GAINESVILLE — He's not quite back at full speed and not allowed full contact in practice, but Florida defensive tackle Brandon Antwine is close to rejoining the football team.
To understand why close is just fine with the redshirt junior from Garland, Texas, you have to know where he has been. And understand how hard he has had to fight to stay in the game since he arrived in Gainesville. He has spent two of the past three seasons battling back from a near career-ending back injury and an ACL injury he sustained in November.
"Going through what I've been through, this part is easy," Antwine, 21, said.
In October 2007, Antwine was hospitalized at Shands at the University of Florida with severe back pain that began during a practice.
"It was a bye week after the LSU game," he said. "It was a pretty hard practice, pretty hot practice. It got intense, and my body was kind of dehydrated. I felt my back starting to hurt a little bit, and I talked to the trainers about it.
"After practice, I had them check me out because it was … kind of like a knife cutting me into my lower back."
Through routine testing the Florida medical staff provides athletes, Antwine had been diagnosed with the trait for the blood disease sickle cell. Though medically cleared to play, he remained under close watch of the athletic training staff. "I'm not able to get as much oxygen to my body (during intense exertion)," Antwine said.
Because his back pain caused trainers to be concerned about a potential sickling episode — blockage of the small blood vessels at the muscle level that can cause abnormal blood flow and lead to pain — Antwine was taken to Shands. He had a battery of tests and was diagnosed with lumbar spine myonecrosis, a degenerative loss of muscle in his lower back. He spent three weeks in the hospital battling back spasms, sometimes multiple times a day. His mom, Kathy, never left his side.
He spent months in rehabilitation and physical therapy, and for nearly two months he needed a wheelchair to get around.
"It kind of gets you down, being in a wheelchair," he said. "You've been walking all your life, running. You never thought you'd be immobilized, and it kind of hurt me. It was going from regular life, walking and playing football, which is a game I really love, to being limited in the things I could do and people having to be around me to check on me at all kinds of times."
Because his teammates were still playing their season, his time around them was limited. He watched games on TV or listened on the radio.
But Antwine persevered.
He continued physical therapy through spring 2008, and by early summer, he was cleared for football-related activities. In September, he returned and played in seven games. But in a cruel twist of fate, he tore the ACL in his right knee during the Florida State game. It was his first start.
"I was like, Lord, why me?" he said.
His coaches and teammates felt the same.
"I was praying for him from the sideline hoping it wasn't serious," said Lawrence Marsh, his freshman roommate, who took over Antwine's starting spot. "It just shows you about his background, his family, his mom. He grew up knowing how to overcome adversity.
"I never thought he would go over the deep end. I knew he would fight back and overcome it all."
Coach Urban Meyer said he is impressed with Antwine's ability to continue to overcome adversity.
"I don't know if I've ever seen a guy go through so many injuries," Meyer said. "And they were severe injuries. With that back injury, it's a medical miracle that he's playing. And then he's playing well and he has the knee surgery. But I'll tell you what. To make it through all this, he's one tough cat, and I love him. I really admire him."
Antwine expects to be cleared to practice Saturday. Then he'll have to fight to get back into the defensive rotation. Maybe one day he'll get another starting role.
"It really helps you appreciate the game," Antwine said. "You can have so much, and it can be taken away from you that quick. It was a real humbling experience for me. I consider myself a miracle, really, because I'm able to get back. I really didn't know if I was going to play football again. And for the Lord to bless me with another chance, and now another chance, I'm really grateful."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3389. Her blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.