Princeton University running back Jordan Culbreath blamed football training camp last season for the fatigue, headaches and sores in his mouth, until a blood test showed he had a rare genetic disorder that was slowly killing him.
After enduring 12 blood transfusions, 20 platelet transfusions and a 28-pill a day regimen of immune suppressants, anti-viral, anti-fungal and high-blood pressure medications, the former Ivy League rushing champion is set to return to the Tigers’ lineup for tomorrow’s football season opener against Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
“You can’t feel sorry for yourself because you won’t make it,” Culbreath said in an interview at the school’s football field in Princeton, New Jersey. “You have to be strong, you have to be positive and you have to tell yourself to keep moving forward no matter what you face.”
Culbreath, 22, had been suffering from fatigue and sores for several weeks before a sprained ankle led him to confess his symptoms to Princeton’s team doctor Margot Putukian.
Culbreath was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a life- threatening disease where all the cells in his bone marrow were wiped out, including oxygen-carrying red blood cells, infection fighting white blood cells and platelets, which help clot blood.
“Thankfully, he was a football player with athletic trainers and physicians working with him so that he was able to get help,” Putukian said in an interview. “His blood levels were all at panic values.”
Underlying the condition was an acquired genetic abnormality called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, or PNH. Complications include premature death of red blood cells, blood clots and an increased risk of infection.
Most people with the abnormality survive more than 10 years after their diagnosis, according to MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
A bone marrow transplant was the first option, but Culbreath’s father, Cliff, a guard on the University of Southern California’s 1972 national championship football team, is African-American, and his mother, Alma, is part Japanese, part German-Irish, making it difficult to find a match.
So doctors started antibody therapy to suppress Culbreath’s immune system, preventing further attacks on his bone marrow and allowing his body to replenish its blood cells.
Culbreath’s Princeton teammates rallied around their captain, showing up in groups at his bedside at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, sending cards and wishing him well on his website.
The Falls Church, Virginia, native had been an inspiration to his teammates long before he got sick. A mechanical and aerospace engineering major, Culbreath made the football team in 2006 after asking for a tryout.
A year later, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound runner became an ESPN highlight in a game against Cornell University, in which he rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
And the 2008 season was even better. In the season finale against Dartmouth, Culbreath ran for 276 yards and two touchdowns. It was the second-highest single-game rushing total in school history, behind Keith Elias’s 299 yards and four scores against Lafayette College on Sept. 26, 1992.
Culbreath finished the year with 1,206 yards and his future seemed bright. Seven months later, he was felled by the disease that threatened to end his playing career and life.
He said he’ll never forget the day that a hospital administrator came to his room to see if he wanted assistance writing a will, or to meet with clergy. He sent her away.
“When you start treatment, it gets worse at first and you don’t know if it is working. You ask, ‘Should I give up, or keep fighting to get better,’” Culbreath said. “I was going to get through this. But I was going to have to fight for it.”
The lessons he learned in football -- self-discipline, hard work, overcoming disappointment -- would serve him well, he said.
“I came to Princeton as a walk-on and I worked my way up to team captain because of my mental strength; working hard when I saw other people quitting or not giving their all,” Culbreath said. “No matter how bad, you get back up and keep pushing forward. I knew it’s what would get me ahead in life and now, in my recovery.”
Culbreath responded to the antibody therapy and now takes medication every two weeks to ensure his red blood cells don’t start breaking down again.
While he’s “doing extremely well,” he could still have a relapse, team doctor Putukian said.
The most common symptoms are blood clots, bleeding and infection. Culbreath will be monitored for the remainder of the season.
While coach Bob Surace describes Culbreath, a senior, as a mature runner with great vision and exceptional balance and toughness, he’s tried to keep expectations at a minimum.
“We’re not going to take any chances,” Surace said in an interview. “He looks great, he looks strong, but the first sign of any problems, we’ll pull him out.”
Culbreath said he’s ready to return to carrying the ball, lowering his head for the extra yard and celebrating and agonizing with his teammates.
“When I’m on the field this coming season, no one is going to care what I went through last fall,” Culbreath said. “They are going to try and take my head off like everyone else. That’s fine with me.”