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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Filed under: Colorado • Pro football • Sports
soundoff (165 Responses)
  1. Mr

    Fantastic decision. Nice to see a coach do the right thing every once in a while.

    January 4, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  2. Frank

    So much for laying it on the line for your teammates... Wonder if he'll lose respect in the locker room...

    January 4, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
    • sw6blues

      It wasn't the player's decision. Troll...

      January 4, 2012 at 10:07 am | Report abuse |

      In other news, Frank threw a full speed pitch to his 5 year old son to "build character" and knocked his teeth out.

      January 4, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
    • spiffy53

      Frank, you are the reason some people just suck

      January 4, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • TrueAmerican

      He wants to play, his coach won't let him.

      January 4, 2012 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
  3. Paulette

    Your health is more important to you Steeler fans. You helped get us to the playoffs and we thank you for that.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
  4. nblvabl


    I appreciate the coach's first! I am retired USAF w/the trait and trust me it was most apparent during my two yrs stationed in CO...was sick all the time and once the trait was discovered I was relocated at sea level; it's nothing to mess around with and I appreciate my chain of command's due dillegence (sp?). Claude et al be careful out there! And you haters, get with the times and start being realistic!

    January 4, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  5. deacondisaster

    Denver being a mile high is a complete fallacy made for tourist purposes. It is actually at least 100 feet lower than 5,280 ft (1 mile) for the vast majority of the city ... pretty sure they do their "official" measurement somewhere up high in a building to rig the measurement. If you are looking for a major city that is ACTUALLY one mile high you need only look one state to the south. Albuquerque is actually basically right at 5,280 or just slightly above ... no rigged measurements or anything ...

    January 4, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • peter

      oh, wow, ok, you're right... so, 5180 feet instead of 5280. wow, big difference. TROLL FAIL.

      January 4, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
    • craver

      Hey Uber Nerd – 100 ft? Who cares?

      January 4, 2012 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Andrea M

      It's measured on the steps of the capitol building which does sit on capitol hill, but the hill is actually just the start of a small valley that Cherry Creek runs through. On the east side of the creek, it's pretty much at or above 5,280 on the west side of town there's a lot more hills but I'd say it averages a little under that. The stadium itself is along the South Platte and I'd hazard a guess at about 5,200. But when you're this high up and have sickle-cell, I severely doubt 80ft makes much of a difference.

      January 4, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  6. mofo

    I guess he should stay away from skiing on A-basin. The lift drops you off at 12,000 feet. hahahaha. Go Teebus!

    January 4, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      With no snow, we're all staying away... sigh :-((

      January 4, 2012 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  7. BIll

    This guy just needs to get over it and be a real man and just play football. What's that salary good for if you're on a bench! Get over it!

    January 4, 2012 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      His coach took him out for his own safety. PLEASE read the article next time.

      January 4, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • brian

      You are right, someones health is far less important than a game... moron

      January 4, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Jamie

      The world would like for you to tell us how to "get over" sickle cell anemia. You could get a Nobel Prize, genius.

      January 4, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Playjojo

      Please don't comment if you DON'T understand what you read. Since when do players make the calls? In your own mind? Does the word "Coach" mean anything? Think hard. There are some pretty stupid, and rude comments here. Unfortunately, it's no surprise.

      January 4, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bubba

    Now...if he can finally stop Harrison from giving dirty helmet hits...

    January 4, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
  9. khatal

    I can see how some humans become animals, they care more about pride than life...
    Good call on the coach that cares for his players as if they are his sons, always looking for future victories not at the moment victories.

    Steelers is a great team and will perform to the fullest this weekend, thankfully is not a team based on just 1 player.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  10. Morgan

    Coach Tomlin is an extremely good coach and he made the right decision. Congrats to him.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jerome

    I am retired US Army w/ sickle cell trait. This is no joke. I did not know much about it or what it could do to me when I found out I had it. All I was told from doctors was that the trait doesn't have symptoms. I nearly killed myself during US Army Ranger School, jumping out of planes, and other physically demanding training. My body felt like it was shouting down. I am happy that Coach Tomlin took this position. Come on people, Clark has lost enough already. He doesn't need to lose his life for a game.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
  12. Frank

    Why couldn't it be Obama...

    January 4, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • mep

      Seriously!? this is a story about sports, not politics. Get a life, you hater!

      January 4, 2012 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  13. JohnnyInSNJ

    The good news is, now he's automatically immune to Malaria.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  14. shikwan

    That was backwards (dumb writer/reporter)! It should read: The sickle cell trait is an inherited condition that occurs when BOTH PARENTS passes 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 ONE PARENT.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
    • american citizen

      You fool. This "Sickle Cell" disease is all but made up, no scientific proof has been found. The media is lying to you. It is an infectious form of HIV that spreads around the black community, a form of ethnic cleansing. The white man does not want to step down from his seat of power. Get your facts right, and do some research. The real genocide is before you.

      January 4, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Victoria

      As someone with the sickle cell trait, it is not BOTH parents, but ONE. When both parents pass the gene, the child ends up with the actual sickle cell disease and not just the trait.

      January 4, 2012 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      Except that you're wrong. You get the disease when you inherit from both parents. You get the trait when you inherit from one parent.

      January 4, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
    • darnoc29099

      You still display and manifest symptoms even if you are only a carrier. The difference is the condition does not become as exacerbated as often if only 1 gene was passed to you as opposed to 2.

      January 4, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      Sickle cell does indeed exist. It is not limited to black people, do some research and you will find that there are a small percentage of whites who get it. It has nothing to do with hiv, its been around far longer than hiv.

      January 4, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jamie

    khatal: I agree with you except for "how some humans become animals". I like animals. I do not like some humans. Some people call other people animals as an excuse to abuse or kill. I just want to point that out-it is an analogy that bothers me a lot. I am sure you are a fine person and coach Tomlin is as well. All the best to Ryan Clark. Game on!

    January 4, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
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