AUBURN -- As soon as Jawara White climbed out of the MRI machine and saw the look on his doctor’s faces, he knew the prognosis wasn’t good.
White credited his teammates, coaches and the Auburn family for helping him through the tough times.
But he wasn’t prepared for when neurosurgeon Dr. Swaid Swaid told him his spinal cord looked like it came from a patient that was already confined to a wheelchair.
“They looked like they had seen a ghost,” White said. “When he finally explained it and showed it to me, it was not good at all.
“They couldn’t understand how I was still walking and doing what I was doing.”
It all started rather innocuously when White experienced back spasms as a standout linebacker and receiver at Charles Henderson High School in Troy, Ala. White didn’t let the discomfort slow him down as he became a highly-regarded prospect, eventually signing with Auburn in 2010.
White came to Auburn last summer determined to earn early playing time. But after working himself into the best shape of his life, he found his conditioning slipping as the start of fall practice approached.
“We got to the last week of conditioning and I was struggling with half-gassers. I knew something was wrong,” he said.
But an overnight stay in the hospital to get his oxygen levels back up to normal, seemed to have White back on track until a scrimmage a few weeks later.
“I came off the field and 15 minutes later, my heart rate was up like I just got off the field,” he said.
White was a spectator for much of spring practice.
That incident prompted further investigation and an MRI was scheduled. The results were devastating. White was diagnosed with congenital Arnold-Chiari malformation I.
The back part of his skull was too small, which pushed his cerebellum against the bone and forced fluid down into his spinal cord. In White’s case, the fluid was forced all the way down to the bottom of his spinal cord. A normal spinal cord would be 1/4 to 1/2-inch in diameter on the MRI.
White’s was more than twice that size.
It wasn’t until White was back in Auburn and in coach Gene Chizik’s office that the severity of his situation set in. Not only was his playing career in jeopardy, White was in danger of suffering a substantial loss in the quality of his life.
“I cried in Chiz’s office,” he said. “It was one of those things between you and God. You just had to sit down with God and pray about it and hope he can fix it.”
The steady hand of Dr. Swaid during surgery as he removed a small part of bone at the base of White’s skull relieved the pressure and set him on the road to recovery.
Subsequent MRI’s have shown a complete reversal of White’s symptoms without any excess fluid in his spine.
“When I condition, I’m not having that same breathing problem I had before,” he said.
White was cleared for non-contact work in May. Just a few days ago, he was cleared for full contact and will return to the practice fields this fall to compete for playing time at Sam linebacker with junior Daren Bates, the returning starter, and sophomore Harris Gaston.
“My motto is All In so I’m going all out,” White said. “When I put the pads on, I’m going to be wide open. I just feel like I have a lot to prove. I went out there last year and I was sluggish and overweight.”
White got up to 250 pounds as he recovered from surgery but is already down to 228. He’s still working to get his strength back up.
“I could bench 225 (pounds) 20 times before. Now, I can only do about 12-13 reps,” he said.
White said sitting out last season and dealing with a serious medical condition made him appreciate many of the things he used to take for granted.
“It taught me a life lesson to appreciate everything and every minute,” he said. “Even the little things. When I was looking at my teammates play and I’m on the sideline, it bothered me. It ate me up inside.
“The days you don’t feel like practicing. The days you don’t feel like doing it. We know it’s hot. The coaches know it’s hot, but you’ve got to appreciate it and enjoy it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we’re blessed to be here.”
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