By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009
TAMPA, Jan. 29 -- When the Pittsburgh Steelers took the field at the University of South Florida on Wednesday afternoon for their first practice of Super Bowl week, Ryan Clark did so wearing No. 21 on his jersey. That was nothing new for Clark, who has made a habit of wearing the number on his practice jersey -- in place of the No. 25 he wears during games -- as a tribute to the late Sean Taylor, his friend and former Washington Redskins teammate.
But even if the gesture wasn't a new form of remembrance, it underscored Clark's strong ties to Taylor and the Redskins as he prepares for a game Sunday as a key member of a defense that could lead the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl title.
"I wear it every day," the safety said Thursday on the final day of media availability this week for Steelers players. "I've been wearing it since [training] camp began. I tried to change my number in the offseason but they wouldn't let me, for some reason. And then I wore 21 on my eye black, and they fined me. . . . I think about it every day. There hasn't been a day since he passed when I don't think about it."
Clark recalled getting text messages from former Redskins players Antonio Pierce and Rashad Bauman, breaking the sad news to him on Nov. 27, 2007, when Taylor died a day after being shot by intruders in his Miami area home. He remembered the shock that he felt over the loss of the standout young safety he played alongside for two seasons.
"It's one of those things you can't believe, especially somebody who I felt was like indestructible," Clark said. "It's a sad, sad thing. . . . If he has 1,000 of his hits on YouTube, I've probably watched 900 of them. I talk about him every day. I think my teammates probably get tired of me talking about him. Anytime we're talking about a football play, I have a story about him."
Clark signed with the Steelers as a free agent after the 2005 season, as the Redskins spent big money in the free agent market that offseason to bring in safety Adam Archuleta, who turned out to be a bust. Clark, meanwhile, has become a highly productive player in Pittsburgh as the club's complement to all-pro safety Troy Polamalu.
Redskins tailback Clinton Portis said Wednesday he used to tell former coach Joe Gibbs that the three players the team never should have allowed to depart were Clark, Pierce and tight end Robert Royal, who was called a positive locker room presence by Portis.
"Ryan Clark, man, the dedication that he played with, I think he was underrated because we had Sean back there," Portis said. "You see he had the opportunity to go play with Troy and now he's doing the same thing. I think just now people are starting to realize his worth."
Indeed they are. Clark has received attention lately for two jarring hits he delivered this season, one on New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker during the regular season and one on Baltimore Ravens tailback Willis McGahee during the AFC title game. McGahee was hospitalized overnight, but the Ravens have indicated that he is expected to make a complete recovery.
Clark said Thursday he hadn't spoken to McGahee since the hit. He didn't feel the need, he said, after finding out that McGahee was okay physically and seeing comments by McGahee that he considered the hit by Clark clean and simply part of football.
Clark was asked Thursday if his family worries about him because of the disregard for his own well-being that he seems to demonstrate on some of his hits.
"My wife is probably the only one that ever worries and gets upset with me," Clark said. "She says, 'Just get off the ground.' She says if I'm coherent, if I can walk, I need to get off the ground. I said to her: 'Sometimes I'm not functioning. I try to get up.' " Then he was asked if he ever worried about himself.
"I'm already missing two organs," said Clark, who was cleared by doctors to resume playing football this season after his 2007 season was ended when his spleen and, later, his gallbladder were surgically removed after he suffered complications from sickle cell trait. "They can't take much more out of me."
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said the focus on the Welker and McGahee hits has overshadowed Clark's solid overall play.
"He's gotten some attention because of a couple plays this year," Tomlin said. "But those plays don't come to mind when I think of Ryan Clark. I think of the consistent play and quality leadership he's given us."
The Steelers might need superb performances Sunday from Clark, Polamalu and the other members of their secondary against Cardinals wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
"The secondary has a lot of work to do this week," former Steelers defensive back Rod Woodson said. "If the Steelers are going to win this football game, the secondary, the back end [of the defense], the linebackers in coverage have to play the best they've ever played all year long. And if they can do that, they can win the football game. But if they have a bad day, it's over for the Steelers."
If the Steelers prevail, Clark will become the second member of Portis's list of valued former Redskins to win a Super Bowl title in the last two years. Pierce won last season with the New York Giants. But Clark said he doesn't view himself as getting the last laugh.
He said he left the Redskins on good terms. Owner Daniel Snyder called him when he left the Redskins to say he appreciated Clark's contributions to the team, Clark said, adding that he appreciated the opportunity he was given in Washington. He'd been out of the league temporarily, following two seasons with the Giants, when the Redskins signed him.
"I think equally, we gave something to each other," Clark said. "I gave my heart to the team when I was there, and they gave me an opportunity to play football again. . . . I have a lot of good ties there. I met a lot of good people. I think some of those people are actually happy for me now that I'm doing well."