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. Ally

    People relax. Just click the "report abuse" button and move on.

    January 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. PAUL

    Tomlinson is a class act. kudos to him and good luck to the Steelers from a Pats fan.

    January 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jpip

    Man, talk about the ultimate home field advantage. Makes me wish that Paul Brown Stadium was at a higher elevation...

    January 4, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick-o

      Go Bengals! WHO DEY?!

      January 4, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tee

    I'd rather give to Jerry's kids.

    January 4, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • mag

      Not sure what you mean by that. But you seem to be the type of person who would not give anything of value to anyone so STFU. Loser.

      January 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Gamer Geek

    Tomlin for President! He understands teamwork, hard work, organization, and gives a damn about the people involved! Sounds like a perfect candidate or even maybe a VP! Admittedly I am a little crazy, but Tomlin win or lose clearly is a solid human being, from all sides of this, doesn't want to lose a player, doesn't want to incur a cost to the player, team or investors, see the risk and makes the good call.

    January 4, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bat

      I'll second that. He's 1 of the best in business. Let's go Steelers!!!

      January 4, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • iris651

      He is a terrific human being - we see it all the time in Pittsburgh.

      January 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. mag

    Its refreshing to see a coaching staff take a player's health risk in consideration. Tomlin says that he would not let his son play if he had sickle cell trait, and thus he will not let Clark play. That's so awesome. Tomlin is once again proven to be an awesome person and coach. Of course, if this were the Browns, they would have put Clark in and if his liver erupted they would have put him back in (sarcasm in regards to how they handled Colt McCoy's horrific concussion).

    January 4, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Andrea

    It is not worth risking your life for a game. Someone else can step in and take his place on the field. No one can take his place with his family

    January 4, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Veronica

    I can't believe people are saying he should play or are calling him weak! My daughter has something similar called spherocytosis. It's also an anemia that causes pre-mature breakdown of the red blood cell. He can actually die if he Hgb drops too low. Educate yourself people!

    January 4, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jboHDrider

    Tomlin-Class act all the way around! Way to take care of your peeps!

    January 4, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ryanWI

    Kudos to Tomlin for making the tough call. There seem to be fewer and fewer people involved with pro sports that I can point out to my son as a good role model. Tomlin is one of the few. (But still, GO PACKERS!)

    January 4, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ted

    Great Job Steelr coaches, Ryan Clark, you will be missed!! Thanks for all your hard work!!!

    January 4, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Just do it

    Pittsburgh is actually around 1200 feet above sea level. Try doing some real research Brad!

    January 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  13. bestthumper

    Hats off to both the coach and player, I would like to see Clark playing but don't want to see him fall out. For those who call him weak it just shows you have never pushed yourself to your limits and have no concept of what it takes to be a professional athlete or anything for that matter. I grew up old school where you played through pain and at 56 I am paying for that. I am known as being tough but I will tell you it isn't worth the risk. Ask yourself the same thing Tomlinson asked, would you let your son play?

    January 4, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. CincyFan

    @ Stanford. Yes, i still say the Steelers are classy. Big Ben was on THIN ice...and he is a STUD QB. He was about one more minor traffic incident away from looking for employment else where. Yes, the Steelers are a class organization. I'm sure Big Ben was smooching up good to management to stay in Pittsburgh. Ray Lewis was found innocent, and deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. What kind of primadonna league do you want? These guys are not choir boys.

    January 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
  15. s kel


    January 4, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
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