Like many grateful patients, I am now fiercely committed to supporting medical research and ensuring that all patients have hope after they receive a life-changing diagnosis because of what happened to me, twice. In the second season of my NFL career I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and again 15 years later, I discovered that I had been infected with the Hepatitis C virus from blood transfusions I had received during several abdominal surgeries for my illness.
My first diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease hit me hard because it threatened to end my promising career that was just taking off as the placekicker for the San Diego Chargers. I would play sick for over a year, enduring painful abdominal cramps, the need to know where every bathroom was, and with few treatment options to keep my disease under control. Since then, however, because of the commitment of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and innovative research funded by the pharmaceutical industry, amazing new therapies have been brought to market that have given hope to the 3.6 million patients who suffer from Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and completely changed the way their disease is managed.
My second diagnosis of Hepatitis C was even more devastating to me. People depended on me more than ever before, I was now married with four kids under the age of six- some of whom have special needs. I remember feeling “dirty” and wondering if I was going to die and leave the burden of providing for the family to my already overwhelmed wife, or if I had inadvertently infected her. I knew little about the virus but was stunned to learn that it killed more people than HIV. Fortunately, several pharmaceutical companies had started to do research on the virus and there was hope provided by a new treatment that had just come available. I would ultimately go on three different yearlong interferon-based clinical trials, requiring daily self-administered injections that came with very challenging side effect. It didn’t matter how many procedures I had to endure in the end, because eventually I was cured!!
Within 25 years after first identifying and naming Hepatitis C, the research and development efforts had advanced therapies to a point where we now have a completely curative, all oral, no side effect, treatment!
It is for these reasons that I am thrilled to join the Voters for Cures initiative. Had it not been for medical science and the access I had to new and innovative therapies I would never have had the chance to resume my career and play ten seasons in the NFL, be named Comeback Player of the Year, Walter Payton Man of the Year, play in the Pro Bowl or be inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame. But, more importantly, I might never have had the chance to watch our children grow up or enjoy an amazing life with my wife.
My illness changed me; helped me discover that I have more grit, courage, creativity and the ability to persevere than I ever imagined I had. It taught me the power of hope and helped me uncover the indomitable spirit I believe exists in each of us. It also defined a mission and purpose for my life that is more fulfilling than any game-winning field goal I ever kicked and for that I am most grateful!