The Curious Case of Ryan Clark

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Football is a dangerous game. A player may have their season or even their career cut short on any given play. If you’ve ever met an ex-player, you can see the toll the game takes on their body by their gnarly hands or the way they walk. Football players know this and they accept this.

However, nobody expects to die on the football field.

But that almost happened to Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark in 2007.  In a sport filled with ankle sprains and turf toes, Clark has one of the most unique medical ailments I’ve ever heard.  Although not official (yet), it’s almost certain he’ll sit out Monday against the Denver Broncos because of concerns over his health.  He’d be insane not to.

Clark has something called sickle cell trait. I’m neither a doctor nor a nurse, in fact even talking about blood makes me a bit queasy, so I’ll do my best to explain what that is.  Sickle cell trait is an abnormality in the blood that primarily affects African-Americans. Basically, their red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout your body, are irregular. Ordinarily, this condition is not dangerous. However, situations involving extreme fluctuations in oxygen, such as heavy physical exertion or significant changes in altitude have been found to trigger major complications.

Which is exactly what happened to Clark in 2007 when the Steelers played out in Denver.  Playing NFL football in the Mile High City set off a catastrophic body response resulting in him having both his spleen and gall bladder removed. He lost 30 pounds and was lost for the season. In fact, going into 2008, the Steelers thought he may be lost for good. The fact he came back last year to not only play but have his best season as a pro speaks volumes about the man.

The team doctors have cleared Clark to play on Monday. However, it looks as if Mike Tomlin put the kibosh on that by taking the decision out of Clark’s hands. Good for him. Although I’m sure the doctors wouldn’t put him at risk if they had any serious doubts, ten seconds of googling reveals some pretty scary information. Kidney failure and stroke are but two possible complications of sickle cell trait. I can understand asking a player to man up and risk a future hip replacement or gimpy knee but a stroke?  Um, no.

So Monday Night, the Black and Gold will probably be playing their latest “Biggest game of the season” without the services of Ryan Clark. Ordinarily, I’d be bothered by the loss of our awesome starting safety. However, in this case, I’m actually happy. Of course, I’ll be a lot happier if the Steelers can win one for Ryan.

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