Greg Clark was on the ground in immense pain from a mountain-biking accident on Mt. Diablo two-and-a-half weeks ago.
The former 49ers tight end’s mind went racing back to the 1999 NFL season.
“I hit the rock and I heard the crack,” Clark told NBC Sports Bay Area on Wednesday. “I’m lying there, and I can’t breathe. And I know right away because the last time I heard that same sound and had that same feeling was the Seattle game.”
Clark sustained five broken ribs on his right side in a preseason game against the Seahawks. He missed the first three games of the 1999 regular season, but he managed to play in three games before asking the 49ers' medical staff for anything that would help him cope with the discomfort.
“I was just at a point where I felt like I needed to have a game where I could have a little pain relief,” Clark said. “You’re still dealing with these sub-acute fractures. I just mentally wanted to have a break from the pain. I’d asked to get a block, just to numb the areas.”
What followed was a mishap that nearly cost him his life.
“I never gave all the details on that,” Clark said. “We tried to minimize it.”
But an incident involving Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor on Sunday brings back the memory for Clark and everyone who was around the 49ers more than two decades ago.
“It’s so funny, I’m dealing with these broken ribs and all of a sudden this resurfaces again 21 years later,” Clark said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, geez.’”
A Chargers team doctor accidentally punctured Taylor’s lung while attempting to administer a pain-killing injection before Sunday’s game, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Wednesday. Taylor was scratched from the starting lineup shortly before kickoff.
The same thing happened to Clark. His lung was punctured as the 49ers got ready to play the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis on Oct. 24, 1999.
But Clark still played in the game despite experiencing some significant clues that things were not right.
“I’d been complaining pretty early on that either someone spiked the water or the towels got washed weird because I could taste that lidocaine or novocaine, whatever they use,” Clark said. “But when they injected that, it obviously went to my lungs.
“So I’d been complaining to Dave Fiore and some other players, ‘Man, do you taste that in the water?’ And they were like, ‘No, no.’ So I just kept playing.”
Clark started and played most of the game. But after Clark caught a 7-yard pass from his former Stanford teammate Steve Stenstrom with 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter of the 49ers’ 40-16 loss, Clark alerted a team doctor that he could not breathe.
“I said, ‘I’m dying out there,’” Clark recalled. “He looked at me, and he could tell by the color of my lips, ‘Hey, we need to get an X-ray right now.’
“That’s when the alarm bells went off because they could see that one lung had collapsed.”
As it was explained to Clark, if both lungs collapse, the heart starts to move over and could lead to cardiac arrest.
The game ended while Clark was in the locker room. The ambulance stationed at the Metrodome had already left. The ambulance was called back for Clark. But it had to deal with postgame traffic around the stadium.
Clark said once he was in the ambulance, he could sense there was major concern.
“I noticed how they were stressed,” Clark said, “and I asked them, ‘Is this serious? Should I call my wife?’ They said yes.”
Clark called his wife, Carle. The stress of the situation with her husband sent her into pre-term labor. She went to John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek, while her husband faced a life-threatening situation 2,000 miles away.
“It was like an ER show you see on TV," Clark said. "You have 12 people around. Everyone is chaotic. They’re cutting off your jersey and everything. There’s not time for an anesthetic, so they’re getting out the scalpel and cutting. You have a bunch of people on one side of you holding you while another guy has a big ol’ pair of pliers and is trying to bust it through the side of your ribs through the cartilage and all that muscle. And he couldn’t get through.
"He was just shaking. You know how you can see a guy’s eyes and know that he’s panicked? I’m screaming. I was swearing like a sailor. It hurt so bad.”
The ER staff member finally broke through Clark's rib cage -- something he said he could tell by hearing a loud pop and a big release of air.
“Then, it kind of gets blurry after that,” Clark said.
Clark spent a week in Minnesota -- a few days in the hospital and another night or two in a hotel -- to allow his lungs to heal and stabilize before it was safe for him to fly back home.
Meanwhile, his wife’s contractions were slowed down and the timeframe of the pregnancy went back to normal. The couple’s son, Jayden, was born full term on March 20, 2000. Jayden Clark is now a redshirt sophomore linebacker at Southern Utah University.
Clark said the doctor who cared for him in Minnesota told him he only survived because he was in such excellent physical condition and was able to compensate for his lungs being so displaced.
“My guess is this kid (Taylor) probably recognized it right away,” Clark said. “I knew something was off, but I just had no idea what it was. Back then, we just played. It never occurred to me that there was a possibility you could ever puncture a lung from a needle.
“If you can monitor it, it can usually heal up on itself. My situation was different because I went out and played four quarters of a football game.”
The week after the 49ers’ game at Minnesota, the team had a bye week. Clark sat out the team’s next game as a precaution but was back in the lineup three weeks after the incident-turned-medical-emergency to play against the New Orleans Saints.
“I wanted to play the following week in the game, but they wouldn’t let me because of the amount of attention it got,” he said. “But I played the following week. I only missed one game.”
Clark was a third-round draft pick of the 49ers in 1997. He played four NFL seasons with the club and started 39 of the 55 games in which he appeared.
Now, Clark, 48, lives in Danville. He works in investment real estate in the East Bay. He does not find that his currently fractured ribs from the bike accident are too much of an impediment in his profession.
And he certainly does not require another painkilling injection.
“I don’t have to practice or play, so I feel great,” he said.