Tackling a tough issue head on

Sunday, August 08, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In Maui, Hawaii, maybe as close to paradise as there is on Earth, the topics of discussion at the March meeting of the NFL Players Association team representatives were concussions, brain disease, early dementia and premature death.

All things considered, Steelers safety Ryan Clark would have preferred to be on the beach.

Certainly, Clark's wife, Yonka, would rather have listened to the soothing sounds of the ocean lapping against the shoreline than to the gruesome presentation linking football to brain injuries.

"It was definitely scary for her," Clark said last week at Steelers training camp. He's one of the team's player reps and took his wife on the trip.

"I think she understands the risks we take as players," Clark said. "We're off from January until June. Obviously, it's a great living. Anything this good has to have a downside. I tell her, 'I'll be an accountant, but you'll have to work.' "

Clark grinned, but he knows there's nothing funny about football-related brain damage. It's no longer the NFL's dirty little secret. Around here, we know former Pitt All-American and Steelers No. 1 pick Paul Martha, 68, is in an assisted-living facility in St. Louis with dementia, the result, he says, from at least 10 concussions as a player. We also have read the stories of former Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk dying young with brain disease. Then in June, word came that Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who died in December at 26 after a fall from a moving vehicle, had brain disease consistent with that of a man 80 or 90.

Clark seemed like the right guy to ask about all of it. If linebacker James Harrison isn't the Steelers' hardest hitter, Clark is. His fierce hits on New England's Wes Welker and Baltimore's Willis McGahee were among the more memorable moments from the Steelers' 2008 Super Bowl season.

So what does it feel like to hurtle your body at full force into another man going just as hard in the opposite direction when you know there's a pretty good chance that one, if not both, of you won't get up?

"You don't think about it. You can't think about it," Clark said. "Never once have I gone on the football field and thought that this might be my last game or that the next play could be it for me. You can't play that way. You just play."

I'm thinking there are three reasons -- besides the chance to make out-of-this-world money -- that NFL players use to justify getting out of bed in the morning to play their brutal game despite the increasing evidence about brain injuries. Clark touched on all three.

"Nothing's going to happen to me. The bad stuff happens to such-and-such. Not me."

"I never think about what I'll be like when I'm 60. You never think about being that old. I might tell my accountant how much money I want to have when I'm 60, but I don't think about what my quality of life will be then."

"I put my faith in God. I'm going to be OK."
That about covers it, wouldn't you agree?

Clark, like all players, is glad the NFL is taking aggressive steps to educate its players about the long-term dangers of head injuries. A new poster will be in every team's locker room this season warning about potential memory loss, personality changes, depression and early dementia. "Concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family's life forever." It is a startling admission by league officials, perhaps driven by fear of future litigation. In the not-too-distant past, they have tried to separate their game from any responsibility for their players' brain damage.

The players also are thankful the NFL is trying to save them from themselves. In Martha's day in the 1960s, players were given smelling salts and willingly went back into a game. "If you said you weren't OK, you were a sissy," he told the Post-Gazette last year. Players today still recoil at that sissy label, but the decision to go back into a game no longer is theirs. A new league rule prevents a player from re-entering a game or practice if he shows concussion symptoms.

Clearly, the steps are positive, but Clark said it's impossible for the NFL to legislate head injuries out of the game without changing the basic core of the sport.
"With all the rules now that you can't even touch someone in the head -- intentionally or even accidentally -- I'd like to pose the question to them, 'Where can you hit people? Is it better that I hit someone in the knee?'

"C'mon, it's football!"

Clark has been accused of being a dirty player. He said he never has tried to hurt anyone -- "I wouldn't appreciate a guy trying to hurt me" -- but he won't apologize for his hits. He likes his reputation. He likes that fans tell him they remember his hits just as much as Harrison's sacks or Ben Roethlisberger's touchdown passes. He likes the respect those hits have earned him over the years in his locker room.

"Hands down, Ryan Clark is the hardest-hitting safety in football," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote has said.

Clark re-signed with the Steelers as a free agent in March after nearly taking an offer from the Miami Dolphins. One reason was the chance to play again with All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who missed much of last season with knee problems.

"I know 'brother' is thrown out there a lot, but he really is like a brother to me," Clark said.

Another reason was -- in his words -- "to make things right with our defense" after it blew five fourth-quarter leads last season.
Clark said the only way he can help the Steelers is by playing the same way he always has.

And the possible consequences -- both short- and long-term -- that worry his wife?
See the three bulleted items above.

Former Steelers Paul Martha, Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and the Bengals' Chris Henry all suffered from brain damage.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

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