Steelers starting free safety Ryan Clark is highly unlikely to play Monday night in Denver, according to league sources, because of a rare sickle-cell trait that can trigger life-threatening complications at altitude.
Clark needed emergency surgery to remove his spleen when he played in Denver in 2007, and he also experienced serious complications from playing there with the Redskins in 2005.
Doctors cleared Clark to participate in the game, citing a low risk of him experiencing those same chronic issues again, but it can’t be ruled out entirely. Despite Clark protesting to play — I know him well, and he’s as driven an individual as you will find in this game — the Steelers are virtually certain to make an organizational decision to have him sit out the game against the Broncos, the sources said.
A final decision hasn’t been made, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has said he wouldn’t make any further statements on the matter until Thursday at the earliest, but internally, there is a strong feeling that protecting Clark is paramount. If this was the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers might be more inclined to let Clark make the call, but that is highly doubtful in this circumstance.
Clark, who hits hard and plays well above his modest 5-foot-11 stature, is having what might be his best season. The eighth-year NFL veteran is eligible for unrestricted free agency in March should the sides not reach an extension agreement before then.