Downey cleared to play in NFL
OL Khiawatha Downey is battling multiple sclerosis -- and the misperception that he's not fit for the NFL.
Once a week for the past three-plus years, typically on a Saturday or Sunday evening, Khiawatha Downey has plopped his oversized frame onto an under-stuffed couch, and ruminated for a few minutes over the ordeal to which he is about to subject his body.
Finally, equal parts anxious and reluctant, the big offensive lineman, who began his college career at the University of Pittsburgh and concluded it last season at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, moves forward with a much-practiced routine. He rolls up his pants leg, eyeballs the carefully measured liquid in a syringe, takes a deep breath, and plunges the inch-and-a-half needle into the meaty part of his calf.
For this act and its side effects, Downey, once projected by many league scouts as a consensus middle-round prospect in this year's draft, has come under great scrutiny of late. He has, in fact, been removed completely from the draft boards of several teams who view Downey as too risky. For this, Downey, will tell you in an even-toned voice tinged with puzzlement and despair, he is being treated unfairly.
And he's probably right.
Before you leap to any conclusions, before you mentally congratulate all those diligent franchises you suggest might be taking an estimable stand, know this: Downey isn't some coked-out junkie, shooting up every weekend to satisfy cravings for another fix, willing to trade in his considerable athletic skills for the sake of the next buzz.
Instead, he is a multiple sclerosis victim, diagnosed in early 2001, after having started at Pitt for two seasons and established himself as a potential NFL draft pick. The injection? Avonex, one of the several prescription drugs approved for MS patients and designed to abate the progress of a neurological malady which afflicts about 2.5 million worldwide.
The problem for Downey: The relative ignorance of NFL teams toward the disease.
"At the combine (in February), I would sit in a room with, like, 16 doctors from different teams and, from all the questions they were asking me, it was like I was there to educate them," said Downey, who measured 6-feet-4 1/8 and 332 pounds at the combine sessions. "They didn't seem to know too much about MS, really, so there I was, trying to convince these guys that I'm all right, that I can play football. There was a lot of misperception on their part. I mean, you'd think they might know better, right?"
Perhaps, but most of the team doctors who attend the combine are orthopedic specialists, and more accustomed to evaluating torn knee ligaments than CAT scans of the brain, the kind that, in typical MS patients, reveal tell-tale lesions or plaque on the brain or spine. The public faces of MS often are high-profile celebrities such as comedian Richard Pryor, or Annette Funicello, the onetime sweetheart Mouseketeer of the 1950s, both of whom have been relegated to wheelchairs.
There are, however, millions of MS victims who function normally on a daily basis. It has been suggested, given recent advances, that those patients are the more viable poster child subjects for an unpredictable disease, but one that doesn't carry the same sentence than it did 20 years ago.
Let's get this out front, before we go any further, on Downey: He was booted off the Pitt team by coach Walt Harris, in the spring of 2001, following repeat violations of team rules. And Downey's indiscretion? He twice tested positive for marijuana, which briefly became his crutch, after he was diagnosed for MS.
His head swimming with plenty of misinformation -- like the off-base analysis that MS is a hereditary disease that he likely had contracted from his mother -- Downey fell into a deep depression. Convinced the disease was a potential death sentence, Downey sought comfort and escape at the business end of a joint, and paid the consequences.
"No excuses," Downey said of the team violation. "I was 20 years old or whatever, I'm told I might not be able to even get around, much less play football, and I just felt sorry for myself. But, hey, that's on me. No excuses. But I've never tested (positive) since."
While we are into soul-baring, a personal confession here, as well: One reason this humble correspondent was drawn to Downey's story is because a family member was diagnosed with MS nearly 19 years ago. I am no expert but do understand more about MS than I should, and certainly have familiarized myself with the disease more than have most NFL scouts or, apparently, team orthopedists. I have reviewed brain scans and CAT scans, studied the tiny pinhole lesions on the brain of my family member, cringed when the neurologist pointed to "areas of activity." Meet my stricken family member on most days, however, and you would never suspect the malady.
The same is true of Downey, who this weekend will travel to Indianapolis for what is commonly known as "Indy II," a re-check for all of the draft prospects who drew medical red flags during the February draft auditions. This time, when Downey confronts doctors, he will do so with a dossier of medical information and a recommendation from one of the country's most noted MS specialists.
Dr. Rock Heyman, a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a man who has studied and treated thousands of MS victims, has opined there is no reason that Downey should not be drafted, if his physical skills merit it.
"He has," Heyman said earlier this week, "no restrictions at all. I will say that in writing and make it very clear to people. Khi Downey, essentially, is asymptomatic. There is no weakness in him. If teams don't want to draft him because they don't feel he is a good enough football player, or lacks the skills to be in the NFL, well, that's one thing. But he shouldn't be avoided in the draft because of the MS. People have to move beyond that."
Whether personnel directors and general managers can see past their noses on Downey's situation, whether they will even attempt to enlighten themselves in the weeks remaining before the draft, remains to be seen. Downey and agent Joe Linta are willing to negate any risk involved by signing a waiver that would absolve teams of any future liability. There could be, Linta acknowledged, some workman's compensation issues, but nothing that is more significant than the norm.
Certainly, it seems that Downey, who earned Division II All-American honors at IUP for the 2003 season, is viable enough to be at least a late-round draft choice.
The North Carolina native started 10 games for Pitt at left guard in 1999, Downey moved to right tackle in 2000, missed some time the first half of the season with an ankle injury and then started the final seven games of the campaign. It was after the team's appearance in the Insight.com Bowl that Downey underwent a battery of tests to determine the source of persistent "stingers" (painful neck or shoulder injuries that can cause numbness in the extremities) he had occasionally suffered for two years.
It was during those tests that Dr. David Stone, the Pitt team physician, found the lesions that accompany multiple sclerosis. Stone referred to the discovery as "serendipity," and, indeed, had it not been for the "stingers," the MS diagnosis might not have been made.
"My first reaction," remembered Downey, "was one of, 'Well, at least my mother isn't sick.' And then the term, you know, MS, it kind of settles in on you. I think it was after my mother left, with me sitting alone in that room, that the uncertainty hit me. I mean, you just don't know what's out there, you know. You ask yourself a lot of questions that you really don't have the answers for. Yeah, it's a pretty unnerving thing, for sure. Your mind is spinning a lot of different ways."
And now, with some NFL teams backing away from him, Downey acknowledges that his draft prospects are spiraling, as well.
The weekly Avonex injections caused side effects during the season that left him weak, usually through Tuesday mornings, and IUP coaches and trainers had to monitor him very carefully. There were occasions, noted IUP coach Frank Cignetti, a cancer survivor in his own right and, thus, particularly sensitive to Downey's situation, when his star lineman suffered through severe headaches, nausea, rubbery legs.
"It was tough," Cignetti allowed. "I know that teams are worried about investing money in a player who might have some question marks. But he seems to be doing better. And I would say this: From a skills standpoint, Khi is a better prospect than the two linemen we have in the NFL right now, Chris Villarrial and Leander Jordan. He's a player."
But is Khi Downey a player who will ever get the chance to play?
Heyman reiterated that he has zero qualms in stating, for the record, that Downey is clear to play without any physical restrictions. There is no correlation, a burgeoning body of research indicates, between the past "stingers" and MS. As for the side effects of Avonex, there are other medications that Downey could try, and Heyman is working with him to address some of the discomforting physical issues.
Indeed, of the seven teams surveyed by ESPN.com, three conceded that they have taken Downey off their draft boards. And representatives of six teams, all of whom chose not to speak for attribution, citing either medical confidentiality or legal concerns, admitted they had some concerns.
Hearing that, Downey is concerned as well, but recent contact by scouts from Cleveland and Philadelphia have been heartening.
"I guess you could say I'm somewhat optimistic," Downey said. "With the emphasis on the somewhat part. It's going to take some teams really doing their homework and saying, 'Hey, he's OK, really.' And I guess part of that is up to me. I mean, I guess that I have to stay positive for my own self, you know? But I have to be positive for them, too. All the medical people tell me I can have a good life. But it will be a better life, to me, if it includes football."
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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