We all remember what former Steelers’ safety great Ryan Clark brought to the table on the back end of the great defenses that reigned in the mid-2000s, forming a dynamic tandem with Hall Of Famer Troy Polamalu. While Polamalu was given the freedoms to freelance and rack up splash play after splash play, en route to the 2010 AP Defensive Player of the Year, Clark was the enforcer, and one only needs to ask former Ravens’ running back Willis McGahee for verification.
However, Clark suffers from the sickle-cell trait, a genetic disease that’s often symptom-free which affects red-blood cell counts and of which he was diagnosed during a game in Denver in 2007. Due to extreme pain during the game, he lost both his gall bladder and his spleen.
That would be the last game he’d play in Denver, although he pleaded his case to head coach Mike Tomlin on several occasions when playing in the high altitude there, none of which was bigger than the AFC Wild Card Game in 2012 which the team lost to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in overtime. He reportedly had a 30 minute “campaign” together to vent his reasonings to Tomlin, but he didn’t make it even halfway into that.
“He stops in the middle and he says something to me man, that I’ll always be grateful for,” Clark said to Tomlin on The Pivot Podcast earlier today. “He was like, if you were my kid, I wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
Whether or not Clark agreed with it at the time, player safety in the NFL is of the utmost importance, and it’s blatantly apparent how appreciative Clark is of his head coach as he sits now looking back in retrospect. He went on to speak about how much he respects Tomlin for his choice, and then the conversation took a very real turn to it, as Tomlin laid out the fact that it wasn’t as simple as X’s and O’s, it was a matter of life or death for his player.
“The last time we was in Denver, this dude almost died,” Tomlin said. “Nah man, I gotta lay my head down at night, like it goes back to that point. How can you expect unique results, without unique relationships? It was my job to care about that dude in that moment, even maybe more so than he cared about himself. First, as a leader, I’ve got an obligation to safeguard him to the best of my ability. Secondarily, I embrace the missionary component of my job.”
The two went back-and-forth throughout the entire podcast, which was full of a lot of good-hearted ribbing at one another. It shows exactly how the two feel about one another, and it again shows Tomlin’s true character. This is undoubtedly why many players across the league have a similar answer when asked which one coach they would love to play for before their careers are over.