A Frightening Off-Field Foe

Brandon Noble
Brandon Noble, for the second time in a year, is being treated for MRSA, a sometimes debilitating illness that is becoming increasingly common in the general population. (Linda Davidson - The Washington Post)
By Mark Maske and Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 27, 2006

Brandon Noble needs crutches to walk, and he has been relegated to spending much of his time at home on his sofa. When he's lying in bed at night and needs to move his left leg to get comfortable, he must lift it with his arms or nudge it with his right leg. He struggles to play with his children.

But while Noble might have the typical limitations of a broken-down football player, the career of the Washington Redskins' defensive tackle isn't threatened by damaged ligaments or cracked bones. At 31, Noble has been sidelined by a staph infection, suffered after being injured, that in some cases is potentially fatal.

"It's been an incredible couple of years here," Noble said. "It's like I'm a modern-day Job."

For the second time in a year, Noble is being treated for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a sometimes debilitating illness that is becoming increasingly common in the general population, according to national health experts. It is a growing concern for the NFL, which has experienced a recent increase in MRSA cases.

The NFL has sent literature on staph infections to the league's 32 team doctors and trainers, and last February it arranged for representatives of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address teams' medical staffs, according to Elliot Pellman, the chairman of the New York Jets' medical department who serves as the NFL's medical liaison.

"Certainly there is great sensitivity to the issue," Pellman said.

John Francis, an infectious disease research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said MRSA, which occurs most frequently among people in hospitals and other health care facilities who have weakened immune systems, has become a serious public health issue because its resistance to many commonly prescribed antibiotics makes it difficult to treat. "The effects are being seen and are a cause for concern not only here in the United States, but worldwide," Francis said.

MRSA can first appear as merely a small pimple and spreads like most infections, according to the CDC, through skin-to-skin contact, abrasions that become contaminated and exposure to contaminated surfaces. The working conditions for NFL players, who share locker rooms and training facilities with teammates and are involved in a violent game in which contact is commonplace, would be a likely breeding ground.

The Redskins have had five cases of MRSA in the last two years, the first at the end of the 2004 season, according to team physician Tony Casolaro. The team tested 120 players and coaches at the start of training camp last July for MRSA, but all were negative, Casolaro said. Similar statistics were unavailable for the NFL.

"Someone said, 'Oh Bubba, you've been in this business for 35 years, you've seen everything,' " said Bubba Tyer, the Redskins' director of sports medicine. "Well, I hadn't seen everything. This Brandon Noble case is the first one I've seen like this. So we'll continue to educate ourselves and educate our team and do the best we can."

Frustrating Setbacks

The Redskins signed Noble as a free agent from the Dallas Cowboys in 2003, envisioning that the hard-working, no-frills player would anchor the middle of their defensive line. But he essentially shredded his left knee during a preseason game that summer. He didn't play at all that season, and even he acknowledged at the time that there was a good chance that he would never play again. But he didn't give up, and he rehabilitated the injury and played the entire 2004 season for the Redskins.

Last May, Noble underwent what was to be minor arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in North Carolina. The surgery was not performed by a Redskins team doctor. After returning home from the hospital, he noticed a red mark about the size of a quarter on his knee. The next day, the mark had grown to cover his knee and the following morning Noble awoke to find his entire leg discolored. His mother-in-law, Kathleen Hoyt-Dougherty, who is a nurse, examined the knee and told her daughter, Mary Kate, to immediately take him to the hospital.

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