Ryan Clark’s homecoming: A chance to repay a loyal fan base


Safety Ryan Clark. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — When coverage of a pass play sent Ryan Clark flying to the sideline Friday at Redskins training camp, the veteran safety kept running — all the way to the fans jammed shoulder-to-shoulder behind the rope at the field’s edge.

As cell-phone cameras snapped, Clark traded high-fives with as many outstretched hands as he could before jogging back for the next snap.

“We’re all family,” Clark said later, asked about the spontaneous meet-and-greet. “Some of these people will never have the opportunity to come to a game. Even if they do, they’ll never have the opportunity to get this close to us, touch us, take pictures and get autographs. They took time out of their day, out of their schedule. They took off work. One lady’s husband brought her here for her anniversary. I don’t know who that was for; was it for him or for her? So when people do things like that, you try to reward them by being kind.”

The 2014 season marks Clark’s second stint with the Redskins. An an undrafted, undersized free agent from Louisiana State, he led Washington’s defensive backs with 91 tackles when he was signed in 2004. Though his production remained high, he was cut after the 2005 didn’t re-sign him in 2005, making room for  2005 season to make room for  Adam Archuleta, who proved one of the more costly free-agent blunders in Redskins history.

“It didn’t hurt me,” said Clark, 34, who went on to play eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers “It’s a business, and I understand it.”

So when the Steelers cut didn’t attempt to re-sign Clark earlier this year to make room for Mike Mitchell, Clark found it an easy to “come home” to the Redskins — especially with DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather bombarding him with direct messages nearly every day, begging him to join them.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett wanted Clark for several reasons: his tackling ability, his leadership and the influence his fierce work-ethic will surely have on younger safeties such as Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo.

“His presence has already helped,” Haslett said Friday. “It has helped the whole offseason. And we’re going to expect that from him; he’ll take care of running the back end and making the calls.”

The Redskins defense has room for improvement. It ranked 17th in rushing yards allowed last season (110.6) and 20th in passing yards (243.5).

A member of the Steelers’ 2008 Super Bowl squad, which boasted the NFL’s top-ranked defense, Clark has a keen understanding of what distinguishes great defensive units.

“We didn’t give up big plays,” Clark said. “We ran to the ball. We tackled. Those are the things I’m trying to put emphasis on here: ‘Let’s not give up balls over our heads. Let’s not miss tackles and allow long runs and runs after the catch.’ Those are the thing we’re working on. And then, the turnovers will come. The sack-fumbles. The interceptions. If you make yourself hard to score on, it makes people make mistakes.”

So if he can help bolster the Redskins defense, Clark said he’d consider it the best thanks he could offer to the fans who felt the team should never have let him go.

“I appreciate their support,” he said. “I’m excited about coming back and repaying them for their loyalty.”

Loyalty is a big theme with Clark. It explains why he wears a No. 21 jersey in practice rather this his own No. 25. His close friend Sean Taylor wore No. 21, of course, and that’s how Clark chooses to honor the former Redskins free safety who was killed by an intruder in his south Florida home in 2007.

If it confuses fans, Clark is pleased. Anytime someone asks, he has a chance to talk about the man and teammate Taylor was.

“I know I’m not the player he was or the athlete he was,” Clark said of Taylor. “But he was my friend, and I want people to remember him.”

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post, she has also covered five Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.
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