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Five months after stroke, he has shot at NFL

Robby Felix was taking a shower when the life-changing experience occurred.

It was the night after Felix and his University of Texas-El Paso football team defeated Southern Methodist University in what would turn out to be his final college game.

The 22-year-old center, who had never missed a game during his four-year career at UTEP, got a tingly feeling on his right side, followed by numbness. He was petrified at what was going on yet was unable to speak. So he hopped out of the shower and somehow got the attention of his wife, Kelly, who was five months pregnant with the couple's first child.

"My wife was like, 'What's wrong?' " Felix recalled in a recent interview. "But I couldn't talk, so I just kind of looked at her. She said, 'I'm calling 911.' "

Football was the last thing on Felix's mind.

He simply wanted to live.

"It was completely scary," he said. "I think about it every day, especially when I'm in the shower. That's when I'll have flashbacks. But the way I get through it is I just wake up every morning and say, 'This is going to be a good day.' "

Today, a little more than five months after suffering a stroke, the 6-3, 300-pound Felix is preparing for next weekend's NFL draft. He plans to become only the second man to play in the NFL after suffering a stroke.

The first was Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a stroke in February 2005 and returned eight months later. Bruschi will be rooting for Felix on draft day. After all, it was Bruschi who provided hope for Felix that he could resume his football career.

"There was a point where I thought I was finished playing, and I'm sure Robby has had those thoughts," Bruschi said. "You think, 'This is impossible.' The questions he asked me were the questions I had hoped I could ask someone else. I wish I could have talked to someone that had put a helmet on their brain and could go out and play football, but there was no one. I called my doctor and asked who I could talk to about a similar experience, but he said, 'Tedy, you'd be the first.' With that came a different sort of burden."

Bruschi had undergone surgery to repair a tiny hole in his heart, and he recovered very quickly. Felix had a different condition; his blood was thicker than normal and was the major factor in causing his stroke.

"In a lot of cases involving stroke, there's a 'smoking gun,' where it might have been a particular artery that was a problem, or your blood pressure was too high," said Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, director of the University of Michigan NeuroSport sports neurology clinic. Kutcher determined that the increased thickness of Felix's blood had caused his stroke.

"Robbie had an ischemic stroke, where the blood flow was cut off to a piece of the brain," Kutcher said. "That piece of the brain then dies, but it's a great example of the plasticity of the brain. Robby had right-sided weakness for a few weeks, and was then back to normal. His brain was able to rewire itself."

The only prescribed medicine: a daily dose of aspirin that acts as a blood thinner. There is no guarantee that he will never suffer another stroke. But Kutcher said the risk is minimal.

"This is a case of a great kid who had a stroke but who won't let that event change his course," Kutcher said. "People can have strokes and still lead normal, fulfilling lives."

According to the American Heart Association, stroke is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer. More than 143,579 people die each year from stroke in the country. About 795,000 strokes occur in the United States each year. About 610,000 of these are first or new strokes. Strokes can and do occur at any age; nearly 25 percent of strokes are suffered by people under the age of 65.

However, it is extremely rare for young men to suffer a stroke; according to the AHA, 0.2 percent of American men between the ages of 20-39 experience strokes.

Within two months of his stroke, Felix was able to resume training and was invited to the NFL's annual scouting combine in February. He prepared for the combine at the TEST Sports Academy in Martinsville, N.J., where trainer Brian Martin oversaw his practice regimen.

"Robbie was in a group that trained once a day, but he kept sneaking into our elite group that trained two, three times a day," Martin said. "I kept trying to kick him out, but he kept coming back."

Felix wound up performing among the top offensive linemen at the combine, running a 5.2 in the 40-yard dash and bench-pressing 225 pounds 33 times. He is expected to be drafted in the lower rounds, or might sign with a team as a free agent if he goes undrafted.

UTEP coach Mike Price said any NFL team would be fortunate to have Felix, a first-team All-Conference USA performer in 2008, on its roster.

"Football is his life, and when it was threatened [by the stroke], he fought through it," Price said. "When you see a big, strong kid like that who all of a sudden isn't so big and strong and can't talk, that's tough. He scared me when I saw that kid in the hospital. But he's battled, just like he made himself into a player. I'll never forget him. He'll be in my life forever."

Regardless of where he ends up playing, Felix is grateful to have his health. Not only to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL, but to continue being a good husband . . . and now a good father. Brooke Felix was born March 17.

"I'm thankful for everything," Felix said. "It's been a tough road, but it's all been worth it."

But as Bruschi can say from experience, the mental part might be just as trying as the physical.

"There is no pill you can take to get past that anxiety," he said. "But eventually, through the healing process, you realize, 'I'm OK. I made that tackle and I'm still here.' "

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