Some months and 30 pounds ago, Ryan Clark had to wonder if he would ever play football again. His spleen and gall bladder gone, his body shrunk, vaccinated like some lab experiment, returning to play free safety in the NFL had to seem improbable.
So victory came early this season for Clark. This past weekend, he ran with the first defense at free safety, right back where he was Oct. 21 in Denver when all the trouble began.
"It's a victory in the sense that I'm here," Clark said after leaving the practice field at the Steelers' South Side facility. "That's the victory. The rest, as they say in Louisiana, is laying you up, it's extra."
Clark did not repeat the accusations against the team's medical staff that he told Tim Benz of radio station WXDX (105.9-FM), a Clear Channel sister station of the Steelers' flagship station WDVE, three weeks ago. A partial transcript of those charges was provided to Profootballtalk.com:
"There will always be a problem with me and the trainers here. ... I got fed up with it. ... I feel mistreated. I don't feel like things were handled in the way they should've been. ... I was made to feel that the tests say, 'You are OK so why are you milking this?' ... I felt like I was talked to like I was uneducated and misguided. ... I felt like I was talked to like a dumb jock or a pampered football player."
A Steelers spokesman said no one from the medical staff would be available to talk on the subject and that they feel they handled Clark's case properly. Clark also did not want to repeat it.
"That's all behind me, man," he said yesterday.
He said he did not flinch as the Steelers paraded several veteran safeties into the building during free agency, without signing any.
"I thought it was a good business decision," Clark said. "When you have a guy coming off surgery and also made [accusations] like I was, you're likely to be skeptical and I think you should as far as protecting your organization.
"My wife got upset, but I think it would have been fun, just another challenge the way my career's gone."
Even before his spleen inflamed in Denver, there was rampant speculation that young, hard-hitting safety Anthony Smith eventually would overtake Clark as the starting free safety.
"Some people had me counted out in that battle," Clark said. Smith, though, could not handle the job and was benched after eight starts and a few deep pass completions over him. Now, Clark is back running No. 1 in minicamp and expects to remain there.
"The victory in it has been certain guys on the team telling me how much different the team is when I'm out there and how happy they are to see me back there," Clark said, adding he can play just as hard without his spleen as he did before. "That's the victory, more than anything, that the guys in the locker room recognize your importance to the team."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said while things look good for Clark, the tale won't be finished until they start playing games, which won't come until August.
"If you know Ryan, you do not count him out of anything. He has a great spirit, he is a great competitor, he has passion and he loves to play the game of football. He is in the process of marching back. We probably will not know until we go out and play football. We like where he is now and I am sure that he is happy to be back out there with his teammates; his teammates are glad to have him. He is a great leader for this team and we are just taking it day by day."
Clark's blood -- because of the sickle cell trait, he said -- reacted to the high altitude in Denver and that affected his spleen because it had a previous infarction that developed when he played in Denver with the Washington Redskins. The Steelers thought he originally could return to play after the spleen, which became inflamed, returned to normal. It never did and further tests showed it was so damaged it had to be removed, which it was about three weeks after the Denver game. The gall bladder, also affected, was removed in a second surgery.
Doctors told Clark after the surgery that he should play football again, and he never doubted he would, even after dropping to 170 pounds. He has had five different vaccinations to ward off potential diseases because of his missing spleen and gall bladder, and must stay away from certain foods. He said if he develops a cold or fever, he must see a doctor.
"Everything's going well, man. It's good to be back out there," Clark said. "Rehab was like almost any year after the season, just coming back from farther. It's nothing special you really have to do. I just had to eat a little more, train a little harder, but it's pretty much like any offseason, I just started a little earlier."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published May 5, 2008 4:00 AM