Healthy Clark sets sights on return to Steelers
It's not that he ever thought about dying.
But during those days when the simple act of raising his arms caused him to wince in pain and those nights when a raging fever made him sweat so profusely that his wife would wake him every two or three hours just to change his pajamas, Ryan Clark had to wonder whether he would ever live as he once had -- and, naturally, whether he would ever play football again.
The sight of Clark at the Steelers' South Side practice facility is a welcome one these days, especially to those that visited him in the hospital last season, a group that included teammates, coaches and even team chairman Dan Rooney.
The Steelers' free safety has been taking part in the team's voluntary offseason workouts. And aside from some of the weight he still has to add after losing 30 pounds during an illness that proved to be as mysterious as it was prolonged, he doesn't seem any different to his teammates.
That Clark, 28, is back should not be a surprise considering how tightly woven perseverance is into his DNA.
This is a guy, after all, who married a girl who, well, let's just say she wasn't exactly fond of him when they first met in high school. And a guy who has carved a career in the NFL even though no team liked Clark enough to draft him in 2002 despite the fact he started 36 consecutive games at LSU.
The most recent thing he has had to overcome may be just as impressive considering Clark was so sick less than six months ago that he had to have his spleen and gall bladder removed in separate operations.
But know this about Clark, whose disarming smile belies a smoldering intensity: he is not just returning to the Steelers to serve as a feel-good story. He is returning to reclaim the starting job he beat out Anthony Smith for last summer.
"Really," said Clark, who is in his third year with the Steelers, "I have no limits on what I can do."
That is precisely why he is eyeing a return to the starting lineup.
Clark played in six games last year before two forces conspired to lay him flatter than any hit in football ever had. Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton, who has reviewed every play from 2007 (and from different angles), said Clark played "very well" before his season ended. Well enough, in fact, that the seventh-year veteran likely will be the starting free safety heading into mini-camp practices in May.
"He really did nothing to lose his job," Horton said, "other than have a freak thing happen in Denver."
"Freak thing" doesn't begin to describe what happened in Denver, not more than a couple of days after Clark's wife, Yonka, joked to him, "Hey, why don't you come back with your spleen intact this time?"
When he previously had played in Denver while with the Washington Redskins, Clark had been diagnosed with a spleen contusion following the game.
Turns out he was misdiagnosed.
And, just like in 2005, the high altitude in Denver, coupled with the sickle-cell trait that Clark has, caused his blood to sickle during the Steelers' Oct. 21 game against the Broncos.
His blood vessels burst this time, Clark said, and the resulting loss of oxygen to his spleen killed parts of it.
"Once it died," Clark said, "bacteria said, 'Hey, that's a good place to go chill.'"
Clark felt well enough after the Steelers' 31-28 loss to the Broncos to call his wife, which always has been his post-game ritual.
But Yonka Clark later got a call from one of his teammates who said Clark had to be taken off the team bus and whisked away to a hospital because he had been experiencing such discomfort.
That turned out to be only the beginning of their harrowing ordeal.
The worse Clark felt after he returned to Pittsburgh the more, it seemed, the battery of tests he took showed that nothing was wrong with him.
"I was trying to be really respectful of the doctors and the trainers, and they tell you that you're going to be OK and sometimes I was kind of made to feel like I was milking it," Clark said. "I'm sure that wasn't their intentions, but they were talking to me like 'You're really OK. I don't know why you feel like you can't do certain things.' "
In reality, the normally peppy Clark had the energy of a wilted dandelion. And the pain on the left side of his midsection became so intense at times that performing the most basic of tasks proved to be a chore.
The worst part for Clark: he couldn't play with his three young children and sometimes couldn't even be around them.
Frustrated and scared, Clark sought another opinion in the middle of November. When he told the doctor about his symptoms, Clark immediately was sent to the hospital.
He had his spleen removed after an infection was discovered -- the operation took more than four hours because his spleen was in such bad shape -- and a couple of weeks later his gall bladder came out, too.
"It was so, so stressful," Yonka Clark said of the ordeal. "I desperately wanted for him to be OK."
Clark is more than OK these days.
He resumed working out in earnest in January, and since the end of that month, he has shuttled between Pittsburgh and Arizona, where he has trained in past offseasons.
The 5-foot-11 Clark is still around 10 pounds shy of the weight he played at last season.
But, Clark said, he is at full strength and has no doubt that he'll get back to the 205-pound range the Steelers coaches want him at for the upcoming season.
Besides, after what he has endured, Clark isn't about to fret over a couple of pounds.
"I'm definitely blessed because I'm here, I'm still walking, I'm still healthy, I get to see my babies every day," Clark said. "After going through what I went through, it put into perspective that even though it's my job and millions of people watch it, football's still just a game."
Ryan Clark at a glance:
Children: Jaden, 9, Jordan, 6, Loghan, 3.
Career: Giants (2002-03), Redskins (2004-05), Steelers (2006-present)
Steelers career: Clark has started 18 games at free safety in parts of two seasons with the Steelers and has been credited with 97 tackles and a sack. He has made an interception and recovered three fumbles.
Did you know?: Clark is trying to get his number changed from 25 to 21 to honor former Redskins teammate and close friend Sean Taylor, who was killed last November.