Princeton's Jordan Culbreath fights his way back from rare disorders

Jordan Culbreath leads Princeton in rushing despite battling two rare blood disorders. ( Photo by Beverly Schaefer.)
Jordan Culbreath leads Princeton in rushing despite battling two rare blood disorders. ( Photo by Beverly Schaefer.)
By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:46 AM

Numbers are a big part of Jordan Culbreath's life. As a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at Princeton, he works with numbers every day in the classroom. As a senior running back, he accumulates numbers every week on the football field.

Neither of those numbers matter as much as the ones Culbreath hears about every week from the doctor. A year ago, the 22-year-old from Falls Church discovered he had aplastic anemia and paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), two rare and potentially fatal disorders that require him to have his blood tested once a week.

These days, instead of worrying about his average yards per carry, Culbreath focuses on his number of platelets per microliter. As long as those numbers are good, he can play football - a sport he believed he would never play again after his diagnosis.

"It's hard to not get your hopes up and get all your emotions into those three numbers that you get back after your blood test," he said.

Culbreath has played football since he was 7 years old. He quit the sport his junior year at Marshall High School, prefering to concentrate on basketball and baseball, then returned to it his senior year. He had no intention of playing in college, however.

"Once I got into Princeton, I thought I'd just concentrate on my academics," Culbreath said. "But my mom convinced me so we sent a tape in" to former coach Roger Hughes.

Culbreath's father, Cliff, won a national championship at Southern California, but it was his mother, Alma, who pushed him to go out for the team.

"We always thought he was really good, but he just said: 'I'm not going to play sports in college. That's not why I'm going,' " Alma Culbreath said.

Culbreath's breakout game came against Cornell his sophomore season in 2007, when he rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns and landed on the top 10 plays on "SportsCenter." As a junior, the first-team all-Ivy League selection led the league in rushing. By his senior year, in 2009, Culbreath was the league's preseason offensive player of the year.

The symptoms started showing up the first day Princeton was in full pads for preseason practice. Culbreath couldn't understand why he had trouble catching his breath after just one play, or why he became tired walking up a flight of stairs. Cuts wouldn't heal, and there was a tingling sensation in his fingers. The headaches were the worst.

"I'm pretty stubborn so I sort of pushed the symptoms aside for a long time," he said. "I attributed it to the pressure of being a captain and a returning senior. . . . It was easy for me to put an excuse on every symptom. That's why it took me so long to come forward with it."

In the second game of the season, Culbreath injured his ankle, an otherwise routine injury that would have a profound effect on his life.

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