Ryan's Story

Ryan Clark — An Inspiring Story, A Courageous Athlete

The Washington Redskins’ Ryan Clark does not have sickle cell disease. He has what doctors refer to as sickle cell trait.

People with sickle cell disease inherited two sickle cell genes — one sickle cell gene from each parent. People with sickle cell trait, like Ryan Clark, inherited only one sickle cell gene from one parent. Typically, those with sickle cell trait never experience any symptoms associated with the blood disorder. But Clark did experience symptoms — symptoms that nearly cost him his life.

A Life-changing Ordeal

The elite NFL player suffered a major health scare after a 2007 game in the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado. Doctors say the high altitude and extreme physical stress triggered the painful and dangerous symptoms, normally only seen in those with sickle cell disease.

The strong, healthy 205-pound Clark had excruciating pain in his left side. He returned to Pittsburgh and underwent a battery of tests at UPMC. Clark’s test results found sickle cell-related damage to his spleen. Doctors performed emergency surgery to remove his spleen and gallbladder, sidelining Clark for the remainder of the Steelers’ season.

Thirty pounds lighter, a determined Clark returned to play the following NFL season. His courageous and inspiring return to pro football earned him the Ed Block Courage Award, presented yearly to selected NFL players who represent exemplary role models of courage, inspiration, and sportsmanship.

Finding Inspiration After Heartache

Ryan Clark and his wife Yonka have dealt with the heartache of sickle cell disease beyond the football field as well. Ryan’s sister-in-law died from complications of sickle cell disease in 2009 at age 27. This loss, and countless inspiring stories of patients and others who have lost loved ones to sickle cell disease, fuels their passion to help find a cure.

Clark shares how the idea for the Cure League began.

“After my ordeal in Denver, and following Kim’s death, my wife and I prayed daily for guidance about what to do next. I didn’t just want to lend my name to a cause; I wanted to get involved in a big way. That’s when we approached the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC about our idea.

“We feel so fortunate to have these amazing sickle cell doctors and scientists working with us to bring hope to people with sickle cell disease,” he said.

He also hopes to send a message to people dealing with the pain and complications of sickle cell disease:

“I know that it takes immense strength to withstand the constant pain and unpredictable attacks associated with sickle cell disease. I am so amazed by the strength and resilience I see in people suffering with this disease — strength in the face of adversity.

“I want you to know that you are not alone with your disease. The Cure League and its members will stand by you and this initiative until we eliminate the stigma you face as a sickle cell patient and researchers develop new FDA-approved treatments and scientific insights that lead to a cure.” ~Ryan Clark

Join Ryan Clark's Cure League for sickle cell disease and share your talents and resources with the team of gifted researchers and sickle cell doctors at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC.