- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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In the dog-eat-dog world of Southeastern Conference football, it's never just a game.
Championships are at stake. Pride. Money. Even jobs.
But a little more than a year ago, Tennessee backup center Chuck Prugh was fighting a battle that made touchdowns, first downs and key defensive stops seem about as insignificant as the morning dew on the hood of your car.
Prugh was fighting for his life as he lay in a hospital bed in the intensive care unit at UT Medical Center in Knoxville.
"No matter how big all this seems, it is still a game," said Tennessee senior center Jason Respert, Prugh's roommate and one of his closest friends. "This isn't our life. Football is a sport we play, and what Chuck went through really drove that home.
"I'm just grateful that he's still here with us."
Prugh, whose hearty smile is a staple around the Tennessee football complex, has a litany of things to be thankful for heading into the holiday season.
The 15th-ranked Vols have already earned a rematch with Auburn in next Saturday's SEC Championship Game. He's getting the most extensive playing time of his career, and he's as popular as ever among his teammates.
But most of all, Prugh is thankful to still be alive, thankful that he will get to spend another Thanksgiving with his family and thankful to have another chance to perhaps make a difference in somebody else's life.
"Every time you think about Chuck, it helps us all put our priorities back in order," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
There were subtle warning signs the week of the South Carolina game a year ago when Prugh wasn't feeling well. He checked in with the doctor on a couple of occasions, but pushed himself through the Vols' practices.
Then one night at his parents' home in Maryville, Tenn., he was burning up with fever and went to the emergency room with what he thought was just a nasty virus.
Two days later, he was on a ventilator and would remain on one for two weeks.
"I still remember the nurse coming in, waking me up and saying, 'Chuck said he's too tired to breathe," recalled Prugh's father, Dave. "You could have knocked me over with a feather.
"We just didn't know at that point if we were going to see him alive again or not."
Doctors were never able to pinpoint the exact nature of the acute viral-based illness that took Prugh to death's doorstep. He was tested for everything under the sun.
Dr. Val Gene Iven, the Vols' team physician, said a positive test did come back for mononucleosis, which led to pneumonia and ultimately respiratory failure.
"His resolve and the resolve of his family was just incredible," Iven said. "They're such strong people."
Prugh was in the hospital for a month. His mother, Becky, left his side only once during that time when she went home for part of one afternoon.
She simply couldn't stay away.
"Not a day goes by that his father and I don't think about that," Becky said. "We saw God in so many people. People we didn't even know were calling, from Florida and California. It touched our entire family."
Prugh also has two sisters, 26-year-old Jenni and 19-year-old Gretchen, who plays softball at Kentucky.
The seriousness of Prugh's condition gradually began to soak in with his teammates. His closest friends, including Respert and former center Scott Wells, were allowed into his room to see him.
Respert broke down the first time he saw Prugh lying there lifeless and hooked up to a ventilator.
"It was humbling," Respert said. "I can't even begin to describe the emotion."
When Prugh finally woke up, his first request, albeit a groggy one, was for a milkshake.
Becky was on the phone in a matter of seconds to Respert, who scooped up a triple-thick milkshake at McDonald's and sped over to the hospital.
"The scariest thing was that I woke up and thought we were playing South Carolina, but we were playing Alabama," Prugh said. "It's like that time in between wasn't even there.
"I'm just glad I woke up."
"It was touch and go for what seemed like forever," said Dave, who played college football at Indiana under ESPN analyst Lee Corso. "I can promise you that none of us take anything for granted anymore."
Prugh faced an arduous road back.
He spent some time in a rehabilitation center after leaving the hospital. Upon returning home, he was so weak that he had to stay downstairs. The doctors wouldn't allow him to climb a flight of stairs.
"Basically, all I could do was clean myself and eat," Prugh said. "I relied on a lot of people to do things for me."
Prugh weighed around 320 pounds before he fell ill last season. He was down to 285 when he left the hospital. When he was finally cleared to go back into the weight room, he struggled to do 85 pounds on the bench-press machine. Four weeks earlier, he was flirting with 500 pounds.
"Just being alive was a blessing," Prugh said. "I really wasn't aware of anything when I was in the hospital. But in the rehab center, I can still remember kids in there younger than me who were fighting just to sit up and fighting to roll over. Some of those kids will never walk again.
"And there I was, trying to get back to where I could play football again."
Near the end of last season, Fulmer wasn't sure the doctors were going to clear Prugh to play football again. In fact, Fulmer had sort of braced himself to go into this season without Prugh.
"The fact that he was able to recover enough to come back and play football, to me, is just short of a miracle," Fulmer said. "The doctors back in December said, 'Don't count on that.' But with his determination and the good Lord's will, here he is."
The first hurdle was gaining another year of eligibility from the NCAA, which Fulmer thought all along would be a slam-dunk. He was right. Prugh heard in February that his five-year clock would be extended.
A more serious snag was overcoming an irregular heartbeat that had developed and wasn't responding to medication. The final step was shock treatment, but doctors tried one more round of medication.
"A few days later, the doctor called us and said the medicine worked, that Chuck's heart rate was back to normal," Dave said. "He'd just told his mother, too, that he could deal with it if he wasn't able to play again."
It never got to that point.
Prugh took it slow through the rest of the summer conditioning program and was monitored extremely closely during preseason practice. His stamina still probably isn't what it once was, but he started in the Notre Dame game on Nov. 6 and played most of the second half last week against Vanderbilt.
The Vols' offensive linemen are a tight bunch, and Prugh said one of his greatest satisfactions was seeing Respert playing so well in his final season.
"That's just Chuck," Respert said. "He's probably one of the most unselfish guys you could ever have on a football team."
In many ways, Fulmer thinks Prugh has been an inspiration to the Vols' offensive line, which has undergone its share of shuffling this season because of injuries.
"I think with that line group, Chuck was a big part of the bonding they've had," Fulmer said. "There's a chemistry there that's really good, and one of the reasons is because of Chuck and what they went through with him."
Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.