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  • Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

    Marcus Rios works out in Elk Grove and is hopeful he'll soon be able to return to the UCLA football team. "I haven't felt this good in a long time," Rios said.

  • Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

    Marcus Rios, a former standout at Cosumnes Oaks High, is waiting to be cleared to resume playing football at UCLA.

  • Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

    Marcus Rios has regained the 50 pounds he lost because of a rare fungus that invaded his brain and interfered with his sleep and appetite.

  • Brian Baer / Bee file, 2011

    The former Cosumnes Oaks standout impressed the varsity coach there as a freshman with his drive.

  • Joe Davidson

Rios standing tall after life-and-death battle with illness

Published: Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 - 1:22 pm

Marcus Rios' left eye was frozen in place. He slept in a fetal position, trying to find comfort. Last fall, his headaches were so severe, his breathing so labored, that putting a helmet on his head when it felt like it was going to burst had him doing something he'd never done on a football field – grimace and well up with tears.

For Rios, there was no joy in the game any more, and it got worse before it got better.

Rios, a cornerback at UCLA with hopes of earning All-America honors, was overrun by something he could not see, something his doctors initially could not figure out. A mysterious fungus had invaded his sinuses and spread to the base of his brain.

The Cosumnes Oaks High graduate is winning the fight now, after four surgeries in February and a continuous diet of antibiotics via intravenous drip and pills, and he said he now can write a thesis on pain, chaos and perseverance.

As college football practices begin this weekend, he's already the comeback story of the season even if he doesn't play a single down.

"As bad as it was, and it was deathly bad," Richard Rios said of his son, "it's turned out to be a miracle. He lived."

The low point for Rios came during a 26-day stay in the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. He would stare into a mirror, and the image he saw did not lie. He was down to 130 pounds, 50 below his playing weight just months earlier during his promising freshman season. The fungus, so rare according to doctors that it doesn't even have a name, sapped Rios of his appetite, and it gradually ate away at his spirit, too.

From the window in his room, Rios watched while the Bruins conducted spring drills. He was close enough to hear players bark out signals, but he felt a million miles away. He shuffled up and down the hallways with an IV stand with seven bags, a UCLA sweatshirt draped over his gaunt frame. It was as much of a workout as he could endure. And he struggled to get out of bed in the morning to take a knee in prayer with his family.

There was talk of removing the eye. And worse.

"They said I might die," Rios said after a recent light workout at Bartholomew Park in Elk Grove. "When I saw myself in the mirror, that's when it really hit me, that this was really bad, and it started to depress me. That was the low point. I didn't come down here for this."

He wants to play again

UCLA opens football training camp today in San Bernardino. Though Rios won't be there, still feeling a million miles away, the image no longer is such a stark reminder of his ordeal.

He's back to 180 pounds, he sleeps well and eats plenty, and his eye works fine.

More than anything, though, he wants to play football again.

Rios hasn't been cleared to rejoin the Bruins, and he's beginning to accept he likely won't suit up this fall. He will visit doctors Wednesday for an update – more blood tests and MRIs.

Rios knows losing a redshirt season doesn't come close to what he could have lost.

"It could be a lot worse, I know," he said. "I could be dead."

Rios has a constant reminder of his ordeal – a peripherally inserted central catheter in his arm. Commonly known as a PICC line, it's a long, slender, small, flexible tube inserted into a vein to administer antibiotics to combat the fungus. He also takes six pills daily.

Rios balances his competitive drive – his loyalty to teammates and what he deems a responsibility to honor his scholarship – with common sense. His physician, Dr. Jennifer Veltman, said Rios is the best kind of patient – strong and determined with a good immune system – but also the worst kind. He's stubborn and admits he'd yank that PICC line out in a moment to make a tackle.

"We've had a lot of talks," said Veltman, an infectious disease specialist at the UCLA Med Center. "You can't do a lot of exercises with the PICC. No push-ups, no pull-ups, no weights, and I know that bothers Marcus. He wants to do everything. He's a competitive athlete. He does everything to the limit. That's why he's such a success."

Rios' coaches understand how much football means to him, too. They also have to make sure he doesn't push himself too hard.

"Marcus has got an unbelievable work ethic and drive," UCLA assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Angus McClure said. "We used to chase him out of the weight room. We know he wants to be out there, but he's got to be patient. This is his life he's dealing with here. I tell him all the time, 'Take it easy. Take your time. You'll be back.'

"He needs to take this time and make sure he's right. Football will always be there for him."

Prep coach lauds Rios

Growing up in Elk Grove, Rios was inspired by football, family and faith. And it was those three things that help him through the darkest days in the hospital.

Rios was a rail-thin, 13-year-old freshman when he caught the eye of Cosumnes Oaks varsity football coach Scooter Gomes. It wasn't his body that Gomes noticed, it was his drive.

"He demonstrated tremendous pride and unparalleled sense of character to get where he is today, a recruit, 21 official scholarship offers, nearly starting at UCLA last year, to overcoming this now," Gomes said. "Amazing. I'll say this, Marcus is one tough man to go through what he did."

Rios, an honors student, graduated early from Cosumnes Oaks in December 2011 so he could enroll early at UCLA and participate in spring drills. He was impressive enough to avoid being redshirted, often the norm for 17-year-olds just out of high school. His cover skills, instincts and versatility helped him soar up the depth chart. Rios played in eight games, but practices nearly buckled him as the fungus started to spread.

Rios and team doctors didn't know what ailed him. Allergies? A sinus infection? He gradually lost his appetite and could sleep no more than two hours a night, but he refused to stop practicing and going to class.

"I felt so guilty," said Nate Iese, Rios' roommate last fall and a sophomore receiver/slot from Sheldon High School. "Here I was able to sleep, and I'd look over and he can't rest at all. It hurt me to see him hurt like that. It was tough on all of us. He's our teammate and brother. We felt helpless. We all admire him. He's the toughest guy we have."

Rios was unable to breath through his left nostril, so he underwent a four-hour scrape surgery to clear cartilage in October, but it didn't help.

"We didn't know what was going on, and that's scary," Richard Rios said. "He'd tell us, 'I've got to push through it because I need to.' The pain was so bad, he can't feel it when he brushes his teeth. We thought it'd get better."

Instead, it got worse – much worse.

Support is there in bunches

Later last fall, Rios called his father to tell him his left eye wasn't moving, locked in place, and he had double vision. Rios made it to class by looking at the floor or running his hands along the wall as a guide.

"At first, we thought it was cancer, and we thought it was very grim if that was what was invading the base of his brain," Veltman said. "There were some very, very, very, very scary days, some very bleak days."

The doctor paused before continuing.

"We're so relieved it wasn't cancer. It took time to understand how aggressive this fungus is. We don't know where it came from. It's just not usual."

Rios' dad and his mom, Ivy, set up shop in the waiting room throughout February, sleeping on couches. Rios' twin sister, Tina, a student at UC Riverside, called several times a day. He insisted she remain in school, telling her, "I'll walk out of here soon."

Richard Rios, a coach at Cosumnes Oaks High, woke at 5 a.m. every day to help his son out of bed. With the seven IV bags in tow, Rios and his father walked the halls. Hospital staffers offered encouragement, their smiles fueling Rios.

"Great support and very special," Rios said. "They were all there for me, took care of me."

Added Richard Rios: "He walked those halls to feel normal, and he always had his UCLA shirt on. It was very emotional. We prayed a lot. We'd hold hands. We went through every denomination, too. The Catholic priest came by, and he was a Notre Dame fan. The nun came in, and she liked football, too. The Christian pastor, the Buddhist. … Pastors walk around and they'd come in. It felt like a team, and everyone was pulling for Marcus."

Veltman said she also was moved by Rios' drive and recovery.

"Marcus is brave and courageous," Veltman said. "He's not a complainer, and that's a good thing and a bad thing. He tried to power through all of his problems. He needed to complain more, but he wanted to be there for his team."

And he will be there, when the Bruins return from San Bernardino in two weeks.

Rios will attend meetings, go to practices in UCLA shorts and a T-shirt, and wait for the green light that will allow him to slip on a helmet again, this time without discomfort.

"I feel good and relieved," Rios said. "I haven't felt this good in a long time. That's why I'm so eager, but I know I have to be smart about it."

Follow on Joe Davidson @SacBee_JoeD and listen to his "Extra Point" every Wednesday on ESPN1320.net

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