Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee Ryan Clark: "I wanted to get to the point where lending my name to a cause would really mean something."
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the spirit of the holiday season, we give you Steelers safety Ryan Clark. In a month when an NFL player has killed his girlfriend and committed suicide and another has driven drunk and killed a teammate, it seems only right to mention the league has its points of light. Clark shines among the brightest.
The Steelers will vote next week for their Most Valuable Player award. Clark surely will get votes. He and linebacker Lawrence Timmons have been the team's best defensive players. Clark could go to the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year.
But Clark already has won a more significant award. He is the Steelers' nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which goes to the player who combines on-field excellence with outstanding community service. There is no greater honor in the game.
The Payton winner will be announced during Super Bowl XLVII week in New Orleans. Johnny Unitas was the first NFL Man of the Year in 1970. Payton won in 1977 and had the award named in his honor after his death in 1999. Former Pitt quarterback Dan Marino won in 1998. Past Steelers winners were Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis.
Google the list. There are some awesome names.
"Humbling, very humbling," Clark said. "Walter Payton, obviously, was one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, but I think the 'Sweetness' nickname came from who he was and what he represented on and off the field."
Clark won the Steelers award for his work with the Ryan Clark Cure League, which benefits sickle cell anemia research. Many of his teammates came out earlier this month for his "Cleats for a Cure" charity auction at Engine House 25 in Lawrenceville. All the defensive backs were there, including best friend Troy Polamalu. Brett Keisel came. Casey Hampton. Plaxico Burress ...
"Plaxico hadn't even been with us very long," Clark said. "When I thanked him, he said, 'This is what we do.' "
It is what Clark does.
"I don't think there was one day when [Steelers community relations director] Michele Rosenthal came to me with something and I said no," Clark said. "I'd go to the other guys' events. I'd pick one up when someone couldn't do it. But I could never find the right thing for me. I wanted to establish myself in the league and the community before I jumped into something. I wanted to get to the point where lending my name to a cause would really mean something."
You probably know Clark has the sickle cell trait in his blood. He had to miss the Steelers playoff loss in Denver in January and their opening-game loss there this season because of it. He nearly died after his blood disorder attacked his organs when he played in the high altitude of Denver in 2007.
"The first speech I got from the doctors in the hospital was that my lungs had filled, my kidneys were dented and my stomach was closing," Clark said a few years ago. "My spleen had gotten enlarged and infected and it died."
Clark's spleen and gall bladder were removed. His weight dropped from 203 pounds to 170.
"A lot of people were skeptical I'd ever be able to play again."
Clark's sister-in-law, Kim Norwood, died from sickle cell anemia in March 2009, not long after the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. She was 27. That prompted Clark to hook up with UPMC and start his foundation. The event earlier this month raised more than $20,000.
"A lot of people with sickle cell came up and thanked me and said they hadn't had anyone stand up for them," Clark said. "One guy was on crutches and had just gotten out of the hospital. He said, 'As long as I'm living and you have an event for sickle cell, I'll be there.' Do you know what hearing something like that means?"
On the field, Clark said he is having his best season because defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has asked him to do more. The Steelers played without the injured Polamalu for much of the season. They will be without injured cornerback Ike Taylor for the third consecutive game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.
"Without Troy, I've had to make a lot more plays," Clark said. "I've been a lot more involved in the defense."
As well as Clark has played, the Steelers have been a mediocre team, their 7-7 record the proof. But they still will make the playoffs if they beat the Bengals and the Cleveland Browns Dec. 30 at home.
Almost unbelievably, they will win the AFC North Division if they win the two games and the Baltimore Ravens lose their final two to the New York Giants and the Bengals.
Clark refuses to look that far ahead but admits he has thought about another playoff game at Denver. He won't play if it comes to that. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin won't allow him to play.
"You know that's how it's going to work out, right? It's crazy," Clark said.
"But we have only ourselves to blame. We lost too many games to teams that we should've beaten. If we had just done what we were supposed to do, we wouldn't be having the discussion about going to Denver and me not playing. It wouldn't be an issue."
Like you, Clark hopes the Steelers season extends into January.
As for his community work, that won't stop when the games are done. He is spokesman for Dairy Management's Fuel Up To Play 60 program, which encourages healthy nutrition for kids. His other causes include the Central Blood Bank, the American Heart Association and Cancer Caring Center walks and the Salvation Army's Project Bundle-Up.
The Steelers are lucky to have Clark and a lot of other players like him. The region is lucky.