At the University of Rochester, George Clarke brought 17 years of football experience into his sophomore season. But during training camp, he lost feeling in his right leg and thought his football career was nearing its end.
Clarke, 24, of Youngstown's South Side, is roaming the football field again as a Youngstown State University student assistant coach.
At Rochester, Clarke said he enjoyed football and dorm life away from home. Then doctors diagnosed the then 21-year-old with the rare Guillain-Barre syndrome.
This disorder causes the body's immune system to wrongly attack the nervous system.
"We were doing conditioning at camp and my right leg went numb. I went to my trainer and thought I was fine," Clarke said.
A couple days later, Clarke lost movement in his arms and legs.
He visited an MRI center that day. Doctors in Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital first told him he might have a brain tumor or Lou Gehrig's disease, Clarke said.
After eight months of testing, doctors finally diagnosed him with Type A Guillain-Barre.
Dr. Donald Tamulonis, neurologist and director of electromyography lab at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown, said the body attacks the peripheral nerves where numbness usually starts in the feet and works its way up.
"At first, I thought it was a bad dream," Clarke said. "I said I was going to go to bed, wake up and be fine.''
Under severe physical stress, his nerves shut down.
"I had a couple of seizures. Looking back, I think it's kind of funny. At the time, I was pretty upset," he said.
Clarke's parents struggled to visit him in the hospital, which added to the hardship.
"It was tough for them. They were four hours away and came up as much as they could. My friends were there to support me," he said.
Clarke's longtime friend, J.P. Rubenstahl, knew he would persevere.
"His mother called me and told me they were going up to see him in the hospital but not to worry,'' Rubenstahl said. ''So I didn't really worry too much about him. He's a tough guy. I didn't really know the seriousness of his situation until he told me a few days later."
Despite the positive encouragement he received from friends and family, Clarke said human nature took over, causing him to worry and become frustrated.
"I got really mad. I had 13 MRIs in a 10-day span. Blood work was done plenty of times. I had a bone marrow biopsy, a skin biopsy and spinal fluid tests," Clarke said.
Tamulonis said the two types of treatment are IVIG (intravenous immunoglobulin) and plasmapheresis treatment.
"IVIG treatment attempts to counteract inflammation from donated blood. Plasma from thousands of donors is used to attack the bad antibodies," Tamulonis said.
He added that the plasmapheresis treatment is used to drain or remove the bad antibodies within the patient's own body to stop inflammation.
Clarke said quitting the sport he loves was what hurt the most.
"I had to quit playing football had to end my career," he said.
The upside, Clarke said, was that his doctors were skilled.
"I got extremely lucky to have such phenomenal doctors. They were very accessible," Clarke said.
Through all the pain, Clarke said his outlook on life began to change.
"For a while, I was like, 'Why me?' I felt so bad for myself. But now, I wake up at 7 a.m. each morning and I'm like, 'All right, let's go. Let's do this,'" he said. "Everything is all right. That's my motto."
It took him a while to get his life back together. All the while, he focused on returning to football.
"(Guillain-Barre) also brought me back home to football, which is a blessing," Clarke said.
When the Cardinal Mooney High School graduate returned to Youngstown, Frank Buffano, YSU's inside linebacker coach, asked him to help the team. Clarke agreed without hesitation.
"I went to high school with coach Buffano's younger brother and I was absolutely excited to help out," he said.
Buffano said he knew Clarke when he worked at the University of Arizona.
"He and my brother came out to stay with me for spring break that year. They spent a week here, and I got to know him. When I got a job here in Youngstown, the coaching staff was looking for some student assistants," Buffano said.
Buffano arranged an interview for Clarke with YSU head coach Eric Wolford, who was aware he had a medical condition that prevented him from playing football.
"I can relate to that. I didn't have a medical condition but I did get cut from the Cardinals and couldn't play," Wolford said. "So, what do you do when that happens? You get back into something you love. He takes ownership of his players."
At first, Clarke reunited with football by sitting and learning.
"Now I am a student assistant coach. I sit up in the press box on game day. It's awesome. I chart plays and give defensive formations while talking to the offensive coaching staff on the headset," Clarke said.
Buffano said, "Some guys don't want to do the work of a student assistant coach. It's a lot of grunt work but that's how you get your foot in the door. Hopefully, he'll become a coach one day. That's how all of us started."
He added that the job can be tedious but Clarke is reliable, thorough and committed, even when working long hours.
Rubenstahl said, "I think his dependability is what stands out the most about him. If he says he's going to do something, nine times out of 10, he gets it done."
Buffano said the team notices Clarke's football knowledge and work ethic.
Clarke stays busy on game days, but paralysis problems persist with his back and feet.
"I haven't had an episode in a year and a half but there is still parts I don't feel," Clarke said. "Sometimes my friend's tap the spot on my spine that I can't feel. They think it's funny."
Tamulonis said most people don't recover 100 percent from Guillain-Barre and there is a 5 percent chance of relapse.
"Most people still have tingling in their toes. Almost everyone who suffers from Guillain-Barre recovers at least 95 percent," he said.
Tamulonis added that if the patient is at bed rest for weeks, then he or she might need physical therapy rehabilitation to build up muscle again.
Clarke's old friends and new team remain his biggest support.
"I know he's excited to be part of the YSU coaching staff," Rubenstahl said. "We all hope and know he will have a successful coaching career."