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Steelers DB Clark has nothing left to prove

| Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009

As he walked toward a group of reporters outside the cafeteria at St. Vincent College recently, Ryan Clark casually remarked that he had nothing interesting to say.

Yeah, and Steelers fans are more quiet than a book club during games.

Clark, the irrepressible Steelers free safety, is rarely at a loss for words, and he has a distinct way with them, too. Consider what he had to say about Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, who has never made the Pro Bowl.

"He follows the best receivers around every week," Clark said. "He shuts them down and doesn't go to the Pro Bowl, and he's on the best defense in the universe, not just America or the NFL. I'm talking like Canadian football, junior high, rugby, little league, Baldwin, Whitehall, North Hills, all of that."

Clark can rattle teeth — see the knockout blow he delivered to Ravens running back Willis McGahee in the AFC title game last January — just as easily as he can rattle off riffs such as the aforementioned one. Clark's willingness to throw his body around and his enthusiasm for hyping others instead of himself make him an ideal fit on a defense where bloated egos are about as welcome as running backs.

"He's a perfect guy for us," defensive backs coach Ray Horton said.

Unfortunately for Clark, 29, there will be a time this season when he will have to answer the question of how far he is willing to go for the game he loves.

At what cost?

The Steelers visit the Broncos on Nov. 9, and their last trip to Denver triggered a harrowing ordeal for Clark — one that almost ended his career and led to his getting his gallbladder and spleen removed in separate operations.

The high altitude in Denver and Clark's sickle-cell trait caused his blood to sickle during a 2007 game. He missed the rest of the season, lost more than 30 pounds and was so weak at times that he didn't have the strength to play with his kids.

Clark authored one of the top comeback stories of the year in 2008, as he re-claimed the starting job at free safety and finished second on the Steelers in tackles (113) while winning his first Super Bowl ring.

Clark's toughness has never been an issue. However, the eighth-year veteran realizes he may have to pull himself out of a game this season because of what happened the last time he played in Denver.

"It's a weird situation because you want to play, but you don't want to die," Clark said. "I've already met with some specialists. I have some more tests to take, and we'll just go from there. I'm hoping we'll be 7-0, and I won't have to play."

Doctors, Clark said, have told him he wouldn't incur the same risk he has in past games in Denver because he no longer has the major organs that would be affected if his blood sickles.

"My question to that is what if it picks new organs?" Clark said. "There's only so many they can take away from you before I can't function. I want to play, but I'm not going to risk my life or my career to play one game."

If it is understandable why Clark won't risk his career, it is because of what he has done just to get to this point. He went undrafted out of LSU in 2002 and has seemingly been overlooked at every step of his career as neither the Giants nor Redskins believed in Clark enough to make him a part of their long-range plans.

That is why he ended up in Pittsburgh following the 2005 season.

"I think it's a classic 'nobody appreciates him until he's not there,' " Horton said. "Case in point: We had him miss some games (in 2007), and we didn't play very well. We have him back, and, all of the sudden, we're markedly different. He's brilliant on the field as far as knowing what's going on."

Perpetually overshadowed

Clark could be moving on again after this season.

He is in the final year of his contract, and if the Steelers don't extend the deal before the start of the regular season, Clark will become an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Clark said he doesn't even ask his agent what is going on in regard to a contract extension so he won't develop any hard feelings toward the organization.

He has been his usual self on and off the field with his mouth nearly keeping pace with his legs.

"The thing that I appreciate about Ryan Clark is that he doesn't have a bad day," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's always up."

He is also perpetually overshadowed.

Prior to joining Troy Polamalu in the Steelers secondary, Clark played with the late Sean Taylor in Washington, and he honors his friend by donning Taylor's No. 21 for practices (Clark's wears No. 25 for games).

Even in high school, Clark lived about 20 miles away from Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed outside of New Orleans and toiled in his shadow.

"Being overshadowed is good," Clark said, "because it means that not as many people are paying attention to me when I do something wrong."

That doesn't happen too often, which is why Ike Taylor recently took time to trumpet Clark's Pro Bowl credentials.

"He's one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the league," Taylor said. "Every time they try to fine him, they come back and say that was a clean hit. And, so on that note, get him to the Pro Bowl."

Clark's take on that?

"I personally don't care about making it," he said.

Clark then added with a playful smile: "I fly over with Troy every year anyway."

Meet Ryan Clark

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 205

School: LSU

Teams: New York Giants (2002-2003), Washington Redskins (2004-05), Steelers (2006 -)

Favorite movie: "Training Day"

Favorite book: "A Divine Revelation of Hell" by Mary K. Baxter

Most prized possession: Family (wife Yonka and children Jordan, Jaden and Loghan)

Favorite meal: Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn

Three people at his dinner table: Grandfather, who died before Clark was born, his wife and Kobe Bryant.

Favorite NFL player growing up: Randall Cunningham

Something not a lot of people know about him: "I don't really like dogs, but I bought one about a month ago, and I love her."

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on Clark: "He's a very good player, and he takes pride in getting himself ready to play."

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