Jared Lee makes a tackle against Utah last year
In the spring of his eighth grade year in school, BYU senior safety Jared Lee wasn't thinking about girls, homework or what he was going to do for summer vacation.
He was thinking of ways to survive.
Jared spent a week and a half in the intensive care unit of a Salt Lake City hospital on a respiration machine without the ability to move anything except his eyelids and his fingertips.
Just hours after waking up with some stiffness in his legs one morning before school, Jared was being carried into a hospital in Salt Lake City (a four-hour drive from his hometown of Rexburg, Idaho) by his older brother because he had lost all movement in his legs. His doctor in Rexburg had diagnosed Lee with a rare disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a disease in which the self-defense system of the body begins to attack the nerves causing a delay in reception of impulses from the brain to the muscles. The effects of the disease can manifest themselves very quickly.
"I went to bed feeling fine the night before," Jared said. "I woke up in the night to go to the bathroom and my feet were a little stiff. When I woke up in the morning it had moved up to my legs."
After moving into his legs, Jared told his mother he wasn't feeling well and thought he should stay home from school that day. His mother suggested he take a nap and see how he felt in the afternoon.
"When I woke up I couldn't move my legs very well and so I got an old pair of crutches out to help me move around," Jared said. "At one point, I lost my balance and I went to move my foot in front so I could catch myself, but my foot wouldn't move. I landed right on my face."
It was at that point Jared's mother, Gwen, took him to the doctor and the disease was quickly diagnosed. Within 30 minutes of returning home from the doctor's visit, Jared, his older brother and Gwen were on their way to Salt Lake City.
By the time they arrived in Salt Lake City, Jared was paralyzed from the waist down. The next day, after a number of tests and a spinal tap, Jared was placed on a machine to assist his breathing because his diaphragm had lost the ability to expand.
"One of the low points of my life was when they determined he needed to be put on the breathing machine," Robert Lee, Jared's father, said. "They had to put a tube down his throat and it was terrible to see that have to happen."
After trying more conventional treatments with limited success, Jared's brother Rob, then a medical student at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, called his family with a suggestion. Rob had researched the disease and had learned of a new treatment that involved the injection of a serum into an IV.
The Lee family discussed the option with Jared's doctor. Because the treatment was still new the doctor was reluctant to try.
"I asked the doctor what it would hurt," Robert said. "I told him we could continue the other treatments while we were waiting to see how the new treatment was working. He just wouldn't commit."
The next morning, after a night full of prayers by the entire Lee family, the doctor entered Jared's room and said he had decided to try the treatment.
"It had been used some in Canada and Europe, but was still very new in the United States," Jared said. "It worked well, though."
In the days following the treatment, as nearly all of his extended family waited in his hospital room, Jared made miraculous progress. The day after the treatment he sat up in bed. The day after that he was off the respirator. Less than a week after the serum was injected he was released from the hospital without any need for physical therapy. By the next fall, he was playing football with his classmates again. He has been free from residual effects of the disease since.
"He was a little weak at first from the whole hospital experience, but he recovered pretty quickly," Robert, who was a co-captain of the 1953 University of Idaho football team, said. "He was certainly blessed."
Jared, who also got his left leg caught in a snowblower when he was 12-years-old and nearly lost his calf muscle, knows it was an experience that changed his life forever - on and off the field.
"When I was paralyzed all I wanted to do was run or play basketball," Jared said. "I was always very active and to have that taken away in a matter of days was very hard. It has taught me to always work hard and to not take things for granted."
Jared also thinks the disease may have contributed to his late growth spurt, which gave him problems in the football arena. When he was a senior in high school the 205-pound muscle mass weighed only 170 pounds. He was given the chance to walk on to the football team at Ricks College, a junior college in his hometown of Rexburg. The coaches would only offer him a scholarship if he made the traveling squad. He made the traveling squad his freshman year, although he was playing behind another player and saw less playing time than he would have liked.
After serving a mission to Italy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jared returned to play for Ricks College more mature, physically and mentally.
"His mission was great for him," Robert said. "It helped him mature physically and emotionally. He came back and the coaches were very high on him. After a few games (Ricks College head football) coach (Ron) Haun made a call to BYU and told them he had a safety for them."
BYU wasted little time, offering Jared a scholarship only two games into his sophomore season in which he earned NJCAA All-America honors for his play at cornerback. He committed to play for the Cougars two weeks later.
"I came to BYU because it's a great football program and all the people back home love the Cougars," Jared said. "I also knew that they were losing some safeties and I would have a chance to come in and play. I didn't want to go somewhere and wait in line."
Although Jared came to BYU as a junior college All-American, he still failed to get into the Cougars' starting lineup until the fourth game of the 1999 season. The waiting was hard for Jared, but he understood that it was a matter of time before he would get his chance.
"When I first came down (to Provo) from Ricks it was hard because it's like trying out all over again," Jared said. "When I went from high school to Ricks I had to tryout and when I came down here I didn't know anybody and they didn't really know me so I had to try to show I could play here. It was frustrating at first, but (BYU safeties) coach (Barry) Lamb kept telling me to be patient. I knew that if I worked hard I would get my chance to play. It's worked out well for me so far."
Any doubters of Lee's skills have been silenced by his performance since putting on a Cougar uniform. In 1999 he led the Cougars in interceptions (4), unassisted tackles (67) and pass breakups (8). He also finished with 96 total tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his game against the Air Force Academy. He recorded 11 solo and 11 assisted tackles in BYU's 27-20 win over the Falcons.
His play in 1999 raised the expectations others had for Jared, who maintains a 3.96 grade point average while studying history. He was named a preseason All-Mountain West Conference defensive back and his name has appeared on some national lists of players to watch. All the praise and publicity is not what Jared, or his parents, expected.
"When I came here I thought to myself, 'Can I really play with these guys?'" Jared said. "When I get on the field I realize that I can play at this level. It definitely has been a real eye-opener to get the attention I have received. It's been a cool opportunity to be on all the lists, but that also creates more pressure."
His father said that the attention and expectations that have come to Jared were the furthest thing from his mind when Jared was young.
"Who would have believed he would be where he is today?" Robert said. "Some people are permanently incapacitated (after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome). We are so grateful that he has been able to do what he has been able to do. He has worked very hard to get better. We're just very proud of him."
So far this season, Jared has continued to be a leader on the Cougar defense. Against the defending national champions, Florida State, Jared opened the season with seven tackles. Against Virginia he was second on the team with 13 tackles and he added 9 more against Air Force to tally 29 tackles in the first three games of the 2000 season.
Besides the plans Jared has for the rest of his senior season, the future looks bright for him. After graduation he is planning on attending dental school and then open a dental practice. His father thinks he should consider other options.
"I think he should consider being a doctor," Robert said. "He certainly has been blessed by medicine and could do some great things as a doctor. I guess he could do good as a dentist as well."
Jared has already been able to turn his struggles into advice for others. He has spoken to religious youth groups and others about his experience and what it takes to overcome difficult times.
"I could have never made it through (the disease) without the love and support of my family," Jared said. "Family and friends are important in life and can help everyone with trials."
As far as his thoughts of a NFL career are concerned, Jared is realistic in his views. He has seen good players struggle to get a foot in the NFL door.
"It's a tough league to get into," Jared said. "There are a lot of great college players that don't make it in that league. I'll work as hard as I can to get the chance at that level, but it is a very tough thing to do."
But, then again, Jared has been through tougher things.
Overcoming maladies to Play the Game
Jared Lee overcame Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rather debilitating disease, but he isn't the first Cougar football player to continue playing after overcoming a medical obstacle.
Fans may remember defensive back Kirk Davis who missed a couple games in 1987 due to Hodgkins' Disease and returned to start some games and finish that season and the following one. The same year Davis was diagnosed during routine physical exams in the pre-season, BYU trainers also found a football player who had leukemia and one who had melanoma-both dropped out of the program for treatment.
In addition to Jared Lee, there is another Cougar on this year's team who is playing despite being challenged by Juvenile Diabetes-Dustin Rykert.
Rykert noticed symptoms of Diabetes during his junior year of high school and told his mother who is a nurse, so they were able to detect it early on.
"We try to teach Dustin and other athletes to become their own best doctor because they know best how they are feeling," said BYU Trainer George Curtis. Cougar trainers provide Rykert with glucose monitors and helped him through the challenge of hot-weather games by providing the infamous pickle juice which allowed him to still retain water, yet not have a high sugar level that would come from drinking Powerade. Former BYU linebacker Nathan Hall (1992-93) also played with Diabetes.
Other former Cougar gridders who have played despite having medical challenges include Ronney Jenkins and Tyler Nelson, each of whom only had one kidney and had to wear special pads. Quarterback Jim McMahon played with blurred 20-50 vision in one eye because a dinner fork poked him in the right eye as a six-year-old. And offensive lineman Jason Ball (1993) played with sickle-cell anemia.
One Cougar who had to withdraw from school this season was quarterback-wide receiver Nathan Clah, whose cancer returned from remission and he has returned to his native New Mexico for treatment.