BY WILL GRAVES
Ryan Clark spent all preseason talking about how rejuvenated Troy Polamalu looks in practice.
Listen to Clark long enough, and the Pittsburgh Steelers safety throws around words like “amazing” and “incredible” when describing his future Hall of Fame teammate, who missed half of the 2012 season with a calf injury.
Thing is, the 33-year-old Clark has a good 18 months on Polamalu. Oh, and he played 15 games last season, missing only the opener in Denver due to a blood condition that makes it dangerous for him to play at altitude.
Ask Clark why there’s so much chatter about Polamalu instead of himself, and Clark just laughs.
“I’m not as important,” he said. “That’s why nobody cares about that.”
Nobody, it seems, except the guys inside the Steelers locker room. More than a decade into a career that’s seen him evolve from longshot undrafted rookie free agent to unfiltered – for better or worse – mouthpiece for the league’s top defense, Clark will serve as one of four Pittsburgh captains this fall.
While calling the honor “a blessing,” it’s also a position he tried to avoid for years.
When his LSU teammates chose to look elsewhere for leadership during his time with the Tigers, Clark was relieved.
“(You) always ran out of the tunnel last, (you) have to hug like 18 people on the sideline before (you) can even play a game,” Clark said. “Coach (Mike) Tomlin even asked me last year against Washington, did I want to go out and be a captain and I was like, ‘I’m good coach, I want to stick to my routine.”’
Maybe, but he’ll gladly walk to midfield for the coin toss on Sunday when the Steelers open the season against Tennessee and stand alongside Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Keisel and Maurkice Pouncey. He’ll shake hands. He’ll bro-hug. He’ll play nice with the referees.
Yes, it’s mostly ceremonial. It’s also symbolic of Clark’s slow steady rise from afterthought to leader.
Overlooked in the 2002 NFL Draft, Clark carries a chip on his shoulder that’s never really gone away. Not even a Pro Bowl appearance in 2011 or his evolution into one of the more cerebral players in the pros has allowed Clark – at least in his head – to shed the stigma of that comes with being passed over 245 times by general managers who are supposed to know good football players from marginal talent.
“Kids, they come in now and they’re asking me what round I was taken in,” Clark said. “But you can believe GMs, execs, (they) know I wasn’t drafted and they always look at you like there was a reason teams took seven rounds and didn’t pick you.
“I think I feel like you always have things to dispel and things to prove yourself.”
Over and over and over again.
Told by his mother when he got on the plane for New York Giants training camp in 2002 to “go get a job,” Clark claims he was too naive to know any better. He made the 53-man roster in 2002, played all 16 games in 2003 then spent two years with the Redskins before signing with the Steelers in 2006, where he’s spent most of his career working in the considerable shadow that is a natural byproduct when you play alongside the shoulder-padded supernova that is Polamalu.
Yet the truth is, Clark’s responsible play has allowed Polamalu to freelance his way into legend, even if Clark doesn’t like to admit it. The narrative works better when Clark is considered the dutiful wingman, at least for Clark.
That’s not exactly how it works, however. While Polamalu sat idly for most of 2012 waiting for his calf to heal, the Steelers were still the Steelers on defense. They allowed a league-low 185.2 yards per game through the air thanks in part to Clark throwing his body around with the usual abandon. He picked off two passes and forced two fumbles, giving him a hand in a fifth of the 20 turnovers Pittsburgh created.
By all accounts, Clark appears to be getting better with age to the point his wife Yonka wonders if he’s aging in reverse like a mohawked Benjamin Button.
He’s not. There are days, particularly when the trainers stumble upon a particularly sore spot, that Clark feels every bit like a guy who will turn 34 in October. Those days remain infrequent because of the maintenance Clark does in the offseason.
When rookie safety Shamarko Thomas asked Clark for advice on how to adjust to life in the NFL after the Steelers selected Thomas in the fourth round of the draft, Clark took the player who will one day be his successor to a local acupuncturist.
“Ryan said ‘You’re 22 right now but you’re not always going to feel that way,”’ Thomas said. “He told me to take care of your body now so it can take care of you when you’re older.”
It’s a piece of advice Clark doesn’t give to just any rookie, though that’s largely because not every rookie asks. When Thomas talks to buddies on other teams, he hears stories about how veterans are largely indifferent to draft picks. Not on the Steelers, and certainly not Clark.
“He helps out with everything,” Thomas said.
To the point where Clark invites younger players over to his house on Thanksgiving or throws parties to help deal with the isolation that can come as kids just out of school try to figure out life in a brand new city. It’s something he’s done for years and something he’ll continue to do if there’s a ‘C’ next to his name or not.
“Getting to go out for the coin toss is a plus, it lets everybody else know you care for your team and your concern for them,” Clark said. “It’s the little things that you do to touch people’s lives, young people and that’s what matters.”
NOTES: Steelers FB Will Johnson (hamstring) participated in individual workouts and remains questionable for Sunday’s game ... RB Le’Veon Bell (foot) did not practice ... LB Jarvis Jones (chest) and TE Heath Miller (knee) were limited.