Downey impressed club in post-draft audition

Updated: June 1, 2004, 3:19 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Undrafted free agent offensive lineman Khiawatha Downey, whose battle with multiple sclerosis was detailed in a pair of ESPN.com columns, has signed a contract with the San Francisco 49ers.

Khiawatha Downey
Downey

Downey, 24, is believed to be the first player to sign with a team after being diagnosed with MS prior to entering the league. Contract details were not immediately available but, like most undrafted players, Downey will earn the rookie minimum of $230,000 this season if he wins a spot on the 49ers roster.

"All I want is for someone to take the chance," Downey said before the draft, "because I'll make it work for the team that gets me."

All I want is for someone to take the chance, because I'll make it work for the team that gets me.
Khiawatha Downey

Downey, a Division II All-America guard at Indiana University-Pennsylvania, was projected as a middle-round prospect before teams learned of his condition. Although he was invited to the Indianapolis combine workouts in February, and has been asymptomatic, Downey went undrafted.

In fact, the 49ers were the only franchise to even invite him for a post-draft audition, two weeks after the lottery. Beyond a basic lack of conditioning and some concerns about the level of college competition at which he played, 49ers coaches were laudatory of Downey's performance over a three-day period.

Last week, personnel director Bill McPherson phoned agent Joe Linta to tell him the 49ers wanted to sign Downey but had to take care of other business first. The deal was consummated over the weekend and Downey flew to San Francisco to participate in the remainder of the 49ers' offseason program.

It is not yet known if Downey will be used at tackle or guard. He played both positions in college, first at the University of Pittsburgh and then at IUP his final two seasons.

Originally diagnosed in 2001, Downey has been cleared for all physical activities by Dr. Rock Heyman, the neurologist who recently began working with him. Heyman helped him to regulate his medication and wrote to all 32 teams updating them on Downey's condition. During his collegiate career, Downey self-administered weekly injections of Avonex, a drug that inhibits the advancement of MS, but which sometimes left the big lineman weak for several days.

Under the supervision of Heyman, and with greater treatment options now available, Downey has been feeling well in recent months and not experiencing the fatigue and headaches of the past.

San Francisco is rebuilding its offensive line this offseason and figures to have at least two new starters for the coming season.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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