Slowed and sidelined, some athletes struggle to return from 'long haul' COVID
By MICHAEL LEE | The Washington Post | Published: April 19, 2021
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Justin Foster might get the urge to pick up the pace in the grocery store and whisk from aisle to aisle, but his body will force him to slow down. The chest pains will hit. He'll have difficulty breathing. And before his items are purchased, Foster will either have to find a seat or leave altogether, unable to complete what used to be a simple task.
A little more than a year ago, Foster was a star defensive end at Clemson, terrorizing LSU in the national championship game. And yet 10 months since he was diagnosed with the coronavirus, menial activities have the potential to level him.
"If you see me walking around, you would think everything is normal. But most of the time, I will be short of breath," Foster, who has asthma, said in a telephone interview. "I won't tell anyone. I don't really try to draw attention or complain about it. I try to deal with it."
For most, COVID-19 is a disease that involves a few weeks of discomfort or, for the sick or elderly, leads to hospitalization or death. But at just 22, Foster is a "long hauler," or a sufferer of "long COVID," one of a small but significant number of COVID-19 patients from whom the virus has refused to retreat.
"This absolutely is not a typical viral infection," said John DiFiori, chief of primary sports medicine and attending physician at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. "It's really difficult to know why certain complications occur in some individuals and not in others. And why certain individuals may take longer to recover in general than others. You can be young and healthy and you can still struggle with it."
Long COVID can make life and work debilitating for anyone. Forelite athletes such as Foster and the WNBA's Asia Durr and others, it's career-threatening. Common symptoms linger. New ones develop. They confront extreme fatigue, learning to be economical with their movement and measuring which activities are worth investing the energy in, risking stress on their bodies that can yield more painful symptoms.
They know how to adjust to the mental challenges of recovering from injury. But that becomes more of a strain when there is no timetable for a return, no sense of how the virus will impact them next. And an indefinite delay in what already is a short career window can ultimately lead to a complete derailment of those plans.
In February, after missing his entire senior season, Foster announced on Instagram he was leaving football "with sadness but no regrets." Despite being eligible to come back in 2021 as a fifth-year senior, Foster couldn't sense that a full recovery was near.
"It's been my life," Foster said of football. "It was a tough decision, but at the end of the day I had to do what was best for my health."
Durr was preparing for her second WNBA season, and had lined up a winter gig in France, when she was diagnosed last June. Lingering complications sidelined her for all of last season. She hopes to return this season but hasn't picked up a basketball, let alone started any strenuous activity.
"I'm not a quitter. I definitely fight," Durr said. "No matter what, where I am right now, I know every day is very important to my recovery process, so I just try to keep going."
Like Foster, Durr didn't experience many problems during the initial quarantine period. But the severe symptoms hit shortly thereafter: Pain in her lungs so bad she felt someone was stabbing her in the chest. Headaches that throbbed in her eyes. Vomiting, coughing up blood. She's making progress — she's capable now of engaging in long conversations with friends or family dinners without distress — but estimates she lost more than 30 pounds, so bedridden near the end of 2020 that walking back and forth to her refrigerator was too much.
When sports returned last summer, much of the focus was on a possible connection between the coronavirus and myocarditis, a heart inflammation that could be deadly for athletes. Buffalo Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney missed last season because of myocarditis, but there have been fewer cases than predicted, according to a study by professional sports doctors, and only a few athletes are known publicly to have been diagnosed.
More common, it turns out, are athletes such as Durr, whose more typical COVID symptoms continue to interfere with their play. Tatum, a 23-year-old Boston Celtics star, missed five games after being infected in January, slumped in February, and recently revealed that he has started to use an inhaler for the first time in his life to open up his lungs before games. Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba, 22, dealt with muscle soreness and poor conditioning several months after losing his sense of taste and smell.
"It's a process," Tatum told reporters. "It takes a long time."
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead, 24, was hospitalized twice because of COVID and missed all of last season. Chicago White Sox third baseman Yoán Moncada, 25, could barely run the bases or field groundballs without being gassed last season, and he hasn't come close to resembling the player who hit 25 home runs in 2019.
Durr, who was selected second overall by the New York Liberty in 2019, has been especially frustrated by the false starts toward recovery followed by the setbacks. She'll have a day or days when she'll start feeling good, believing that she's about to turn a corner, only to be greeted by discomfort instead. Routine activities remain a hassle at times. A sneaker head, Durr has had difficulty organizing her shoes or hanging curtains in her bedroom without having to gather herself.
"Some days, it feels like you have COVID again," she said. "It's kind of like a tease. Oh, you're starting to feel better. Then it hits you again. And you're down, super sick, in the bed. People always ask me, 'Which one is worse, having COVID or dealing with the post COVID?' And I'm like, 'Man, I can't pick one,' because some days, it feels about the same. That's how brutal it gets."
Watching Louisville, where she once starred, lose in the Elite Eight of this year's women's NCAA tournament, only made Durr more desirous of a comeback. Basketball was always her outlet, the court her calming grounds. Nothing has been able to fill that void.
"Because my love for the game is still truly that high," she said. "Anytime I watch basketball, it's like, 'God, I really miss this.' It definitely makes me have that itch, 10 times more, watching them play."
Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney tried to persuade Foster to keep playing, Foster said, believing that a promising future still existed for him on the field. The talent was there. The will and drive were there. But so was a virus that didn't want to let go.
"It's hard to see your child go through something that he's worked for his whole entire life," said Foster's mother, Teresa Padgett-Williamson. "If my son makes the right decisions and choices in life, he could have just as much money as an NFL player has, plus he'll have his life. My biggest fear was him going back and not being at his best and falling dead on that field."
Football wasn't Foster's first love; that was basketball, until he stopped growing. "It's not too many centers in the NBA that's 6-2," he said, laughing. But football came easiest. By the time he reached sixth grade, Foster was already an imposing 6 feet tall, so big that opposing parents questioned his age and opposing players fell to the ground to avoid getting hit by him.
Foster would go on to become the top-rated high school recruit in the state of North Carolina. He played right away at Clemson, never redshirting, and helped the Tigers twice reach the national championship game, winning it all as a sophomore in 2018.
Last spring, NFL agents reached out to Padgett-Williamson to discuss his professional prospects. Foster flirted with leaving after his junior year but opted to return to complete his degree, possibly win another title and improve his draft positioning.
The college football season briefly appeared in jeopardy, as medical experts from the SEC, the sport's preeminent conference, told frustrated players they weren't certain about the health risks of playing. But Foster's teammate, Trevor Lawrence, and Ohio State's Justin Fields led a group of players pushing for football's return. Foster supported those efforts.
"You can get the virus anywhere. You can get the virus wearing your mask, washing your hands. Sooner or later, eventually, it's going to come your way," Foster said. "You can't be scared. For me, I felt the safest place for us to be was around our team and in the facility."
But Clemson had an outbreak within the team, with 37 players — nearly one-third of the 120-man roster — testing positive. Despite adhering to all of the protocols, Foster became infected but didn't feel incapacitated until he started to resume training. At first, he thought he was just out of shape. But as the problems lingered and the mundane became unbearable, Foster knew he was dealing with something more complicated.
"I kind of figured if I did get it, my struggles may be a little different that other people. I might not get over it as fast," said Foster, who spent much of his first five years in and out of hospitals because of his asthma. "I never saw anything like this coming out of it."
Foster spent much of his time growing up around his great grandfather, Albert Padgett, a handyman, and learned to work with tools and gadgets. He was repairing bicycles in his neighborhood while in middle school and was always curious about how things were built. A two-time all-ACC academic selection, Foster graduated with a degree in construction science in December.
His father, Ronald, owns a tractor-trailer company outside Raleigh, N.C. Foster plans to start his own trucking company in Greenville, S.C. Padgett-Williamson was a truck driver for 19 years before a back injury forced her to take a break. She plans to return to her old profession — "Quit is not in our DNA" — but wants to help Foster get his business off the ground.
Although he had the NFL on his mind when he left for Clemson, Foster had always planned to use football to get an education, he said, because professional football careers are only so long. And at Clemson, he said a regular conversation in the locker room was what players planned to do if their football careers were cut short for any reason.
COVID just forced Foster to call his audible earlier than most, skipping past another decade or so in pads.
"I'm kind of just keeping that out of my mind," Foster said of possibly playing football again, "and we're just focused on getting healthy, getting life back to normal. If that opportunity ever presents itself to me, then I would have to sit down and think about it and see where I am in life and what I would like to do."
"I'm still fighting," Foster said. "It doesn't go away. It's always there."