By Ralph N. Paulk, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Ryan Clark is quick to dust himself off when things go awry. He resists negativity, no matter how dire the situation.
Typically, he's the first to remind everyone that football is only a game — even when the Steelers fall short as they did in a gut-wrenching loss to rival Baltimore earlier this month.
That, of course, is a somewhat sacrilegious stance to take, considering the Steelers are the heart of a city where championship aspirations are loftier than most. But Clark doesn't relent, in part, because he's experienced greater pain than defeat.
He vividly remembers having to be medically cleared to attend the funeral of his best friend in 2007. Clark was recovering after having his spleen and gall bladder removed shortly before Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor died one day after being shot by an intruder to his South Florida home.
Clark remembers, too, the self-doubt that nearly consumed him in 2003, when the New York Giants cut him before he landed in Washington to play alongside Taylor.
"At some point, we're all going to be humbled," Clark said. "My momma always told me it's better to humble yourself before God has to do it.
"I can actually say that the loss to Baltimore — other than the Super Bowl loss to Green Bay — was the first time I've been upset in a long time. You hate to lose, but we understand we have another opportunity.
"I had a real job after I was cut," he said. "I was sitting there as a free agent, and no one wanted me. It's a blessing I'm still here."
On this Thanksgiving weekend, Clark is still counting his blessings.
He remembers his doctor telling him that he probably wouldn't have survived the weekend if he hadn't made it to his office. And Clark figured his career was over until his friends persisted that working with the Tiger Athletic Foundation at LSU was a detour rather than a destination.
"When I think about the things that have happened in my personal life, I ask myself, 'what's losing a football game?'" said Clark, a father of three. "It allows you to have a good time playing football. I'm always reminded that football is what I do. It's not what I am."
Clark is having more fun than ever this season. If numbers are a barometer of success, then his team-high 67 tackles and one interception are evidence that he's elevated his play to be considered one of the better free safeties in the AFC.
Clark, who has largely played absent the spotlight aside All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu, likely is to be tested Sunday night when the Steelers face the struggling and injury-riddled Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Despite all the talk and heavy hits, Clark continues to play in Polamalu's shadow.
"My job is to help Troy do his job," said Clark with a wry smile. "I sent Troy a text message to congratulate him when he was named (2010 NFL Defensive) Player of the Year.
"He deserved it not only because the way he plays the game, but the way he lives his life. He texted back to me, and said, 'Man, it's our award.' "
"I wouldn't have won that trophy without Ryan," said Polamalu. "Having him on the field is like having two brains that are the same. We can tie in things without communicating."
Of course, Clark doesn't have a problem communicating.
"He is playmaker, so he tries to be in every camera shot running to the ball," defensive end Ziggy Hood said. "He's just trying to get after it, and I respect that."
The Steelers aren't in a must-win situation yet. However, they are trying to cling to one of the top AFC playoff seeds and avoid the wild-card weekend. They also are hoping to stay with the Ravens (8-3), who defeated San Francisco on Thursday night.
Still, Clark doesn't project a sense of urgency. Instead, he spent much of this week — as he always does — embracing the role of motivator.
"He gets people fired up," Hood said. "He's always ready to rock and roll."
Hood added that Clark gets on and off the bus talking. And it never stops.
"Ziggy said that because I'm always on him," Clark said. "It's how I get going. When I'm not talking, these guys wonder if something is wrong with me."