Ryan Clark hits Ravens running back Willis McGahee in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game. McGahee was hospitalized after the play.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
TAMPA, Fla. -- Asking Steelers safety Ryan Clark to rank his best hits is a little like asking Steelers owner Dan Rooney to pick his favorite Super Bowl team.
There just are too darn many from which to choose.
"The one on McGahee the other day would be up there," Clark said of his knockout hit on Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee in the AFC championship game Jan. 18.
"The one on Welker this season ..." Clark knocked New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker into the next week Nov. 30 after a pass across the middle.
"I had one on [Detroit's] Az-Zahir Hakim [in 2004] when I played for Washington. I remember that one because that's the first time I made the 'Jacked Up' segment on ESPN ...
"There was one on [Seattle's] Bobby Engram [in 2005]. I broke his ribs. I felt bad about that. But he played the rest of the game, so I didn't feel too bad ...
"But I guess my favorite was the one on Chris Henry [of the Cincinnati Bengals] my first year here. I got him pretty good. The ball deflected off us, and Ike Taylor picked it off. That was my first big play with this team. I remember James Harrison telling me, 'Now, you're a Pittsburgh Steeler.' "
That is some list.
"Hands down, Ryan Clark is the hardest-hitting safety in football," teammate Larry Foote said last week.
"That hit on McGahee is the hardest hit I've ever seen."
It takes a rare mentality to deliver that kind of blow to another player, especially one who outweighs you by 30 pounds, as McGahee did Clark. Clark led with his right shoulder -- the one that was dislocated twice earlier in the season -- which should tell you something about his fearlessness. Their helmets collided when McGahee ducked at the last second.
McGahee didn't get up. He was strapped on a stretcher and carted off the field with what the Ravens described as "severe neck pain," although he is expected to make a full recovery and play next season. Clark said he was "woozy" for a few moments before making it to the Steelers' bench.
"I wasn't aware of the seriousness of his injury until I was informed about it on the sideline," Clark said. "It's scary when you see anyone down like that. I asked to go back on the field to check on him, but I was told I was in no condition to check on anyone."
All things considered, McGahee and Clark were lucky.
Paralysis and even death are possible every time there is such a fierce collision.
McGahee and Clark weren't born 30-plus years ago when a hit by Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum left New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed from the neck down, but both are aware of that frightful play.
"I don't think about it," Clark said. "Once you start thinking about it and you start playing tentatively, that's when those 230-pounders run you over and you don't get up ...
"My whole thing is getting to the ball as fast as I can to make a play. Most times, as soon as I see a quarterback looking at a guy, I'm full speed. Once you decide to go, you go. You can't pull the bullet back. Then, once you get there, it's him or you.
"I just figure we're going to hit and then we'll both get up. I don't worry about one of us not getting up. My wife does, but I tell her, 'As long as I'm the one doing the hitting, I should be OK.' "
Clark likes being known as the "hardest-hitting safety," at least among his teammates. "It's cool, but you know what? I play with the best safety in the NFL [Troy Polamalu ] which is an even cooler title than hardest-hitter."
What Clark doesn't want to be called is a dirty player.
"I know what it's like not to be able to play and almost have football taken away from me," he said, referring to his life-threatening illness last season that left him without his spleen and gall bladder. "I never want to be a guy who takes it away from someone else."
Clark said he has been fined only twice by the NFL in his seven-year career -- $7,500 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jacksonville's Matt Jones this season and $7,500 for one on the New York Giants' Tim Carter in '04. He thinks he's lucky -- not because his hits are cheap, but because the league is inconsistent with the way it looks at the more violent collisions. Take his hit on Welker. He was penalized for a personal foul, but a league official said after the game there should not have been a penalty.
"There's a fine line between what's legal and what's not," Clark said. "We know we can't hit a receiver in a defenseless position. But are we supposed to wait for him to catch the ball and start running with it before we hit him? Or do we try to dislodge the ball any way we can? As a DB, you're always going to err on the side of trying to dislodge the ball."
Clark figures that's what New York Jets safety Eric Smith was trying to do when he crushed Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin with the season's most brutal hit Sept. 28. Smith caught Boldin under the chin just as Jets teammate Kerry Smith was hitting Boldin from behind. Boldin missed the next two games with a fractured sinus cavity. Eric Smith, who was concussed on the play, was suspended for one game and fined $50,000.
"By the rules, yes, it was an illegal hit," Clark said. "But in no way did [Smith] go in there trying to break the guy's face."
Clark and Boldin figure to see each other on the field Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII. Boldin is a tough guy, too. He's still going across the middle, still risking taking another big hit. Remarkably, he came back from his injury to finish the season with 89 catches for 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl as a starter along with teammate Larry Fitzgerald, the NFL's best receiver.
"How can he and Fitzgerald not be aware of [Clark] in our secondary? After seeing those hits on McGahee and Welker?" Foote asked.
Clark isn't so sure that will be an advantage for the Steelers.
"Those guys are professionals, and they trust their quarterback[Kurt Warner] not to throw the ball into me. But I'm sure they know I'll be back there. For them to say they don't would be like me saying that, when I line up against a guy who runs a 4.3, I don't take a step back. Of course, I do. You're always aware of who you're lining up against."
The hardest-hitting safety in football ...
"Hey, both those guys outweigh me by about 25 pounds," said Clark, who can't weigh 200.
"I'm pretty sure they're not afraid of little ol' me."
You should have seen Clark's grin.
Maybe his hits aren't wicked. But that grin surely was.