village, where he signed autographs for the $10,000 Man Cave Makeover contest through Verizon FiOS. "Sickle cell would be acknowledged a little bit more, because it is an ethnic disease. Let's be honest, it's not a disease that affects all."

While Clark lost his spleen and gall bladder in separate surgeries after the sickle-cell trait caused oxygen deprivation to several major organs during the Steelers' game at Denver in 2007, he also knows it can be more severe.

Clark and his wife, Yonka, served as best man and matron of honor in the wedding of his childhood friend, Kevin Norwood, in July 2008. This past March, just days before their planned trip to Las Vegas together, Norwood's wife, Kim, died from complications of sickle-cell disease.

"For me, it hits a little bit closer to home than most," Clark said. "I know how deadly it can be. You lose your spleen and gall bladder, but you still have a life. Looking at my friend's wife, she doesn't."

Doctors have cleared the 30-year-old Clark to play, so now it's up to him and the Steelers' coaching staff to determine whether it's worth the risk.

"I don't want to go out there and have my health more on my mind than playing football," he said. "That wouldn't benefit the team or myself."

While the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Clark hits opposing receivers with a reckless disregard for his own body, he will take his wife and three young children into consideration in deciding whether to play in Denver. His youngest daughter, 4-year-old Loghan, also carries the sickle-cell trait.

"If you watch the way I play, I don't care about myself anyway," Clark said. "But I have people to take care of, people to be here for. They weigh very heavily into the decision. I want to give God the glory and let people know that he brought me back from that, and I'm able to do this now.

"You have to take the competitive spirit out of it and think about it more rationally and do what's the best thing for you and your family."

Clark also knows that playing could be a way to honor Kim Norwood and others lost to the sickle-cell disease by bringing it to attention before a national television audience. And by beating the Broncos, who are 6-0 heading into today's game at Baltimore, Clark and the Steelers could possibly avoid a return trip to Denver in the AFC playoffs.

"I want to go out there and win this game," Clark said, "so we don't have to make the same decision in January."

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