When his condition was about as bad as it would get, Chad Cooper sometimes avoided looking at himself in the mirror. A few weeks earlier, he had been excelling on special teams for Virginia Tech, showing coaches as a redshirt freshman the normal progression they had expected from someone rated among the top 25 linebackers in the country at Oakton High.
Cooper had weighed 220 pounds and played in all 11 regular season games for Tech in 2001. As the team was preparing for Florida State in the Gator Bowl, however, Cooper was in the hospital afraid to look at what Guillain-Barre syndrome had done. He had lost about 60 pounds, his almost-sculpted body now a mass of flab.
"He looked like he was in a concentration camp," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said.
Guillain-Barre is a viral illness that attacks the nervous system. It starts at the feet and, like some unseen fog, moves upward with alarming speed and causes paralysis along the way. Cooper remembers a point where the only part of his entire body not paralyzed was his head.
"I was so sick, in a dream world," he said. "So tired, could barely see, could barely move, slurred my words. All I could do was listen."
What his family, friends and everyone who knew him well at Tech also heard was the grim reality of Guillain-Barre.
"It can be a very, very devastating illness," said Tech's team physician, P. Gunnar Brolinson. "Some people have lifelong problems. Older people sometimes end up with a walker on in a wheelchair."
While Brolinson was talking, Tech was practicing nearby for Saturday's season opener against Southern Cal -- and taking part in most of the special teams and linebacker drills was Cooper, still more than 20 pounds under his playing weight more than two-and-a-half years later.
Stating the obvious, Brolinson said, "He's made an absolutely stunning recovery." Cooper was back on the field in remarkable time, playing in 13 of Tech's 14 games in 2002 but rarely more than on special teams.
Guillain-Barre is still not through with Cooper. Some nerve damage remains. Last season, which also was confined mostly to special teams, he had a common football injury known as a "stinger," a blow to the neck area that causes nerve damage. Players leaving the field with an arm dangling often have stingers.
Most stingers last no more than a minute and rarely longer than a week. Cooper's lasted two months.
"We're very conservative with him, because there probably aren't enough athletes that are post-Guillain-Barre playing at a high level of college athletics," Brolinson said. "We just don't know what happens with those kinds of injuries. We're a little in the dark sometimes."
Also frustrating for Cooper is the inability to add as much weight as he needs to play outside linebacker. Starter Blake Warren is 242; gifted backup Xavier Adibi is 222. Cooper is 198 and running a distant third when Warren and Adibi are healthy.
So during his final season at Tech, Cooper may be on the field each game no longer than it takes to run under kicks on special teams. That's far from where he and the Tech staff had projected before the Guillain-Barre attack.
"Going into the Gator Bowl [in 2001], he probably was our best special teams player," Foster said. "We were looking at him and [Mikal] Baaqee as down-the-line linebackers. He might very well have been a starter by now." (Baaqee is entering his third season as the starting middle linebacker.)
Considering the even more frightening possibilities and knowing that Guillain-Barre victims have been hospitalized for two years or so, Cooper feels "pretty lucky." He still cannot totally fathom the sudden turnaround, from feeling "a little sick" before the final game of the regular season, which he played, to nausea and then to "blistering" headaches.
Still, it was not until he woke up one morning and "couldn't see right, had to cover one eye to walk around" that Cooper sensed something was terribly wrong.
Cooper rarely talked about the dreams he had had until shortly after that morning, but they included: "Starting, then playing at the next level . . . had it all planned out. Suddenly, it hits you. Sometimes, you have to change your course of action, change your goals. I had to do that. I'm looking to make a difference [this season], even if it's just on special teams. I'll do whatever I can, whatever they let me do."
The difference Cooper already has made for his teammates also rarely gets discussed. But it's enormous, especially to such as fellow redshirt seniors, free safety Vincent Fuller and cornerback Eric Green. They were part of the freshman class that included Cooper and watched his ordeal.
"I don't know of many people, myself included, that could come back like he has," Fuller said. "I look up to him so much."
"For a guy to go through something like that to be out here pushing himself, here for summer workouts, going through all the film study [with little realistic chance of much game action] is extra special," Green added. "Guys like that are what make us keep going."