My body was on fire.
It had been on fire for weeks, actually. A soft touch of my cheek felt like a harsh slap. I couldn’t move my arms and legs most days, and even when I could, the pain was almost unbearable.
And nobody could tell me why.
All the basic tests that the doctors had run had come back negative, so they started putting me through more advanced exams.
Which is how I found myself facedown on a hospital bed, screaming. The anesthetic the doctors had given me before my bone-marrow biopsy wasn’t helping. I could feel the hollow four-inch needle as it pierced my skin and dug into my hip bone. The procedure was supposed to take less than a few minutes, but pain has a way of making a few minutes last an eternity.
The only thing that prevented me from blacking out from the pain was the thought that this test might finally give me an answer — that it might finally help me walk again.
You know how every high school football player dreams of playing varsity their freshman year? Bro, I started my first game as a freshman and scored three touchdowns. It was the most amazing feeling. I was already thinking about the next game, challenging myself to score four touchdowns, maybe even five. I was going to run all over the state of Louisiana.
I went home and went to bed. I couldn’t wait to hang out with my friends the next day. Maybe we’d throw the football around, go over highlights from the night before or just play some video games.
Except, when I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t do anything. My body was clenched into a ball. I tried to uncurl my arms, just a little bit, and I felt searing pain. I tried straightening my legs, thinking I could maybe get up to get some Advil. But I couldn’t move the more than an inch without incredible pain shooting up my spine.
The only thing I could do was scream for my mom.
She rushed into the room and asked me what was wrong. I told her I couldn’t move. She threw the covers off me. My body was covered with red splotches.
She felt my forehead. I was burning up, so she ran to get the thermometer.
My temperature was 104°.
My stepfather carried me downstairs and we rushed to the hospital.
The doctors at the hospital first thought that I just had a cold or an infection. But tests for both of those came back negative. So did every other test they ran — and bro, they ran a lot of tests.
I was in that hospital for a week, bedridden and helpless. Nobody could tell me or my family what was wrong. I saw other patients come and go, but not me. I was just stuck in that bed.
After a week, the hospital told us that we needed to go to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.
I’m from Shreveport. I’d never travelled outside of Louisiana before, and now I had to go all the way to Arkansas? What the hell was going on?
We loaded up into my mom’s minivan, and I laid down in the backseat. I was in agony the entire time, unable to even look out the window during the drive.
My word — the pain! It never went away. You ever had the flu? Like a really bad flu? You cramp up, it’s hard just to lift a limb and your whole body aches. Multiply that feeling by 10 and that’s how I felt on my best days.
We got to the hospital in Arkansas, and guess what? More tests. Everything you could think of — X-rays, MRIs, the works. They even took off my braces because they thought I might be having an allergic reaction to the metal. When that turned out not to be the cause, it was back to the drawing board for more tests — including the bone marrow biopsy.
That test actually didn’t reveal anything. None of the tests did. That was the worst part, worse even than the physical pain: the mental pain of not knowing what the hell was wrong with me.
I wanted to play football, to hang out with my friends, to laugh, to just be me again. But I couldn’t because there was something wrong with me and nobody knew what it was.
After three weeks in a hospital bed in Arkansas, the doctors sent me to a specialist back in Shreveport. Awesome. Another hospital. At least it was back home.
More tests. More questions. More poking and prodding. But this time, it actually led to a diagnosis.
Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Basically, my joints were swollen stiff and in pain — and getting worse.
My doctors to me that I had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than contracting this disease.
“You’re a miracle kid,” my doctor said.
Worst. Miracle. Ever.
I was relieved, though. At least I finally knew what was wrong. No more tests. No more guessing.
But the doctor wasn’t finished talking.
“I hate to say this but … I’m not sure you’ll be able to play football anymore,” he said. “Really, you’ll be lucky if you ever walk again.”
My heart broke.
Why would you tell a kid that? Even if it was true, why would you say it so bluntly? Playing in college and the NFL had been my dream. Now this doctor was telling me that my dream was all but over.
I was ready to give up right then. I’d been battling for over a month, and this just felt like the final blow.
When the doctor left the room, my mom could see the fear on my face. She could see my despair.
Throughout this entire process, my mom was my rock. She didn’t let me give up, and she also didn’t let anyone baby me. She’d shoo away a nurse who was trying to bring me water and make me get it myself. Even after I left the hospital, when people would visit me at my house, she’d insist that they treat me as if nothing was wrong.
I honestly think that that’s what kept me alive — her and the rest of my friends and family not letting me give up.
And when the doctor told me my dream was finished, there was no way in hell she was going to let that defeat me.
“Listen to me,” she said. “Nobody, nobody, can tell you what you can and can’t do.”
That was all the motivation I needed. I wasn’t going to let this thing beat me, especially now that I knew what it was.
To reduce the swelling in my joints, my doctor prescribed Kineret shots. As if I hadn’t been poked with enough needles.
I was in the hospital in Shreveport for a week before they let me go home. I was still in a wheelchair. When we approached the house, my mom opened the door, my entire team was waiting to surprise me.
All along, my teammates hadn’t forgotten about me. They’d sent cards, visited in the hospital and called me on the phone. But the surprise welcome was something else. That really let me know that I was still part of the team. I couldn’t wait to get back on the field.
Thanks to my mom’s tough love, once we got home, I had to administer the Kineret shots myself. Every day, weak as I was, I’d stab that needle into my thigh. Even though it felt like they weren’t doing anything, I knew they were my best chance at getting better.
A few months after I got home, I woke up one morning expecting all of the familiar pain and … it wasn’t there. I tested my arms, moving them up and down. No pain. I carefully placed my feet on the ground, one at a time, and stood up. I thought for sure that I’d fall, or that my body would cramp up and I’d crumble to the ground.
I didn’t. I took one step, then another, then another — and then I screamed for my mom because the pain was finally, finally gone.
My family was so relieved. They couldn’t believe it at first, either. All those months of tests, hospitals and so much pain, and now I was fine. The nightmare was over.
I hadn’t been able to work out or run or really do anything during my time in the hospital. I weighed around 185 pounds before my arthritis flared up, and now I was about 120. I didn’t even recognize myself in the mirror.
I’d lost a lot of my strength, but that wasn’t the worst part.
Before the arthritis crippled me, no one could beat me in a race. No one.
A few days after my recovery, I was outside racing one day with one of my best friends. He was fast, but he had never been as fast as me. I knew I had him.
We got set, fingers on the ground, one leg bent, the other straight back.
Three … two … one.…
We exploded out of our stances, and for an instant I was feeling good. Then my friend just pulled away from me. I was pumping my legs and arms as hard as I could to catch up, but I just couldn’t. I flashed back to my hospital bed, to my feelings of hopelessness whenever I tried to move my arms. I thought that feeling was gone forever, but now here I was, telling my legs to pump faster — something they had always done better than anyone else’s — and they just wouldn’t respond. That’s when I knew that I really needed to get back in the gym.
I started lifting and running, getting myself back in shape. When track season rolled around in the spring, I wasn’t 100%, but I thought I was in a good enough place to compete.
I remember going to sleep one night excited about finally getting back to playing sports.
I woke up the next morning and I couldn’t move.
Robin Zielinski/Las Cruces Sun-News/AP Images
I had put in all that work, had just gotten back to a normal life and then bam, I was back in my bed, paralyzed. My parents and I didn’t understand. What had we done wrong? I was taking the shots, so why had my arthritis come back?
At least this time, there was a silver lining. Even though the doctors didn’t know why my arthritis had flared up again, at least we knew what it was, and how to treat it.
I just had to keep up with the shots and hope they worked like they had done the last time. In the meantime, I had to put my entire life on hold. Again.
That really made me realize how precious life is, and how fragile. I knew that, if I ever got better, I was going to cherish every day of my life.
A few months after my arthritis had returned, I woke up one day and the pain was gone. Just like the first time.
It hasn’t come back since. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared about it coming back. In the first few months after the second bout, I really didn’t sleep much. I worried about what might happen when I woke up.
Would I be fine? Would I be in miserable pain? More months passed, and I continued to be symptom free. Sleep came a little bit easier, and so did the task of getting myself back to football shape.
I made up for lost time on the football field, and then some. I remember my first game back in full pads my sophomore year, standing on the sideline. When the national anthem started playing, I cried. I was me again.
From sophomore to senior year, I was going to all sorts of football camps, and getting tons of offers from Division I schools. I signed a letter of intent with Louisiana Tech. It’s in Ruston, only an hour and a half from my home, which meant my parents could see me play every Saturday. It was going to be perfect.
There was just one problem: I had missed a lot of school because of my disease, and as a result, my grades really suffered. I didn’t really think much of it until I got to Louisiana Tech for summer practice. Just before my first workout with the team, the NCAA said that I was academically ineligible.
All of a sudden, my family and I are scrambling for what to do next. My choices were pretty limited. I didn’t want to just sit out for a year and not play football — I’d already lost too much time. I could either grayshirt — play junior college ball for a year — or I could play for a team in a lower division.
I called my high school coaches and told them what was happening. They gave me a few schools to look at where they had connections.
“Have you heard of Abilene Christian?” asked one of my coaches.
“It’s in Abilene, Texas. You should give them a call. Their running back just tore his ACL.”
All I could think was, Where the hell is Abilene?
I called the Abilene Christian coaches that night — because it wasn’t like I had a lot of options.
“Listen, we’d love to have you,” the coach said. “But if you’re going to play this season, we need you here tomorrow morning.”
Tomorrow morning. I’d just heard about this school maybe an hour ago, and now I had to decide if I was going to spend the next four years of my life there.
I didn’t know a thing about Abilene Christian. But I knew I wanted to play football.
“See you tomorrow, coach.”
Dougal Brownlie/The St. Joseph News-Press/AP Images
I packed up my stuff in my mom’s minivan. My parents and I drove eight hours to Abilene, and I barely had enough time to empty the car before my mom and stepdad turned around and drove back to Shreveport.
There I was, a complete stranger in a place I didn’t even know existed 12 hours before. The first few weeks were awful. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have any friends. To make matters worse, it felt like I was as far away from my NFL dream as I had been the day the doctor told me I might never play football again. I just wanted to go home.
Then I thought back to that doctor who diagnosed me — the one who had said that I was never going to play football again. He was wrong. Here I was playing college football, just liked I’d always dreamed. That gave me perspective. If I could overcome paralysis — twice — and outgrow my arthritis, was I really going to let homesickness and a new city beat me?
I thought about that doctor again after I scored 30 touchdowns in my four-year college career, and gained more than 3,000 all-purpose yards. I thought about him when I ran a 4.27 40-yard dash at my pro day. I thought about him when I went undrafted in 2014. And I thought about him when the Chiefs signed me as a free agent even though they already had four running backs on their roster.
Now look at me: I’ve started in 12 games, including two playoff games.
I wish I knew where that doctor was today, because I want to thank him. His doubt was the fuel I needed to push myself during my recovery. I know he was just telling me the odds, but that was his mistake.
Because nobody can tell me what I can or can’t do.