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Harris: In football vs. life decision, life wins

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Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

DENVER — Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said he couldn't wait for the morning after Monday night's big game against the Denver Broncos.

"The oddity of the situation, it's something that a lot of people don't understand. I don't think there's ever been a situation where a guy had to choose football (over) maybe a life-threatening sickness,'' Clark said last week.

"I can honestly say I will be happy Tuesday morning when I get back to regular life.''

In a manner of speaking.

Clark's life will never be regular as most people know it.

He lives with a rare form of the sickle cell trait, an inherited disorder that caused his blood to "sickle'' two seasons ago due to the high altitude in Denver.

Despite receiving clearance from the Steelers medical staff, Clark didn't play against the Broncos last night.

In the two games that Clark has played in Denver — one with the Steelers, one with the Washington Redskins in 2005 — he totaled 12 tackles.

Two thumbs up to Coach Mike Tomlin for keeping Clark out of the lineup.

From a football standpoint, it's not like the Steelers haven't played well without a key defensive starter this season (see: Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith). Veteran Tyrone Carter is a more than an adequate backup at safety. And he showed it last night, returning an interception 48 yards for a touchdown for a 7-3 lead in the first half.

Carter, not as fast as Clark, was position deep in the secondary. Denver, known for its short passing game, didn't test Carter long early, as Clark watched anxiously from the sideline. Carter was in the right place, though, when he picked off Kyle Orton's pass and took it to the end zone.

From a peace of mind standpoint, the mere thought of Clark possibly enduring again what he went though two years ago — on Monday Night Football, in front of a national television audience, no less — was a frightening prospect.

Imagine the fan and media reaction across the country if Clark, for whatever reason, was forced to leave last night's game, if only to catch his breath. The backlash against the Steelers would be immeasurable for allowing him to play — medical clearance or no medical clearance.

Tomlin shed more light on Clark's situation when he said a pre-existing medical condition could be the reason why Clark became almost deathly ill following a game in Denver in 2007.

Missing the final 11 games that season (including one playoff game) was the tip of the iceberg for Clark, who lost his spleen and gall bladder in separate operations.

Forget about not ever playing football again.

Clark could have died after playing in a football game.

Some trade-off.

On second thought, why was there even any consideration about Clark playing last night?

If there was even a tinge of hesitation by Clark not to play, so be it.

Clark said his condition is rare for someone who doesn't have sickle cell disease, only the trait.

My brother-in-law has sickle cell disease, which is more deadly than the sickle cell trait. Doctors told him he'd be fortunate to live past his 20s. He turned 47 in September.

Dr. Rodney E. Hill, a physician in northeast Ohio, said it's very common for people with sickle cell disease to have their spleen and gall bladder removed.

"Clark has a variant of it that's a little bit more than the trait, but not sickle cell disease itself,'' Hill said.

If there's such a thing as something positive resulting from Clark's health issues, he said it could be in educating the public about sickle cell disease, the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States.

"Sickle cell affects a lot of people, but everybody knows it's an ethnic disease,'' Clark said of sickle cell, which primarily affects blacks in this country. "In some sense, it doesn't get as much wide-spread notoriety.''

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