Lerner handles Crohn's, Florida's punting duties

Lerner handles Crohn's, Florida's punting duties

Published Sep. 1, 2011 11:08 p.m. ET

Between stomach pains, loss of appetite and lack of energy, Florida punter David Lerner had no idea what was going on with his body in late July.

He talked to teammates, coaches, parents and trainers before eventually ending up in the doctor's office.

The diagnosis came swiftly. Worry and depression did, too.

Just days before fall practice, Lerner found out he had Crohn's disease, a disorder that causes inflammation in the digestive or gastrointestinal tract. It can be uncomfortable and debilitating. For Lerner, it also came at the worst possible time. After spending three years sitting behind Chas Henry and waiting for a shot at the starting job, he initially thought it would derail his chance of playing for the Gators.


Instead, it may have driven him to succeed.

Despite regular hospital visits, time-consuming IVs and the uncertainty of a disease he knew little about, Lerner has managed to win the starting job and earn a scholarship. An even bigger reward comes Saturday, assuming Lerner gets on the field during No. 22 Florida's season opener against Florida Atlantic.

''There's never been a time in my life where I've been more happy to go to practice and be around the guys, even just to get screamed at,'' Lerner said. ''It's so much better than sitting in a hospital. It's really made me realize that we take a lot of stuff for granted. Just eating solid food is a blessing.

''It's made me a lot more thankful. I have Crohn's, but it could be a lot worse. I could not be able to play and practice. Maybe I can't eat a couple of things here and there that I want to eat, but at the end of the day, it's really not the worse thing in the world.''

Definitely not, but Lerner sure thought the worst when he was doubled over in pain six weeks ago.

''I knew when I started having really bad abdominal pain that something was wrong,'' he said. ''I thought my appendix was bad or something of that nature. But I really had no idea.''

Within a week, doctors diagnosed him with Crohn's and got Lerner on steady doses of Remicade. The first installments came often, but they have since slowed to one IV every two eight weeks.

''I still really don't have a lot of energy and stuff,'' said Lerner, who has dropped 15 pounds since the diagnosis. ''But I'm starting to feel better and get back to my normal self.''

The thing that helped most was football.

Coach Will Muschamp called Lerner and told him coaches, trainers and nutritionists would do anything they could to help him get through this. Muschamp told him if he needed to take time off, feel free to do so. Even more encouraging was that Muschamp made it clear he still wanted Lerner to be part of the team.

''When coach Muschamp called me and said, `How you doing, how you feeling?' I was like, `My insides feel terrible, but leg still works. I can promise you that.'''

No doubt.

Lerner opener fall practice battling the disease and freshman Kyle Christy, a scholarship punter from Indiana who enrolled in January. Although Lerner occasionally had to pull himself out of some drills because of fatigue or dehydration, he created separation in the competition and earned the starting nod this week.

''David has had a great camp,'' Muschamp said. ''This is something that he will battle and be fine. David's an outstanding young man in my short time getting to know him. It's unfortunate, but he's a guy that will handle this situation. Tough times don't last; tough people do, and he's a tough young man.

''The true test of someone is shown through adversity, and he's going through a tough time. He has not complained or anything. He has never asked to leave the field. I've told him to leave the field a couple of times. I just said, `You don't look good, let's go.' He certainly is an inspiration to me just watching him and how he's handled himself.''

Lerner has found support elsewhere, too.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard, who was diagnosed with Crohn's in 2004 and had intestinal surgery, called Lerner last week.

For Lerner, it was comforting to hear from another athlete who has gone through similar struggles. For Garrard, it was a chance to offer some insight about the disease and share years of experience dealing with it. Garrard even invited Lerner to take part in Garrard's charity events that help raise money to find a cure for Crohn's.

''We are brothers in the football fraternity and the Crohn's fraternity, so it means something to me to help clear his head a little bit and take away some of the anxieties and allow him to just go out and play,'' Garrard said. ''Maybe he can be a story for little kids someday.''