Ryan Clark gets a pedicure and talks about the time he almost died
Washington safety Ryan Clark joined SB Nation’s Sarah Kogod for a pedicure a conversation about his career, his family and his brush with death.
Ryan Clark, Jr. shows up to our meeting place on time. In fact, the Washington defensive back is a few minutes early, and he’s the first athlete in my entire career who didn’t keep me waiting.
“I was actually here 10 minutes ago, but we were talking about something in the car,” he says.
The “we” refers to Clark and his wife, Yonka, who is joining us for an interview over pedicures at a nail salon not far from the team’s practice facility in Ashburn.
Clark is a 12-year veteran of the NFL, which is an uncommon feat and even more unusual given the fact that he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2002. And, he almost didn’t make it past his fifth year as a player because in 2007, he almost died.
Along with approximately 1 in 12 African Americans in the United States, Clark carries the sickle cell trait, a genetic abnormality that can affect red blood cells. Most with only the trait — and not sickle cell disease — see no complications from it.
“I knew I had the trait, but doctors never made a big deal about it,” explained Clark, as he sank deeper into his pedicure chair and put his feet in the water. “It was always, ‘Hey, you have the sickle cell trait,’ just like ‘Hey, you have brown eyes.’”
During a trip to Denver in his first stint with Washington in 2005, Clark started to feel a sharp pain under his ribs. The team sent him to a doctor, who told him he simply had a bruised spleen. Clark sat out a week and the pain dissipated.
Unfortunately, none of the doctors at the time made the connection between his sickle cell trait and the high altitude in Denver than can cause complications in rare sickle cell cases. When he returned to Denver with the Steelers in 2007, it was disastrous.
On the plane postgame, before takeoff from Denver, Clark started feeling that pain again. The trainer checked him out and took him off the plane, keeping him in Denver for the night to be looked at by doctors, who sent him back to the hotel with pain medication.
“I called my wife and told her I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said. “I’d never been in that much pain.”
The team sent him back to the hospital that night while Yonka flew to Denver with their three children. They ultimately let him fly home to Pittsburgh, but he was sick for a month. Clark lost 40 pounds in that month. He couldn’t eat and had dangerously high fevers.
“Every night I wore nice pajamas in case I kicked the bucket,” Clark joked. “At least if people came I’d have nice pajamas on.”
While he’s able to joke about it now, at the time it was quite serious.
“We’d wake up at 2 a.m. every night and [Yonka] would have to change the sheets and my clothes because my temperature was 103, 104 degrees,” he recalled. “And we’d do this every night.”
One day he started shaking with cold and couldn’t stop.
“My mom was laying on top of me with all of these covers trying to keep me warm, rubbing blessed oil on my head,” said Clark. “My wife, such a smart lady, goes to get a blow dryer so she can blow dry under the covers to warm me up. She puts it on cool without realizing it. I just didn’t feel like it was going to stop. I was like, ‘God, if it’s my time, let my wife find a good husband. Let him not be as good-looking as me, but let him be a good guy. Take care of my family. Please forgive me for my sins. I’m ready.’”
Clark didn’t die that night, but the nightmare continued. He spent more time in the hospital going through various tests and procedures, and even woke up in the middle of an invasive procedure because we wasn’t given enough anesthesia. It all made him ready to go.
“It was a tough time,” he said. “I was just tired. I knew it was my time, and I was just tired.”
While Clark was struggling, Yonka was tasked with holding the rest of the family together.
“It was terrifying,” said Yonka. “But I didn’t have time to stop and be afraid. He needed me and the kids needed things. When those type of situations come up, you’re just trying to survive.
“I thought there was a very real possibility that he wouldn’t make it,” she continued. “When you’re in a hospital room and the doctor says you should pray, that’s pretty scary.”
Finally one Thursday after a month of doctors failing to figure out what was wrong, Clark prayed about it and called another doctor who sent him to take a different test. Two hours after the test, the doctor called Yonka with instructions to get Clark to the hospital immediately.
Clark had a splenic infarction. The high altitude had complicated his sickle cell trait, preventing oxygen from getting to his organs, causing tissue death in his spleen.
“The doctor said that if I hadn’t called him, I wouldn’t have made it through the weekend,” said Clark.
Clark had his spleen removed. About a month later he began throwing up and found out something was also wrong with his gall bladder. Doctors removed that as well.
Clark sat out the rest of the 2007 season, but with both organs finally removed, the prognosis was good. Good enough for doctors to assume he could play in Denver when the Steelers returned in the 2008 season.
“They had taken my spleen out, my gall bladder. My doctors said they thought I’d be alright. They said I’d have a reaction, but I didn’t have the organs it would affect,” said Clark. “I just wanted to play. If I can play in Denver, it means I beat this thing.”
The shaky diagnosis of “we think you’ll be OK” made Clark feel like he needed to play, but Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t hearing it.
“Coach Tomlin said, ‘I wouldn’t let my son play, so I’m not letting you play,’” remembers Clark. “I was relieved. He saved me from myself. Who knows what could have happened.”
“That’s why he’ll always be my guy,” he continued. “He thought about me and my family on a bigger scale, rather than just a guy in a jersey.”
Two years later in 2009, the weekend after Clark became a Super Bowl champion with the Steelers, Clark’s sister-in-law died at the age of 27 from complications of sickle cell disease. He approached the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and began a foundation, Ryan Clark’s Cure League, to raise money for research, critical care and awareness for the disease.
The woman who saw him through
The one constant throughout Clark’s brush with death was his soulmate Yonka. The two have known each other for almost 20 years, but it wasn’t love at first sight. They met at a picnic in high school, a graduation party for one of her cousins.
“I was the man, obviously,” said Clark. “When I walked in, the party stopped. The girls had talked me up all day. They all wanted me.”
All except Yonka.
“She was so mean,” he said, shaking his head. “So mean to me.”
Yonka tells it a little bit differently.
Ryan Clark Jr. and his wife, Yonka. (courtesy of Ryan Clark, Jr.)
“He came strutting in, like he was the man,” she said. “Everyone else was talking about him like he was the man. I was like, ‘This scrawny kid is what you guys have been waiting for all day?’”
So, what changed her mind?
“Twenty pounds,” replies Yonka.
“I had started at LSU and had been working out with the team,” explained Clark. “She was still a cheerleader back home. I knew she didn’t like me, and she comes running up to me, like, ‘Hey, so good to see you’ like she liked me. I was like, ‘What the heck?’”
Yonka giggled from her pedicure chair.
“I was with all of my friends and I was with this college football player,” she said. “It worked.”
The two became friends — only friends — and when Yonka ended up at LSU a year later, Clark took her under his wing. The two were always together, and finally Ryan showed his romantic side.
“I said, ‘Next time someone asks if we’re together, just tell them yes,’” he said. “And that was how it started.”
That matter-of-fact attitude remained a theme throughout their relationship, peaking again when it came time to propose. While going through the insurance paperwork for a house he had purchased, the insurance company told them they would need to be married to hold the joint insurance.
“Sitting at IHOP, I was like, ‘Don’t worry about the insurance. Let’s just get married,’” he said.
“I was like, ‘Oh. OK, sure,” she laughed. “And then we went on with our pancakes.”
Clark made up for it that Valentine’s Day with a scavenger hunt ending in a ring. But the formality of it isn’t something either of them requires in their day-to-day. She cooks him dinner every night and handles the bulk of the household responsibilities.
“God couldn’t have given me a better woman,” said Clark. “A lot of people think when they see us, I’m really demanding. I’m not. She’s just a really good wife.”
The family he lives for
In a lot of ways, Clark’s “really good wife” has put her life on hold for his career. Twelve years into it, he wonders if it’s time to move on.
Ryan Clark Jr., and his son, Jordan, and daughters Jaden and Loghan. (courtesy of Ryan Clark, Jr.)
“Right now, the hardest part is knowing when enough is enough,” said Clark. “I’ve never done anything else. I know I’ve done enough, and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of this game. But when is enough, enough? Coach Dick LeBeau was my defensive coordinatior. A Hall of Famer, coached for 50 years. He told me, when you retire, you retire forever. That’s stuck with me.”
But then Clark looks at his wife, who has moved from a pedicure chair to a manicure one.
“She’s ready to start her life,” he said, with affection. “She has all of these things she wants to do.”
Clark has spent time with ESPN as an analyst, and says he has a job offer whenever he does decide to retire.
“You never give up football,” he said. “You just get too old to play it. But I think about my family. Is it selfish to keep playing for so long?”
The answer came from his son, a soccer player who had been invited to play on a traveling All-Star team a few years ago. Clark heard the boy, 7 years old at the time, telling his friends that he couldn’t play on the team because the family was traveling to Arizona so his dad could train.
As they were walking off, Clark apologized to his son for the lost opportunity, and asked if he ever got mad at his dad for missing out.
“‘Naw,’ he said to me. ‘Think of all the things I get to do, because of what you do for a living.’ It was my proudest moment as a dad.”
After 12 years, Clark can look back and see that the choices he and Yonka made for their family made them stronger.
“The NFL has been a family experience for us,” he said. “My kids have been there for the whole thing. They’ve seen Super Bowls, they’ve seen Pro Bowls. It’s been hard, but we did it.”
As for what made it all work, through his illness, career setbacks and several relocations, Clark said it’s simple.
“We just do it all together,” he said. “We roll as a crew.”