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Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin Is A Winner In Ryan Clark Situation

Johnie Freatman |
January 10, 2012 | 2:32 p.m. PST

Associate Sports Editor

Mike Tomlin was right to put his player's health over football. (SteelCityHobbies/Creative Commons)
Mike Tomlin was right to put his player's health over football. (SteelCityHobbies/Creative Commons)
Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once uttered the oft-repeated line "Winning isn’t everything, it's the only thing."

However, in the days leading up to his Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game against the Denver Broncos, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's actions revealed the shortsightedness of this notion. Though the Steelers ultimately lost to Denver on Sunday night, Tomlin can head into the offseason with the knowledge that he hasn't fallen into the trap of putting winning before the well-being of his players. In fact, Tomlin's principled method of winning is the noblest of all.

It began as an uncertain week for Steelers safety Ryan Clark, one certainly fraught with terrible memories. The last time he played in the high altitude of Denver, his sickle cell trait became so exacerbated that he nearly died. Despite his ultimate survival, he lost 30 pounds and had to have his gall bladder and spleen removed.

This would be his first time returning to Sports Authority Field at Mile High since that frightful day and Clark needed to be cleared by doctors.

Though the medical team eventually cleared Clark to play, they hardly gave it a ringing endorsement, saying, in Clark's words, "They couldn't tell me 100 percent that 'Nothing is going to happen to you, you're going to play and you're going to be fine.'"

In the high-pressure culture of the NFL, where potentially serious injuries like Colt McCoy's recent concussion often don't receive the scrutiny they should, many NFL coaches would accept the medical clearing and think nothing more of playing Clark.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark (Alex Abboud/Creative Commons)
Steelers safety Ryan Clark (Alex Abboud/Creative Commons)
Not Tomlin. Upon hearing the doctors' assessment, he didn't even need to hesitate to make his decision. Clark would not be playing."I think that one-percent chance was enough for Coach Tomlin to take it out of my hands," Clark said.

Perhaps it's the "taking it out of (Clark's) hands part that is equally important here. As much as coaches want their guys to play, players are all too prone to try to play through injuries that could present dangerous situations.

As Clark himself said, he wouldn't have thought of not playing if not for Tomlin's intervention. "Y'all have seen me play, I run into people all the time, so clearly I'm not that bright," he said.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the conversation relayed by Clark is when Tomlin, explaining his rationale, told him that if his own son were in a similar situation, he wouldn't let him play. It's amazing to think about what the NFL would be like if all coaches adopted a similar philosophy.

Despite his profound example, Tomlin's Steelers came up short against the Broncos in overtime, as Tim Tebow passed for 316 passing yards. In such a close game, many wondered if the outcome might have been different if Tomlin had played Clark, his leading tackler. One thing is for sure: Tomlin isn't among those lamenting the what-ifs.

As a coach, Tomlin has already proven he's a winner at the highest level, with two Super Bowl appearances and one title in only five season as an NFL head coach.

Though it took a loss to prove it, Tomlin showed that when it comes to integrity, he is one heck of a winner as well.

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