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Two years ago, playing in the high altitude of Denver could have killed Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark(notes). Instead, it cost him surgeries that took his spleen and gall bladder, and the loss of an additional 35 pounds due to medical complications.
On Monday night, Pittsburgh returns to the Denver altitude for the first time since that scare. And amazingly, Clark is considering playing in the game, despite still carrying a sickle-cell trait and another undisclosed medical condition that caused the initial crisis. Clark has gotten medical clearance to play in the game, but the question remains: should Pittsburgh even be letting him entertain the risk?
It's a complicated question, and one that really can't be answered by anyone outside of the Steelers, who are the only ones fully aware of his medical history, as well as the potential danger caused by Clark playing in altitude. While some veterans expressed sentiment against it, one NFC general manager said it's not a risk his franchise would take.
"Speaking from ignorance and not knowing all the medical particulars, my personal feeling is if all the pre-existing conditions are the same for [Clark], and if this was something legitimately brought on by the altitude, I don't know how he could be allowed to play," the general manager said. "But again, I don't have the information in front of me that they do, so take it for what it's worth. But to me, if you're talking about the same scenario [as two years ago] from a health standpoint, even if that previous [health scare] was a freak thing, it's got to be seen as a risk. If the altitude had a severe impact once, what's to say it won't again? Why take a chance?"
Clark's previous illness ensued after playing in a 31-28 loss to Denver on Oct. 21, 2007. He became ill following the game, after complications with the sickle-cell trait in his blood prevented parts of his spleen from receiving oxygen. As doctors struggled to determine the problem, he was forced to have emergency surgery to remove his spleen. A few weeks later, his gallbladder had to be removed as well. Throughout the ordeal, he lost 35 pounds and his once-chiseled 205-pound physique atrophied, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. Along the way, doctors told Clark that about 1 percent of those afflicted with the sickle-cell trait in his blood react adversely to high stress and exertion in extreme altitude.
At last year's Super Bowl, Clark related to Yahoo! Sports how the experience gave him pause about his football career, and how close his life came to changing dramatically.
"I thought about my daughter a lot," Clark said. "You want to be there for her. You want to be able to pick her up and play with her. My football career became really secondary when I thought about that. My wife, my family, that is what was important."
Clark has refused to discuss his decision to play this week with reporters, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has said that the two will come to an agreement on the decision later this week. However, it was something that was already on Clark's mind at the Super Bowl.
"I'm supposed to be OK," he said. "We actually play in Denver [in 2009], so that will be something to think about, whether or not I can play there. The sickle-cell [trait] and the [altitude] are only supposed to hurt certain things like those organs [the spleen and gall bladder] so they say I should be OK. They think it can't hurt me now that those have been taken out. But, you know, it will be something to think about with my family."
Even if Clark and his family decide he should play Monday, there is a chance the Steelers will deactivate him. Tomlin said he's reserving the right to overrule Clark if he feels it's in his best interests.
"His physical health, his well-being, of course, is paramount," Tomlin said Monday. "We're going to attempt to do what's right. We're going to weigh all our options and we're going to come to a decision at some point later this week."
Clark isn't the only player with the sickle-cell trait. Steelers wideout Santonio Holmes(notes) has it, too, as well as many other NFL players. However, Holmes falls into the 99 percent who aren't impacted by altitude issues. And he apparently doesn't have the other undisclosed medical-condition that exacerbated Clark's medical issues. Whatever the case, Tomlin reiterated what Clark said at last season's Super Bowl: that the player has received medical clearance to play, and that doctors don't expect any recurring issues.
But even with that clearance, it's something that has weighed on the mind of his teammates. Both safety Troy Polamalu(notes) and wideout Hines Ward(notes) expressed some concern after watching Clark struggle through his previous scare.
"If it were me, no, I wouldn't go," Ward told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "… I know he wants to be out there but life is way more precious than football. When football ends, you can still go on and have a productive life. What Ryan went through the last time he was there, to see him lose his spleen and to come to find out it was because of the Denver trip … if it were me, I wouldn't play. It's not even a question. But I can't speak for somebody else. I don't know how he and his family feel about the situation."
Another factor to consider is potential legal issues if something catastrophic were to occur a second time. And while that's a rather cold side issue in the whole affair, it's something that most NFL teams would be forced to consider.
"The legal end of it has to be part of your process," the NFC general manager said. "I think there's that whole idea of doubt. If something happened, the question is, 'If there was a scintilla of doubt in your mind, why put him out there?' … I think there is a locker-room element, too. You want to keep in mind the way players would view it and how a team handles a health thing is always on players' minds. They pay attention.
"That's a lot of [consternation] for one regular-season game."
And that might be why it's best simply to deactivate Clark in this case. While he has his medical clearance, doctors can't clear a conscience. If anything were to happen, no matter how unlikely, the Steelers would be putting themselves in a precarious spot, not only from the standpoint of public perception but also perhaps from their own players.
In this scenario, it's better to stick with the overly safe approach and risk losing a little edge on the field than to go the other way and risk losing so much more.
Here are some of this week's other inconvenient truths …
The Williams situation in Dallas is heading in a bad direction
Maybe it won't be this season. And maybe it won't be next, either. But eventually, the relationship between the Dallas Cowboys and wideout Roy Williams is going to hit a wall. In a way, that's already the case with his storybook return to his home state.
It's amazing to think that only one month ago, Williams was still the rock-solid No. 1 wideout for the Cowboys and much of the team's hand-wringing was over whether Patrick Crayton(notes) could excel in a starting role. Almost overnight, and practically out of nowhere, Miles Austin(notes) not only surfaced as a quality offensive piece but also seized the starring role that Williams was expected to fill.
Thus far, Austin has been extremely productive, very affable and personable, even earning a reputation as the "Anti-Terrell Owens(notes)" in some media quarters. On the other hand, Williams has been, well, himself: sensitive, slightly defensive and frustrated about his lack of on-field rapport with quarterback Tony Romo(notes).
The question is, how long will he be able to keep his cool before questions about the surrendered trade bounty (a first-, third- and sixth-round picks in the 2009 NFL draft) and contract (six years and $54 million) become a constant part of the conversation? Believe it or not, it could happen sooner than later. Factoring in his option bonus and base salary this season, Williams is earning a cringe-worthy $13.65 million this season and is due another $12.95 million (cringe again) next year.
That's not exactly the kind of cheese you want to be laying out when Williams' first 16 games in a Dallas uniform have produced 33 catches for 447 yards and three touchdowns. By comparison, Austin has put up 482 yards and five touchdowns in the past three games. Did we mention that Austin is on a one-year, $1.5 million deal and could be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season if the CBA is extended?
So, yeah, it's safe to say there is some drama in the near future. The fact is, Williams probably was overrated when he was acquired by Dallas. He had one healthy, Pro Bowl season in 2006 for a bad Detroit team and has been living off it ever since. But he also became known as a somewhat odd, sometimes sensitive player in Detroit, and he illustrated that trait again when he contemplated not talking to the Dallas media this summer. It was a sign of a crack under pressure, and that spotlight is bound to intensify as the season goes on.
Already, Cowboys coach Wade Phillips has admitted Williams and Romo aren't on the same wavelength. Making matters worse, former Dallas wideout Michael Irvin recently criticized Williams and praised Austin on his radio show.
So what's the bottom line? Well, it makes me think of two things. First, not everyone can play football on a stage like Dallas. It brings intense media and fan scrutiny, particularly when players are paid like stars. And with his current production, that is going to cause lasting problems for Williams. Second, if Austin continues producing at a high level, I can only wonder: If a then 27-year-old Williams was worth six years and $54 million last season, what is a 25-year-old Austin worth now? And more importantly, is Dallas really interested in paying them both like elite No. 1 receivers?
The respect issue is growing for Tampa Bay's Morris
Like all young coaches, age and familiarity was a concern when Raheem Morris unexpectedly landed the head job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the rare occurrence that someone in his early 30s lands a head coaching job in the NFL – or even a coordinator position – one of the first questions is whether the lack of an age gap will cause respect issues within the roster. Will a young coach be given the measure of deference often enjoyed by a long-tenured NFL coach, or will he be seen more as a peer by the players he is expected to lead?
When Morris got his job in Tampa, the concern ran even deeper than most situations. While a guy like Denver's Josh McDaniels is actually coaching one of his former high school teammates (Kenny Peterson(notes)), he had the benefit of coming over from another franchise, so there was a built-in lack of familiarity with the most of the roster. Morris didn't have that benefit. Indeed, before his promotion from defensive backs coach, Morris was known to interact socially with some players. In turn, among some of his players, Morris had been as much a close friend as he had been a coach.
So when Morris was elevated to head coach, the natural question was whether some players could make a distinction. Was Morris too close to some players? Would he be seen as just one of the guys, or accepted as the guy in charge of everyone? In light of the team's 0-7 start and some of the latest reports, that question is starting to bubble to the surface again.
The most notable problem arises in a recent report from Tampa radio station WDAE that oft-troubled cornerback Aqib Talib(notes) and others "significantly" broke curfew after the team's 35-7 loss to New England in London. Talib, one of Morris' players when he was a defensive backs coach last season, responded with a profanity-laced barrage aimed at Morris, according to the WDAE report. The incident reportedly happened in the lobby of the team hotel.
Morris responded to the report by saying it was handled internally by the team but then expounded on the perceived lack of respect in the incident this week.
"I've never ever once been disrespected by Aqib Talib in my life," Morris told reporters. "Never. … We swear to each other every day. I wouldn't call it a disrespect. The swear words, that's talk on the football field. We do that all the time. We swear to them on the field talking about a play and how we can do it better. It is just a form of communication of some sort. He has never ever disrespected me. He has always been as respectful as you can be to a coach, and to a brother-figure, or a father figure, or however he looks at me, and he has been like that to me. I've never had a problem with Talib."
Morris denied the incident could lead to a wider lack of respect, but he's manipulating the context. The "swearing" that Morris describes is something that happens largely in private situations – not hotel lobbies. The reality is that all young coaches are walking a fine line when it comes to establishing respect with their locker rooms. They must find a way to get players to view them as both confidants and authority figures. And it's a tricky road to navigate.
Pittsburgh's Tomlin is a perfect example of success. While Tomlin is known to engage his players in a very personal way, he also went out of his way to draw a clear line between himself and his roster when he arrived, running extremely tough practices and purposefully butting heads with some of the team's established veterans. As much as Tomlin appeared to be a player's coach, he established his authority immediately. There was no room for ambiguity.
Whether Morris wants to accept it, he's got a growing problem of perception. Now the only remaining winless team and with an example of what appears to be a public act of disrespect, those questions only will intensify with the struggles on the field.
Players are learning their personal lives do matter
When wideout Chris Chambers(notes) was released by the San Diego Chargers this week, it wasn't an unthinkable move. Younger players like Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee(notes) already had become more productive than Chambers in far more limited roles. So the writing was on the wall for Chambers. His career in San Diego was coming to an end. But after being released, he told the Union-Tribune that he believes his personal life played a factor.
"I thought the team gave up on me a little quick – for factors that don't have to deal with football," Chambers told the paper. "I guess it created a distraction upstairs. I kept my head on straight. We all go through things. I did my best to not have my personal life and football clash. They know a little too much of my life, and they used it against me."
The Union-Tribune referenced Chambers' recent divorce and noted "a relationship with a woman sources on the team believed may have had a negative impact on his performance." It was a fairly ambiguous reference, but the underlying message was a bit more clear: the Chargers are taking into account the things players are doing away from the football facility.
Considering the embarrassing drama that previously surrounded linebacker Shawne Merriman(notes) and his relationship with reality television creation Tila Tequila, it's not a shocker, especially when you consider the Chargers' run of off-field incidents that have added fuel to the consternation about the underachieving on the field.
But in a wider sense, this isn't going to be an isolated incident. The stories about teams taking stock of the personal lives of players continue to grow. Whether spurred on by the Michael Vick(notes) dogfighting fiasco or the growing public window to players' lifestyles, teams appear to be more concerned than ever with what is happening away from the field, to the point that there even have been some unconfirmed accounts of contract negotiations expanding into question-and-answer sessions about a potential signee's social circle.
Indeed, some intriguing clarity has begun to develop, particularly for higher-priced players. They are no longer just considered athletic investments. They are image investments, too. So what once was off the negotiating table – things like their friendships and relationships – now takes a very close second to what they produce on the field.