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Clifton's comeback comes full circle with Pro Bowl nod

KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- When Dr. Patrick McKenzie looked at the MRI that came back from radiology, he wasn't totally convinced he had the right film.

"He told me he had seen those injuries in victims of car accidents, but never in an athlete," said Chad Clifton, whose pelvis was the one being examined by the Green Bay Packers team physician.

In many ways, the 2002 on-field collision between Warren Sapp and Clifton was just like a car wreck. Two 300-pound athletes -- one coming full steam with both feet off the ground, the other in a light jog with no idea what was to come -- colliding. And while Sapp came away from the wreckage unscathed, his devastating blindside hit during an interception return -- one that made headlines and eventually led to an NFL rules change -- violently drove Clifton to the turf, where the Packers offensive tackle lay motionless for several minutes in excruciating pain.

Clifton, 25 or so yards away from where Tampa Bay cornerback Brian Kelly was sprinting down the field with the ball he had just picked off, landed squarely on his hip, rupturing the muscles and ligaments that surround the front of the pelvic ring.

"It was just such a freak deal," McKenzie recalled this week from Hawaii, where he's part of the Packers' coaching and staff entourage working with the NFC Pro Bowl team. "Everything had to land just perfect. And you had two massive human beings in a huge collision.

"The force of that injury was just unusual. He wasn't ready for it. He wasn't looking for it. And the other guy (Sapp) hit him pretty hard. Sapp is a big guy. We see those types of hits a lot, where one player's not paying attention and the other guy's head-hunting a little bit, and then, boom, you've got a problem."

A big problem. Clifton didn't make the trip back from Tampa with his teammates. Instead, he spent the next four days in a hospital under heavy pain medication. When he finally did return to Green Bay, he had a hospital bed delivered to his home and laid in it for a month, able to move only with assistance from his wife, Candy.

Fortunately, the injury never involved Clifton's hip joints. The brunt of the damage took place where the two bones of the pelvis join, called the pubic symphysis, a massive ligament that keeps the bones together. Clifton had suffered a three-centimeter tear of the symphysis. From a joint standpoint, nothing had been displaced.

It was an injury, McKenzie says, that only time could heal. Initially, there were concerns about whether Clifton would ever play again, but once specialists were consulted, they reassured him that the injury would not be career-threatening.

"I got a little nervous about it, especially the first month," said Clifton, who is in Hawaii this week with his wife and two sons, 2-year-old Corbin and 2-month-old Cruz. "But once I started feeling a little bit better, getting through some of the rehab, working with our trainers and working with our strength and conditioning staff, really starting to see some progress, seeing some good gains being made, I knew I'd be able to make it."

Not only did he make it back, he made it all the way to Hawaii and is now considered one of the league's premier pass protectors. But not before some grueling rehab. The injury cost Clifton six games in 2002, but he surprised many when he lined up at left tackle for the Packers in the 2003 season opener. Since then, he has started every game but one, averaging more than 1,000 snaps a season.

"He's great at what he does. He protects well, he's a big body, and he's got great technique," said Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, who was shut out by Clifton in a Week 3 San Diego loss at Green Bay. "For a guy with that size -- now I'm not going to say he's the most athletic player in the world -- but he's probably the best technician I've seen in the game. He's definitely one of the best in the game."


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Added Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who will coach the NFC team in Sunday's Pro Bowl: "Chad Clifton is an outstanding football player and has been for a long time. He's only now being recognized as a Pro Bowl player. I think he's played at that level for a number of years."

Interestingly, Sapp announced his retirement the same month Clifton -- a two-time Pro Bowl alternate -- made his first Pro Bowl roster.

Sapp will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012, and there will be some, like Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, who will likely take into account the hit on Clifton when contemplating Sapp's credentials.

As Zimmerman wrote in SI shortly after the play, of which the NFL called legal and never handed out a fine, "Sapp was just getting a free one on a guy who wasn't expecting it. He was crippling the dummy. It was a mean, nasty hit that might have ended a person's career and given him a lifelong souvenir of pain. I always knew Sapp was a phony, but I underestimated his vicious streak."

Time tends to heal wounds, and Clifton knows that more than most.

While he still believes Sapp should have reached out to him while he was in the hospital for those four days, which Sapp never did, Clifton has taken the high road, holding no animosity toward the man affectionately called the "Mouth from the South" during his Tampa playing days.

"He never did call," Clifton said. "But the following year we went down there (to Tampa) and played them, and he said he was glad to see I was back. That was all he needed to say. It was an unnecessary hit, there's no question about that, but you've got to assume the risk every time you step on the field.

"To be completely honest, to me it's water under the bridge. Things like that happen every single year. Unfortunately, I was injured, and it got a lot of media attention. As far as hard feelings ... like I said, it happens."

Not anymore, at least not without fines and suspensions being handed out.

Three years after the incident, league owners, under the recommendation of the NFL Competition Committee, broadened the interpretation of the unnecessary roughness rule, emphasizing the word "unnecessary" and making illegal similar hits on plays away from the action on the field.

"Back then there was the mentality that when there was an interception you just take someone out," said safety John Lynch, a former teammate of Sapp's who was on the field for the Buccaneers when Clifton was injured. "And the rules changed as a result of it. But Warren was a clean player. There was no malice involved. He was just doing what he was coached to do. It's just a shame that Chad got hurt the way he did.

"I marvel at players like that who've come back, and not only come back, but make it to this (Pro Bowl) level. And I think Warren would, too. Warren's a classy guy. Besides all the bravado and all that, he's a classy guy. And I know he was concerned about Chad at the time."

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