MRSA an invisible foe, but one the Buccaneers must beat

TAMPA, Fla. — Six days after his team received its latest MRSA scare, Davin Joseph stood in his locker room more aware of the risks involved with an invisible enemy.

A two-time Pro Bowl guard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Joseph was accustomed to facing large, imposing threats on defensive lines throughout his first six seasons in the NFL. But an unpredictable health scare, which first affected guard Carl Nicks and kicker Lawrence Tynes in August, in addition to rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks last week, was a different kind of opponent. This one, a serious staph infection resistant to some antibiotics, came with many concerns: Mystery, misinformation and little way to know if it will strike again.

Last Friday, coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik held two separate news conferences and said the situation would be attacked with no resources spared. Dr. Deverick J. Anderson, an infectious disease specialist from the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, was flown in to address concerns from players and coaches. The Bucs’ Week 6 game against the Philadelphia Eagles was held at Raymond James Stadium as scheduled, the NFL and NFLPA releasing a joint statement the night before saying Banks posed no risk to other players.

“After everything is said, it’s about personal hygiene and about us cleaning up after ourselves — just taking that extra step to make sure this MRSA doesn’t take over our locker room,” Joseph, the Bucs’ union representative, said Thursday. “We’ve had a couple scares already, and we don’t want any more.”

At this point, there’s no way to know if MRSA is behind the Bucs for good. They became the latest franchise to be entangled in the confusing, hard-to-beat condition, which affected five St. Louis Rams players in 2003 (eight cases total). From 2006-08, an NFL physicians survey determined 33 cases had taken place. Some of the teams affected include the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. In August, One Buc Place was cleaned twice after the initial outbreak, and no new cases were reported before Banks’ condition.

Those who have dealt with MRSA share themes in their advice: Be aware, stay clean and show no apathy. Football is a game of strategy and preparation. To beat this unseen foe, the same intensity is required.

“The most difficult thing,” said Charley Armey, the Rams’ general manager during their fight with MRSA, “is to keep all of the players focused into the inner-circle.”

MRSA is everywhere, but it becomes troublesome in areas where proper self-cleaning is neglected. The staph infection enters through the nose or an open wound, and painful sores on the skin are often signs the condition is present. In addition to football facilities, other high-population areas where skin-to-skin contact may occur are at risk, such as prisons, hospitals and nursing homes.

Armey recalls relying on team leaders to help his franchise move past MRSA. “Tightening the loop,” as he calls it, was the most important part of protecting morale. Like the Bucs, he said his team’s facility was sterilized, early detection key to winning a prolonged fight.

“It was a big shock,” he told FOX Sports Florida. “When you deal with something like that on a day-to-day basis, you start seeing some improvement and break-through and build on that. It’s a day-to-day, short-term situation, and you can never tell where it’s going to go. A positive attitude is critical.”

That year, the Rams went 12-4 in the regular season and won their third NFC West title in five years. Still, an organizational effort was required to beat MRSA: From team doctors to coaches and players and beyond. To Armey, isolation was an important variable, one that allowed his franchise to take back some normalcy.

His advice for the Bucs: Be vigilant for one another.

“As long as they’re looking out for each other,” Armey said, “they’ll see the signs early.”

That’s easier said than done. Last Friday, Anderson said the cases involving Nicks and Tynes were unrelated. On Wednesday, Schiano revealed that Nicks underwent surgery Tuesday on his left foot to clean out the infection, with a timetable for his return unknown. (Tynes was placed on the non-football injury list in August. He had a PICC line to assist in his recovery.) Banks, meanwhile, played last Sunday and was a regular participant in practice this week as the Bucs prepared for a Week 7 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.

“I can say that I believe that it is a safe environment for players and staff,” Anderson said last Friday.

Brandon Noble thought his working conditions were safe, before the then-Redskins defensive tackle contracted MRSA in 2005. In April that year, he had a routine operation to clean out cartilage in his right knee. By having the surgery that spring, he thought he would recover in time for the following season, which would be his third with Washington after making an NFL playing debut with the Dallas Cowboys in 1999.

But about a week later, after his stitches were removed, Noble noticed something wrong. One morning, he awoke with a silver-dollar-sized red spot over the porthole used for the operation. He started feeling flu-like symptoms, and he described the pain like “someone was lighting me on fire.” 

“The pain,” he told FOX Sports Florida, “was about as intense as I had ever experienced.”

Shortly after, Noble was rushed to an area hospital. He said doctors told his family that if they had waited much longer, amputation on his leg would be required. Death also was possible.

Once 305 pounds, Noble dropped to 270 and struggled to muster strength because of his treatment with vancomycin, a strong antibiotic he received through a PICC line. He returned in time for training camp, but he sustained a bone bruise in his left leg while compensating for the weak right leg. Before the season, he was placed on injured reserve, and he contracted MRSA again the following December after surgery for the new injury.

Then his NFL career was over.

“It was brand new when we were going through it in Washington,” said Noble, now the defensive line coach at Temple. “I don’t think anybody knew how to react to it. No one really knew what was going on and understood what was happening. … I think now, because people know about it, there’s the assumption things should be done preventatively by the organization to make sure it’s not in the facility.”

Like Armey, Noble says vigilance is key. If a player feels sick, Noble says, he should let the training staff know as soon as possible.

Personal health, and the careers of others, depends on it. 

“Now that it’s there, just be aware of it and make sure that you’re washing your hands,” Noble said. “As simple as it sounds, wash your hands and take a shower and use a fresh towel and be hygienic and be clean. That sounds silly, but in a locker room and that kind of environment, MRSA runs rampant.

“Once it gets its hooks in you, it can get pretty nasty.”

The Bucs have moved forward after their latest MRSA scare. In a season of distractions, this one is the most elusive, most confusing. It’s also the most dangerous.

This goes beyond complaints about Schiano’s record or leadership style, or how all parties involved handled the Josh Freeman divorce. This goes beyond hot Internet headlines or made-for-TV drama between a disciplinarian coach and a demoted quarterback, the health ramifications of the Bucs’ MRSA scare potentially serious and wide-ranging.

Last Sunday, cornerback Darrelle Revis admitted the third MRSA case was “a big distraction” when the Bucs finished planning for the Eagles. Banks has refused to discuss the topic. This week, players seemed more at ease, though they understand the risks involved with their invisible enemy.

“You’ve still got to live your life,” Bucs defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “You can’t be scared of some disease.”

“It’s an awkward situation for the guys whom it happened to,” Bucs running back Mike James said. “We’re hoping and praying that this thing is over, and we can keep playing.”

As with all the Bucs’ concerns, playing could be the best way to forget off-the-field worries, at least for a short time. Nicks’ locker stood unoccupied this week, after his surgery in Charlotte, N.C., the sight a reminder of MRSA’s toll.

Who knows if it’s gone for good? That’s the odd thing about this controversy: It still lurks, with no definitive end.

“I think everybody is doing a great job of listening and taking what we learned and applying it,” Joseph said.

“It impacted a couple really good players on our team. So of course that was a bit of a distraction. But I think guys were able to put it behind them and were able to focus on the game. We came up a little bit short.”

This is one opponent the Bucs must beat.

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