Sickle cell trait keeps Steelers' safety out of playoff game
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark led the team in tackles this season.
January 4th, 2012
06:18 AM ET

Sickle cell trait keeps Steelers' safety out of playoff game

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, one of the team's leading defenders, won't play in Sunday's NFL playoff game in Denver because physical exertion in the city's mile-high altitude may aggravate Clark's sickle cell trait.

"Looking at data and all the variables he is at more risk, so we're not going to play him. It's just that simple," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday, according to CNN affiliate WPXI-TV.

"If he is in any more danger than any of the other 21 men on the field, then we err on the side of caution," Tomlin said at a news conference.

"It is a big game for us, but it is a game," he said.

After a 2007 game in Denver, Clark had his spleen and gall bladder removed and lost 30 pounds from sickle cell complications.

But Clark told ESPN he thought he could play in Denver this weekend despite the risks.

"I talked to my doctors and we actually had a plan in place for me to play. All things pointed to me going until (Tomlin) told me I can't. He said he wouldn't have let his son play and so I'm not playing either," Clark told ESPN.

After hearing that, Clark said he couldn't argue with Tomlin's decision.

"I appreciate coach caring about me more than this football game," he said in the ESPN interview.

The sickle cell trait is an inherited condition that occurs when one parent passes to a sickle cell gene to a child, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those with the trait do not usually exhibit symptoms of sickle cell disease, which occurs when the child inherits the sickle cell gene from both parents.

Sickle cell disease is a blood disorder in which normally round red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body, become crescent- or sickle-shaped. They also become hard and sticky and tend to die early, according to the CDC. And because of their shape, they can become stuck in blood vessels leading to problems including infection and stroke.

But the CDC cautions that those with sickle cell trait can experience complications during both athletic activity and when at high altitudes. Denver, known as the Mile-High City, is 5,280 feet above sea level. Pittsburgh is about 770 feet above sea level.

Clark has been the Steelers' busiest defender this season, according to He has been on the field for 1,009 snaps this season, or 98.7% of the team's defensive plays. He led the team with 100 tackles.

Clark will be replaced by Ryan Mundy in the starting lineup.

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soundoff (165 Responses)
  1. Fr33th1nk3r

    He's a wuss? Clark suffered a stroke, lost his spleen and gall bladder, and lost 30 pounds due to the complications afterwards the last time he played at Mile High. Do NFL players have to die in the line of combat for some fans to appreciate them? Do players have to die so some chucklehead fantasy football geek can brag about their stats the next Monday as if they scored them?

    As for Mike Tomlin, he has been great for the Steelers. The team has had a roller coaster ride the last few years, with Big Ben's drinking and womanizing in the bars, Santonio Holmes' constant run-ins with the law, James Harrison's war with the commissioner about how NFL defense is supposed to be played (clearly, the experts agree more with James Harrison– he won Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 for a reason), the Superbowl loss last year (they are the first team to make the playoffs the next year after losing the SB, also the first team to make the playoffs with such a huge negative turnover differential), the long and ugly lockout this last summer. But through it all, Tomlin maintained positive control over the team and brought them together for yet another playoff run.

    The Rooney's chose well when they picked Mike Tomlin to be the next long-time coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Steelers4EvR

    The Steelers have often displayed that type of an ethic, and it makes me proud to have supported them more than 30 years now!

    January 4, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Deedie

    I have S.C.T. Only discovered after I Was diagnosed with ESRD, and needed to start dialysis in order to survive. SCT explains a lot of my past and current medical complications

    January 4, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Journalism

    Please remove J's derogatory comment immediately!!!

    January 5, 2012 at 7:44 am | Report abuse |
  5. coleda

    If everyone is the same why do only blacks get sickle cell?

    January 5, 2012 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
    • SCD

      If you don't know what you are talking about then you shouldn't show your ignorance in such a public way!!!!

      January 5, 2012 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Genetically, the sicke cell trait, though a normally recessive gene, has excessive prominence in particular groups of the African American community, Why? Because the sickle cell trait was actually a benefit when malaria was a significant pressure on the population. If people are heterozygous for the disease (also known as having the trait), they gain immunity to malaria without completely being at risk MOST of the time. So in a way, the trait was actually an evolutionary benefit in african communities. (Who were being plagued with Malaria for thousands of years). It's only now becoming a nusciance. (though the sickle cell disease kills. (homozygous recessive). It has nothing to do with race, it has to do with population genetics.

      -Source: Being an Undergraduate student in Biology and learning about Sickle cell Anemia in genetics classes.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Journalism

    SCD, I agree. Some people like COLEDA and J use this as a forum to showcase their IGNORANCE behind a mask.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  7. RJ

    Education makes all the difference Coleda and J, maybe you should try educating yourself on issues befire you speak. It definitely wuld auger well for you in the future. To help in this regard let me inform you that blacks are not the only ethinic group to develop sickle cell. Added to that if diseases were the defining quality that made us inequal as human beings then why would you say for e.g. that caucasians are more predisposed to cystic fibrosis, or that beta thalassemia trait is more frequently found in asians. Bottomline READ. Then speak (or in this case, write).

    January 5, 2012 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
  8. Aldrin

    Well this Is the way I look at the whole Burress deal If we sign him I'll be okay with It cause he Is a tall target and he would be a great Red Zone play maker and If we don't sign him we have plntey of other WR's that can and will get the job done so we will just have to wait and see what happens and plus a BIG plus the money has to be right I don't want us to sign Plax and lose some other key players we couldn't afford cause Plax cost so much so the money has to work and fit In with the team.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
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