After a standout career as a safety at LSU, Ryan Clark was given nothing coming into the National Football League. He went undrafted; catching on with the New York Giants and Washington. Before in many ways becoming the unsung hero of some outstanding Pittsburgh Steelers defenses.
While still an active player, Clark regularly made guest appearances on ESPN’s airwaves in 2013 and 2014. Foreshadowing what would be a near-meteoric rise as one of the game’s top studio analysts.
Quick-witted, and full of personality, Clark is now paying it forward as a part of Crown Royal’s Purple Bag Project. We sat down with Ryan Clark to discuss going undrafted, his “welcome to the NFL moment,” and what’s next for the Super Bowl champ.
The Spun: First off, can you tell us a bit about your partnership with Crown Royal?
Ryan Clark: Yessir. Listen, this was the 87th draft, and what Crown Royal wanted to do was give us an opportunity to toast this new class. We understand that they’re going into their new communities, they’re going into their new facilities, and they want to make a splash just like all of the NFL legends who have come before them. And as Crown Royal is the first whiskey sponsor of the NFL, those are the types of partnerships that continue to grow the game. Those are the types of partnerships that continue to allow these guys to get into the communities and make a difference.
So as someone who has already walked those hallways, who has already played in those stadiums and arenas, I’m just excited that I had an opportunity to be a part of the Purple Bag initiative and toast these guys, man. And just show the love and support that you have to, [to] the next generation; as the generation before me did as they paved the way for me to have that opportunity for 13 years in the NFL.
The Spun: You were a player that went undrafted and ended up having a Pro Bowl career as a member of some of the best defenses of the late 2000s-early 2010s. What would your advice be to guys who didn’t hear their name called on draft day?
RC: You know man, like that’s what’s so hard, is that guys are disappointed. Cause you expect to be drafted, you want to be drafted. These are the things that you’ve worked your entire life for. So when it doesn’t happen there’s a lot of disappointment. And it’s funny, either guys (or people) don’t know that I was undrafted; because they look at my career in totality, they look at what I do for a living now. Or I’m like the poster boy for it, for many people in my position.
So I’ve talked to five or six guys who’ve gone undrafted already to just let ‘em know, "Here’s the way you have to look at it." Every time you step on the field, or in the building, you have to know that you belong. You have to know that you’re good enough, you’re skilled enough, you’ve worked hard enough. At the same time, you have to know that nobody believes you belong. So everyday you have to prove it. And I think if you can do those two things, and compartmentalize them correctly, you’ll give yourself a chance.
The Spun: What was your “welcome to the NFL” moment?
RC: Aw man, so crazy. The New York Giants play the New England Patriots in the preseason often. And so I’m playing gunner on the punt team… and you know... a lot of times they double-jam the gunner. I’m like, “Cool, it’s gonna be some rookies just like me, trying to make the team.” And I walk out and it’s Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law [laughs].
Listen, I’m telling you if I didn’t have good control of my bladder, it would’ve been all over the place. Man… I was just like, “I’m gonna run as fast as I can, [and] as hard as I can.” At that point, I didn’t know that veterans of their caliber didn’t care about special teams during the preseason. So it was actually pretty easy.
But, just standing across from those guys who I respected so much, who had already done so much in the NFL, was that moment that said, “Hey man, you have to be ready at all times.” Because you never know when an all-time great will be standing across from you.
The Spun: You played alongside one of the most unique defensive talents ever in Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu. Is there a Troy story that comes to mind that exemplifies just how special he was?
RC: You know, I think man... just... Troy was different. Troy saw the game differently. Troy had a different level of talent. A different level of instinct. And a work ethic that was uniquely suited to him being the best he could be. He was always seeking and searching for information to improve himself. Whether that was spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically. I think that’s what set him apart. He obviously was gifted beyond belief when it comes to his talent, his skillset… But I think even above that, it was what he did to go the extra mile to make himself the player he was that I admired the most.
And it was also his giving spirit.
Like, Troy is one of the greatest brothers, greatest teammates I’ve ever had. And he didn’t have to be that way. He didn’t have to be that humble. He didn’t have to continue to heap praise on his teammates and his coaches and [their] accomplishments. But, he always did. And he deserves everything that he got, including the gold jacket.
The Spun: You were with the Steelers for Mike Tomlin’s first year in Pittsburgh. He’s one of the most respected coaches in the league, especially among players. What’s something that you learned from Mike T that you carried with you beyond your football career?
RC: [Chuckles] Um, there’s a lot of things.
One is brutal honesty [laughs]. ... That was the one thing I always respected about him, was that I always knew where I stood. Which was important. And then I think going beyond that... he told me one day, he said, “Everybody will be treated fair, not everybody will be treated the same.” And it stuck with me because that’s how life works. I’ve gotten to a place in life where being on TV people recognize your face and you know, you might show up to a restaurant and there’s a line and they say, “Oh no, Mr. Clark, you can go ahead.” Or people send you free stuff, have you on the podcast or on TV because of who you are, because of what you accomplished... That’s not necessarily fair for everyone, right? Because the people who are “less than” or the people who don’t have as much is who we should be helping.
But, that’s what life is, you know? That people won’t be treated the same based on who they are. And there were some people in our locker room that could do things that I couldn’t, and I could do things that other people couldn’t. And that was because of how people feel about you, because of the things you earned, and because of the relationships you built. I think that’s something that’s lasted with me past football.
The Spun: When it comes to athletes transitioning into the media space, few have been as successful as you. What was that like when you first started getting into television?
RC: It was cool. I think it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do when I got out of college. But, it becomes something that you see as an opportunity to do. And once I saw that it was an opportunity, I really began to dive into it. I interned at LSU, my major was mass communications, so I had done some broadcasting. But, I wanted to be a sports information director. I wanted to work at LSU and be the guy that brought everybody to the interviews, and go to the media days and different things like that. So, you know, I studied it a little bit… but not as much as those who take broadcasting or journalism. And I used some of those things I learned and some of the experiences I was able to gain doing the “car wash” at ESPN or going to NFL Network. And you know, thank God it worked out for me.
The Spun: You showed tremendous ambition to go from undrafted safety, to Super Bowl champion, to rising broadcasting star. What’s next for Ryan Clark? Where does that ambition take you? Is it further in media? An NFL front office? Maybe back to LSU?
RC: My ultimate goal is to be an athletic director. That’s what I’m moving towards ... building businesses… gonna return to school... get my MBA. I think that you have an opportunity in that position to affect young lives, to help universities to continue to not only diversify, but also show these young men how to leave school as a better human than what they came in. To build programs, and continue to leave a legacy... And I think that’s gonna be my last job.
I’ve had some talks about getting into the front office and doing different things. It’s hard to get pulled away from doing a job where you actually have free time and they pay you well, to take a job where they might not pay as well and you’ll have no free time [laughs]. So, I’m trying to figure that part out.
The Spun: You were one of the first NFL players to be so open about your experiences with sickle cell trait. Over the years you’ve done a number of things to help raise awareness about the condition. Is there a direction you can point our readers in to assist in finding a cure?
RC: Yes, absolutely. Listen, there’s sickle cell foundations in each and every state. I work here strongly with Baton Rouge Sickle Cell Foundation. Also, the biggest thing is awareness, right? Lock into any site that allows you to study sickle cell anemia, to study sickle cell trait, and spread those things. UPMC has a very large group of doctors that work strictly on this. I was partnering with them with The Cure League, which is my foundation when I played in Pittsburgh, and we did amazing work. We were able to raise a ton of money, a ton of awareness, and continue to work to try to find a cure. So anything that you can do: donating locally, being involved in blood drives, being involved in walks or any type of fundraisers, is truly appreciated.
Clark nearly lost his life in 2007 after playing a game in Denver due to sickle cell disease. The high altitude restricted the oxygen flow to his red blood cells, leading to the removal of his spleen, gallbladder and a loss of 35 pounds. He would remain out for the rest of that season, and never played a game at Mile High Stadium again.
Clark re-upped with ESPN on a multi-year extension last year, remaining a year-round presence on “NFL Live,” “Get Up” and “SportsCenter.”
He officially joined the network back in 2015.
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