When the New York Giants waived safety Ryan Clark in May 2004, no other team came calling. For two months Clark was out of football, and he began to wonder if his parting conversation with Tim Lewis, the Giants' defensive coordinator, would be his last with an NFL official. Perhaps Lewis's explanation for Clark's release would be prophetic.
"His words were," Clark said, " 'They don't think that you can tackle in this league, [or] that you're big enough to play safety.' "
That sentiment reverberates through Clark's mind to this day. He treats every play for the Washington Redskins as an opportunity to erase that label and show the league how tough he is, sacrificing his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame to stop bigger running backs and tight ends. He is a burgeoning playmaker in his second season here, a linchpin on one of the NFL's premier defenses.
"He's got a fire to him," end Renaldo Wynn said. "He's out there just blowing people up."
Clark, 26, got his first two interceptions in the last two games -- against Eli Manning in the end zone at Giants Stadium and a game-clincher against Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb near the goal line on fourth down with 90 seconds to play Sunday night.
"A lot of people say I play with a chip on my shoulder," Clark said. "I don't have a chip. I'm in the NFL; there's no chip. I'm just excited to be playing, and excited to get the chance I've been given here. And I want to keep making the guys who gave me a chance look good, and the people who didn't look bad. I do relish that, but I've been proving people wrong for a long time."
While fellow safety Sean Taylor, the fifth pick of the 2004 draft, gets most of the attention, Clark has been a similar physical presence while displaying the fundamentals that Taylor sometimes lacks. The talk of Clark being too small, or too skinny or fragile to play such a demanding position has ceased.
"He has the mentality of the whole team," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "He does whatever he's asked to do, he never complains about anything. He just goes out there and performs to the best of his ability. He's what you call a football player. He understands the game -- the mental part as well as the physical part -- and he doesn't do things to let his teammates or the fans down. He doesn't showboat. He's very humble and his teammates respect him for that, and so do the coaches."
Clark, a native of Marrero, La., arrived at Louisiana State University in 1998 as a scrawny project but played regularly as a freshman, earning special teams player-of-the-year honors. Mark Roman, a safety who went on to be selected 34th overall in the 2000 draft, was moved to cornerback so Clark, all 175 pounds of him, could play safety. But despite a solid career at LSU, Clark was undrafted in 2002 -- he did not fit the mold of an NFL defensive back -- and the Giants signed him as a free agent.
Much of 2002 was spent on the practice squad -- he appeared in just six games -- and although Clark started 11 games in 2003 he was cut the following spring by the incoming coaching staff. That summer Clark was working as a liaison for LSU alumni in the NFL, checking to see if they needed tickets or memorabilia from the school, when the Redskins called. He was signed on the first day of training camp, presumably just to fill out the roster, and ended up making the team.
Clark was inactive in Week 1 of 2004, and got his first real opportunity in the fifth game, when starting strong safety Matt Bowen suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening minutes. Clark went on to make 12 tackles -- 10 solo -- including the first highlight of his career, plowing into 245-pound wrecking ball Jamal Lewis, and getting the best of the Pro Bowl runner.
"When he first came here last year he was even smaller then, and a new guy, so you really have to make a name for yourself and get the trust from your teammates," linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "And he came up just hitting people last year on special teams, and then finally when he started playing on defense he was really coming downhill and just hitting big guys like Jamal Lewis last year. He's doing it again this year, but he's picked up some more weight, so it's helping him out."
Clark jokes that he is no tackling snob -- "My favorite hit is any one I can get up from and walk away," but has watched the hit of Lewis on film several times. "When I got up the shock that I had was amazing," Clark said. "I look at him like, hmmm, I just tackled him."
Last season, the hits took a toll and Clark wore down in December. He could not maintain weight, and spent the offseason bulking up and adding muscle. "Ryan thinks he's a linebacker," Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington said, "and he thinks he's a lot bigger than what he is. He's tough. He's one of the hardest workers on the team, right there with [wide receiver] James Thrash."
Clark would lift and train at Redskins Park four times a week as well. His wife now lives here with him -- she remained in Louisiana last season with so much uncertainty about how long he would last -- so Clark is eating better. He weighed 201 on Friday, up from what he estimated as 184 pounds a year ago.
He laughs about his weight with 280-pound H-back Mike Sellers before most practices, saying he will take it easy on Sellers the days his weight hovers closers to 190, but Clark knows only one way to play. Challenging the big guys is what got him here, and Clark has no plans to back down now.
"I've never been scared to hit," he said. "I always told my daddy, 'I go out there and try to hit him, and sometimes I win and sometimes I lose.' So lately I've been winning more than losing, so I guess it's one of those things. I had a good friend tell me, 'You're either going to be the hammer or the nail.' So I might be a small hammer, not a sledgehammer."