Ryan Clarkis having one of the best seasons of his NFL career, but it is his off-the-field performance giving back to the community that sets him apart. For his efforts, Clark has been named the Steelers 2012 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Clark will be one of 32 NFL teams' Man of the Year winners who qualifies for the league's national 2012 Walter Payton Man of the Year award. The award recognizes a player's off-the-field community service as well his playing excellence. The overall winner will be announced during Super Bowl XLVII week in Indianapolis.
When Clark was dealt a life-threatening blow, he turned adversity into an opportunity to make a difference.
In 2007, after playing in Denver's high altitude, Clark, who has a combination of the sickle cell trait and an underlying medical condition, became ill. The strong, otherwise healthy, 205-pound safety experienced severe pain in his left side and was rushed to a Denver hospital. The high altitude and physical stress from the game caused Sickle Cell-related damage to his spleen. Upon returning to Pittsburgh he underwent emergency surgery to have his spleen and gall bladder removed, ending his season. His courageous return to football earned him the 2008 Steelers Ed Block Courage Award.
He and his wife, Yonka, have also dealt with the heartache of Sickle Cell beyond the football field. Ryan's sister-in-law died from complications of the disease in 2009 at age 27 and one of his children carries the Sickle Cell trait. This personal history motivated one of the NFL's most outspoken players to take a stand. Ryan teamed up with the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC to create Ryan Clark's Cure League. "I didn't just want to lend my name to a cause. I wanted to get involved in a big way," he said. The Cure League raises money for Sickle Cell research, clinical care, and increases awareness about this painful, life-threatening disease.
Ryan's commitment to community doesn't stop with Sickle Cell. He is the local spokesman for Dairy Management's Fuel Up to Play 60 program, which encourages kids to adopt healthy nutrition, especially low-fat dairy, as part of their Play 60 activities.
For the past two years he has visited the local Play 60 Super School, speaking to students about the importance of being physically active for 60 minutes daily and leading them in fun gym activities.
Clark has also been involved with numerous charities including Central Blood Bank, American Heart Association Walk, the Cancer Caring Center Walk and Salvation Army's Project Bundle-Up. The entire Clark family appears each year in the team's fashion show, which benefits the UPMC Starzl Transplantation Institute, UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program and the Cancer Caring Center.
Clark originally signed with the New York Giants as an undrafted rookie free agent from LSU in 2002. He spent two seasons with the Washington Redskins before being signed by the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in 2006. He won his first career Super Bowl as the starting safety in Super Bowl XLIII. He was selected as the Steelers' 2008 winner of the "Chief Award," chosen annually by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America.