Second-year player, with colitis under control, is being counted on by the short-handed Mutiny.
Chris Houser's cheeks were bloated. His legs seemed too fragile to support his 6-foot-4 body. His Mutiny uniform looked two sizes too big.
But there he was on a hot day in May, ready to practice for the first time in almost two months and convinced that everything was all right.
He wasn't going to let a bout of colitis slow him. After all, he was the Undertaker, a nickname he earned for his physical play as a rookie defender last year.
Then practice started.
"My first practice was a joke," he said. "I lasted five minutes. I ended up going to Connecticut for a week and stayed with my fiancee's parents. I had to go somewhere because I couldn't cook for myself. I was too weak and tired."
This time, the colitis won.
Houser has fought it since college. When he has a flare-up, which usually occurs when he changes his diet, his colon fails to process food and he becomes fatigued and losses his appetite.
It was never a problem in college, he says, because whenever he did have trouble it usually occurred during the off-season and it never lasted more than a week or two. But this time, it was serious.
On a trip to Costa Rica for an exhibition match in March, Houser had another flare-up. He tried to treat it at home, but when the weight continued to fall and his strength diminished, Houser went to University Community Hospital in Tampa.
From April 1-14, Houser was hospitalized. His colon was monitored constantly and he was fed intravenously.
"I wasn't scared, but I knew it was serious," Houser said. "This is something I'm going to have to deal with the rest of my life. I'm taking drugs that may have long-term effects. I'm a prime candidate to get colon cancer in the future. But for now it's under control."
When he was released, Houser spent a few weeks at home recuperating. Despite what he heard at the hospital, he was sure he'd be playing soccer again soon.
"The doctors told me it would be four to six months before I ever saw the field again," Houser said. "I'm still struggling with my fitness. My legs are like Jell-O sometimes. But when I was in the hospital, all I wanted to do was come back. I was sure I'd be back by the end of (April). I didn't realize the effect this had on me."
His comeback started with light workouts. He gradually increased to doing drills with his teammates. It wasn't until late June that Houser was able to complete a full practice.
He made his first appearance since the final game of the 1998 season on July 22 at Kansas City, when he played 17 minutes in place of Steve Trittschuh. July 25 at Colorado, Houser went 90 minutes for the first time since Aug. 22.
But in case he thought he had the colitis in check, Houser had to leave the July 29 game at Miami because of fatigue. Since then, he has been used as a late substitution.
That will change tonight against Colorado. Houser will start, not because he is suddenly fit, but because the Mutiny lacks numbers on defense.
Trittschuh is out with a red-card suspension. Chad McCarty is out with an accumulation of yellow cards. That leaves Houser and rookie Caleb Porter on the bench. Ritchie Kotschau and Manny Lagos could be moved to defender during the game.
"Our concern with Chris right now is, "Can he go 90 minutes?,' " Mutiny coach Tim Hankinson said. "He's coming back from a serious illness. Normally we would take him along slowly, but with the situation being what it is, we need to at least get a good 45 minutes out of him."
For the rest of the season, Houser will try to make the best of his situation. A strict diet and medication keeps the colitis in check.
But it may not be until next season that Houser is the Undertaker again.
"I'm not myself yet," Houser said. "There's a lot of mental stuff, too. You're more tired than everybody else. You just want to clean somebody out (with a hard tackle), but I can't do that.
"I'm not playing much, but it's a long season for me right now. I'm just trying to take all the positives that I can. I'm lucky to be out there, anyway."