Steelers' Clark has tough decision


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Ordinarily, I believe that an NFL player should never miss a game for any reason other than an injury or a life-threatening situation at home. The impending birth of a child? Play the game, then rush to the hospital. A death in the family? Unless there are children to comfort, schedule the funeral around the game. I know I'll be heavily criticized for those opinions, but I truly believe them. That's the way it used to be in professional sports, emphasis on the word "professional." It's the way it still should be.

Pirates great Dick Groat has told of missing the birth of his daughter, Allison, in 1963 when he was with the St. Louis Cardinals. "They wouldn't let me go home because it was late in spring training," he said. "That's just the way it was then. None of us thought twice about it. Those were the sacrifices you made to be a part of a team."

OK, not being allowed to miss a spring-training game is ridiculous. I'll give you that. I'll even acknowledge that it's ridiculous not to be allowed to miss one of 162 regular-season baseball games or one of 82 NHL games in certain situations. But an NFL game is a much different matter. There are only 16 each season. It's not as if a player can miss one and make it up. He doesn't just have an obligation to his team, which is paying him an extraordinary salary. He has an obligation to his teammates to be there with them and for them except in the direst of circumstances.

That brings us to Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who has said he hasn't decided if he'll play in the next game at Denver Nov. 9 despite not having an injury.

I'll have absolutely no problem if Clark decides to sit that one out.

Clark has a blood disorder caused by the sickle-cell trait that has attacked his organs when he exerts himself in high altitude. It was a problem for him when he played in Denver with the Washington Redskins in 2005, a much more serious problem when he played there with the Steelers in October '07. He had to be hospitalized immediately after that game and nearly died not long after he returned to Pittsburgh.

"The first speech I got from the doctors in the hospital [here] was that my lungs had filled, my kidneys were dented and my stomach was closing," Clark said in January, recalling that frightful time. "My spleen had gotten enlarged and infected and it died.

"I never really thought I was going to die except for maybe one day when I was at home. I was so cold. I couldn't stop shaking. My wife got out the hair dryer and was blowing it on me. My mother was there, putting hats and coats on me while I was in bed. I still couldn't get warm. That was rough."

Clark's spleen was removed that November, his gall bladder in December. His weight dropped from 203 pounds to 170.

"A lot of people were skeptical I'd ever be able to play again," he said.

Doctors have told Clark they believe that his spleen was the problem. "Now that's gone, so we'll see," he said. He's still trying to sort through all the medical advice and probably won't make his decision about playing until early next week. If he doesn't go, Ryan Mundy and/or Tyrone Carter will fill in.

I'm guessing Clark will play in Denver as long as the docs give him an absolute assurance -- or as close to one as they can come -- that he won't have any complications. He is a guy who long ago proved his commitment to the game and the team. He didn't just come back and play last season after his near-death experience. He was a key part of the Steelers' Super Bowl odyssey.

And toughness? On two occasions last season, Clark missed just one game after his right shoulder was dislocated. That was the same right shoulder, by the way, that he led with when he put a ferocious hit on Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee in the AFC championship game in January.

Clark routinely gives up his body to make a play. Pound for pound, he might be the Steelers' hardest hitter, although some would argue for linebacker James Harrison. Clark's hit on McGahee was spectacular. So was one on New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker last season. Sunday, in the 27-17 win against the Minnesota Vikings, he drilled wide receiver Percy Harvin on a pass play over the middle, knocking the ball loose and -- for at least a second or two -- Harvin into next week.

Not that Clark was especially impressed by the Harvin hit. "Couldn't have been that good. He came back in and ran the kickoff back," he said, sniffing.

This really is a tough guy.

If Clark doesn't play in Denver, he'll have good reason.

Neither his toughness nor his commitment to the Steelers should be questioned.

He should not be second-guessed.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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