It was actually Ryan Clark that helped increased awareness. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin benched his starting safety during a pivotal 2011 playoff game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium (Sports Authority Field at Mile High). Pittsburgh applied similar caution the following year when they played a regular season game in Denver.
Clark has sickle cell trait and as a result, lost his spleen and gall bladder after experiencing pain in Denver during the 2007 season. He lost 30 pounds and was obviously (and eventually) placed on season-ending Injured Reserve. For those curious, "people with sickle cell trait carry the sickle cell gene, but they do not have the disease," per a story by Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "Normally those with trait do not have serious health problems. But during extreme physical exertion and at high altitudes, they can become prone to dehydration or have trouble breathing. This is one reason the NCAA now requires that all college athletes be tested for sickle cell trait."
Why are we bringing this up?
As Cincinnati prepares for their own pivotal showdown against the Broncos in Denver, with the potential to claim the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, we're reminded that Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins also has sickle cell trait. Atkins, a viable candidate for defensive player of the year, has helped promote awareness over the years and shared his story.
"Once I learned I had the trait I researched as much as I could and talked with the football training staff," said Atkins during the summer of 2012. "They assured me that the trait would not affect my ability to play. There were four freshmen who tested positive for the trait along with me and we were assigned a trainer who watched us closely during practice sessions and on game day. I was not treated differently by my teammates and went about my life just as I had before. One day I learned that a football player had died from complications of sickle cell trait while participating in spring practice at another university. That's when I realized that this is a serious issue and I should not take any chances with my health. I played at the highest level in college and it earned me a spot in the NFL."
Atkins also told the CDC in sharing his story this anecdote, "During the 2011 season we did travel to Denver to play the Broncos and that was the first time I can truly say I felt the effects of the trait. I could not breathe after a 10-play series and had to be given oxygen on the sideline."
Clearly, wondering if Atkins will play this Monday against the Broncos may become of interest. If Cincinnati approaches the situation with an abundance of caution, everyone would understand if they deactivated Atkins. However, Cincinnati has only played one game in Denver during Atkins' tenure in Cincinnati and he contributed with a quarterback sack, tackle for loss and an additional hit on the quarterback (aka, a typical day at the office for Atkins).