Clark's job is to hit hard
But Steelers safety has felt his share of pain during his career
Thursday, January 29, 2009 3:15 AM
By Harvey Araton

TAMPA, Fla. -- It wasn't that long ago that the man who leveled Willis McGahee recently on a frozen field in Pittsburgh couldn't bench-press his 3-year-old daughter, dress without the aid of his wife or get on a scale without stepping off in shock.

After doctors removed Ryan Clark's spleen and returned weeks later for his gallbladder, he lost about 35 pounds. Soon after, he couldn't work out for five minutes without throwing up.

Call him a cheap-shot artist or tackling assassin or whatever military cliche befits a Super Bowl Steelers player. But consider one paradoxical thing about Clark, Pittsburgh's seventh-year free safety:

"I know how it feels to be stuck in the hospital, away from your team, away from your family," he said.

That is where Clark was in November 2007 -- or 14 months before he sent Baltimore Ravens running back McGahee to the hospital after a ferocious hit in the AFC title game and ignited the endless debate on operating within football rules versus the intent to inflict bodily harm.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Clark was cleared by the NFL for his helmet-to-helmet collision with McGahee, as he was for a similar strike on New England's Wes Welker in November.

The other day, he cut to the heart of the matter like a poised surgeon.

"When you're playing within the rules and people talk about it like it's dirty, it's almost a compliment," Clark said.

His job, after all and perhaps above all, is to stretch the limits of what is allowed, hoping, as he said, "that both of us get up and walk away."

Isn't that why Pittsburgh is favored to end the Arizona Cardinals' pinch-me bid to run the postseason table -- because the Steelers, especially defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, preach a family brand of black and blue?

As Clark said, he really wasn't one of the boys after joining the Steelers until he flattened his first opponent, Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals, in the third game of the 2006 season.

"James Harrison comes over to me and says, 'OK, now you're a Steeler.' " Clark recalled.

First he was a member of the New York Giants, after going undrafted as a rookie in 2002 out of Louisiana State, before drifting to the Washington Redskins two years later. Then on to the Steelers, where he cracked the lineup in 2006 and last season, until a fateful road game in Denver that left him feverish, weak and out for the season.

He already knew he carried the sickle-cell trait, as his father, a brother and his youngest daughter did.

"Most people live without a problem, but what the doctors told me was that the altitude, combined with overexertion, triggered a reaction," Clark said. "Part of my spleen didn't receive oxygen for a while, and it died."

For weeks, nothing was further from his mind than laying people out because he could barely walk.

"I stopped caring about football," he said.

But he got stronger and regained the weight, along with the urge to do what he was trained to do -- making up for his ordinary size and speed by hitting exceptionally hard and high.

"I had a coach in high school who wouldn't let you tackle bigger players low," Clark said. "I remember one game I went out there and they had a big running back, I cut him at the knees and my coach said: 'Look, we don't do that here. We try to hit everybody in the face, everybody up high.' It's kind of been instilled in me to do that

"Guys in this league are so talented. My goal is to get there fast enough so they can't put a move on me."

But he added, "I always turn my head, and that's probably why I had two shoulder dislocations this year."

Dirty plays invariably occur in pro football, but who can read a pernicious mind? Clark pointed out that his tackle on McGahee, which forced a fumble, left him woozy as well. He remembers that he was told he was in no condition to check on McGahee as the game continued, and that when it was over, Troy Polamalu, his fellow and equally feared safety, put a Super Bowl cap on his head.

When Clark heard the next day that McGahee had left the hospital in Pittsburgh and was quoted as saying that the hit was part of the game, Clark said, "OK, let it go."

The so-called assassin -- who consumes a steady diet of antibiotics to maintain his health, wears his religious faith on his sleeve and keeps the right side of his body free of tattoos because his mom asked him to leave some part uncovered -- decided not to pick up the telephone to check on McGahee.

"No running back has ever called me after running me over, either," Clark said