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Pittsburgh Steeler Star Benched By Mile High Altitude

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Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles Tony Scheffler of the Denver Broncos in Denver on Oct. 21, 2007. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles Tony Scheffler of the Denver Broncos in Denver on Oct. 21, 2007. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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Written by Dr. Dave Hnida CBS4 Medical Editor

DENVER (CBS4) – The last time Pittburgh Steeler safety Ryan Clark played in Denver, he wound up spending a month in the hospital and surgically losing his spleen and gallbladder.

That was in 2007. And the reason wasn’t a typical football bash-up. Instead, the exertion of the game and the mile high altitude triggered Clark’s blood cells to curl up into a weird shape, and block blood flow to several organs in his body.

Clark didn’t know it at the time, but he is one of 2.4 million Americans who carry Sickle Cell trait. That means he has inherited one gene that makes him prone to blood problems under certain stressful conditions can have serious health problems.

People who carry both genes have sickle cell disease and tend to have health issues even without stressful circumstances.

136010645 Pittsburgh Steeler Star Benched By Mile High Altitude

Ryan Clark at Candlestick Park on Dec. 19, 2011, in San Francisco. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

So the next time the Steelers came to town, Clark and the team would be faced with a big question: could he play in the mile high air? Would extra oxygen and extra fluids keep the blood flowing well?

The answer is: no one knows — and Clark won’t suit up.

Yet this time around it’s the playoffs, and how can you say no about playing in one of the  biggest games of the year?  Clark could have taken a chance and been an impact player in this playoff game. Or, he might have keeled over with a new blood vessel obstruction that might show up out of the blue as he was chasing a Bronco wide receiver around.

Certainly a tough call — especially since Clark is the team’s leading tackler this season. Plus, he sticks to receivers like glue, and would pose major problems for a Bronco offense that needs a jumpstart.

The decision for Clark not to play this time was best explained by Steeler head coach Mike Tomlin.

“If he was my son, I wouldn’t take the chance. So Ryan will not suit up.”

Clark will come to the game, stand on the sidelines and cheer his team on. But that’s it. No more.

A game — no matter how important we fans may think it is — really isn’t worth a man’s life.

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