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For Clark, It's The Right Place, The Right Time

Nearly Waived, Safety May Start for Redskins' Defense

By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page D01

Ryan Clark glanced at a television sports show the night of Aug. 29 while talking on the phone with his wife, Yonka, who was in New Orleans. It was the eve of NFL cut day. The names of some released players were scrolling across the bottom of the screen. And while a highlight was being shown, Clark's name appeared.

"Baby, I got cut," Clark told his wife, interrupting their conversation.

Ryan Clark, above, could be in the lineup for the long run, with Matt Bowen out for the season and Andre Lott still nursing a hamstring injury. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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Clark, an undrafted player from Louisiana State in 2002, was disappointed that he wasn't first told by the Washington Redskins. But Clark wasn't surprised because the third-year player was a long shot to make the club.

The next morning, Clark packed his gear and brought his playbook to Redskins Park -- the routine for released players. However, after Clark arrived at the training facility to speak to coaches, safeties coach Steve Jackson told the 5-foot-11, 200-pound safety that the information was wrong. Clark wasn't going to be among the 14 players released to truncate the 90-man roster to 65 by Aug. 31.

The Washington Post, citing a team source, was one of many media outlets that had also reported that Clark had been cut and that morning published a correction on its Web site after team officials issued a statement clarifying Clark's status. Thanks to vicious tackling that belied his size, savvy and dedication, Clark had indeed earned a roster spot.

And after strong safety Matt Bowen suffered a season-ending injury during the first quarter of last Sunday's 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Clark finished with a career-high 12 tackles, including 10 solos, many against bruising tailback Jamal Lewis. Now, with safety Andre Lott recovering from a hamstring injury, Clark has a chance of starting at strong safety Sunday against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Even if Clark comes off the bench, he will have a prominent role in the safety-heavy defense of Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach of defense.

The incorrect reports about being released, Clark said, actually diminished the pressures of being a bubble player. Clark has progressed steadily since the first week of training camp when he was almost released because of a lack of physical conditioning.

"It was a relief in a way," Clark said yesterday, "because I had already come to grips with [being cut]. It made it a lot easier to go out and play after that, because I wasn't worried about it anymore. I'd been through it. I'd already felt like the Washington Redskins had cut me. I wasn't bitter or upset. I was thankful for the opportunity and ready to go on with life."

The fact that he might start is even more amazing because, after being released by the New York Giants in April, Clark, 25, had begun to pursue his post-NFL career. He exchanged his football uniform for a suit and tie after landing a job with his alma mater as a fundraiser for the Tiger Athletic Foundation.

A team manager gave Clark a highlight film of the Tigers' 2003 national championship season. Clark watched the tape five times, enraptured by the roar of the crowd, athletic elegance and the camaraderie. While viewing the tape Clark realized his football passion remained. He kept those feelings from his wife as long as possible before letting her know he wasn't ready to retire.

"I told her I just want one more chance," said Clark, who entered the season with four starts in 22 games for the Giants. "I just felt it burning inside. I wasn't through."

Clark received the opportunity from Washington on the team's first day of training camp, July 31, largely because safety Dennard Walker, a former Maryland standout, broke his leg during an offseason workout. Players invited to join a team on the first day of training camp usually have lottery-like odds of making the team. And Clark's NFL dreams looked like exactly that during his initial practice. Clark became so exhausted during the second practice of the day that he almost passed out. He attributes his lack of physical conditioning to the sudden change from a corporate job to the rigors of the NFL. Clark was known for his resilience even before LSU, where he started 36 straight games. Clark hasn't missed a practice or game, the safety said, since he was 13 years old.

But on this day, he was rushed to a tent for treatment.

"I was under the tent, getting ready to lose it," Clark recalled. "I was preparing my resignation speech for the coaches. " 'Thanks for the opportunity, but I don't think I'm going to make it.' But I stuck with it."

Clark has unspectacular athletic ability and a stock-boy frame. But he kept his job because of his versatility -- he is considered a good special teams player -- and solid coverage skills. And Clark's kamikaze approach made him a good fit with Williams's attacking style. Clark has the requisite smarts for strong safety, the player in Williams's system responsible for calling plays and aligning the secondary in concert with middle linebacker Antonio Pierce.

"He's a very good student of the game," Bowen said. "I watched plenty of film with him. He's one of the last guys to leave here."

Jackson said: "People look for measurables: big or fast. But you can't measure how smart and tough a guy is. And that's what Ryan has."

Yesterday, the coaches talked about the difference in the attitude of players who were released in the past, alluding to Clark's kamikaze style.

"I'm not saying that Ryan didn't have an attitude toward contact because I didn't know a lot about him until he got here," Williams said. "But I smiled inwardly from me wanting to cut him on the first two or three [two-a-day sessions] when he couldn't get through practice because he was out of shape; to all of a sudden now he's a strong contributor to what we're doing. And that's a credit to him."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company