Kudla knows all about overcoming long odds

If Mike Kudla weren't a football player, he could compete as a powerlifter. But this rookie linebacker nearly died a few years ago after a bout with mono. A rebuilt body and a new outlook on life have left him hopeful of making the team.

PITTSBURGH -- As a junior-high student in Ohio, Mike Kudla would gather 200-pound rocks from a pile a quarter-mile from his home and bring them back in a wheelbarrow to decorate his family's yard.

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, he had outgrown his third weight set.

As a junior, Kudla dabbled in bodybuilding contests and as a senior he was was one of the most sought after football players in the country.

A year later he was playing in the national championship game on an Ohio State defensive line loaded with four future NFL draft picks. He could bench-press in excess of 500 pounds and squat the campus. If Atlas needed a break from holding up the world, Mike Kudla was available.

But what took endless hours and most of his life to build unraveled in days that first year in college.

This Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie free-agent linebacker was diagnosed with a mild case of mononucleosis near the end of his freshman season at Ohio State in 2002. He was able to play in the Fiesta Bowl, but shortly thereafter developed a viral infection called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a disorder that causes the body to attack its own mucous membranes. It involves a serious reaction to medicine and can cause high fever, serious eye damage, bleeding and eventually death. By the doctors' best guess, the mononucleosis weakened his body to the point where the infection could move in.

Kudla lost 52 pounds in a matter of weeks and, as his condition worsened, he developed painful sores in his throat as blood seeped from his eyes, ears and nose. Portions of his skin fell off.

"I've seen pictures and its not a good sight," Kudla said.

To heal the tissue in his throat he had to gargle a solution of Novocain. Doctors said the pain, on a scale of one to 10, was a 12.

There's not too much I really remember," Kudla said. "I was pretty much out of it the entire time and pretty much heavily medicated so there's not a whole lot I remember.

"Actually, I am kind of glad I don't remember because it was pretty bad."

It became so bad a priest was called to administer last rites.

"They really didn't think I was going to survive," Kudla said.

Kudla spent two weeks in the Ohio State Medical Center and squared off with death. A large dose of medicine eventually saved his life, but the doctors thought that he would be blind and mute and on dialysis for the rest of his life. Instead, Kudla participated in spring drills four months later. Six months after that he recovered a fumble for a touchdown in an overtime win against Purdue.

"It was a process," Kudla said. "Normal daily stuff didn't start coming around until a month and a half, like eating normal food and drinking. Everyday life had to be started over for me. It was a tough time."

But it's over and the future is unwritten.

"It was an eye-opener," Kudla said. "You realize that you are blessed to be here. You look at things that you normally take for granted like your family and friends and it puts it all in perspective."

Kudla is thankful. The fact he was not drafted, and missed minicamp with a hamstring injury, and then missed coaching sessions because of NCAA guidelines, has not diminished his zest.

"My situation was touch and go for a while there, and once you've been through something like that, it makes you appreciate everything you have," he said. "Maybe I'm more serious now, but things you hardly think about mean a lot more. I almost lost all of this."

Kudla re-dedicated himself and stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 265 pounds. He broke his own OSU bench-press record a few months ago by lifting 610 pounds. At the combine in February he tied the meet record by bench-pressing 225 pounds 45 times.

On the field, Kudla led his team in sacks as a senior with 9.5. He was one of the star players in the Fiesta Bowl with three sacks of Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. His freshman health problems, a shoulder injury his junior year, and a pre-draft hamstring problem all contributed to his undrafted status, but he's being viewed as a potential reserve inside and outside linebacker by the Steelers.

"This is the place I really fit in," he said. "I really like the coaches and I really like the system so that's really why I am glad to be here. There couldn't be a better place for me right now."

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