The prognosis was terrifying.
Just weeks earlier, Daniel Fells was catching passes from Eli Manning, trying to help the Giants get back to the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl season in 2011. But now, as he lay in a hospital bed in Hackensack, New Jersey, he was told he might lose his right leg.
“The doctors said if this doesn’t work, we’re going to have to either amputate and . . . hopefully it’s not too late,” Fells said in an interview with Newsday, his voice trailing off as he recalled that harrowing time in October 2015. “It was getting darker and darker.”
This was no ordinary injury Fells was fighting. He’d been bothered earlier in the season by toe and ankle problems; that didn’t seem out of the ordinary for the 32-year-old tight end, who routinely had overcome previous injuries, including a torn ACL. But after receiving a cortisone injection to help relieve the pain and swelling, he developed a life-threatening infection called MRSA.
“As football players, your mindset is, ‘I can come back from this,’ ” Fells said. “But every day that passed, the fever was getting worse.”
Fells’ wife, Nahall, brought him to the emergency room at Hackensack Medical Center after Fells’ fever spiked.
“It went from 102 to 103 to 104, and then the thermometer was showing error,” Fells said. “I was off the charts with my fever. They were trying to get the infection under control, day after day, trying different antibiotics known to kill MRSA.”
One treatment nearly killed Fells. “My kidneys and my liver shut down,” he said.
Doctors performed multiple surgeries in an attempt to get the infection out. Then he was down to what he was told was his final chance.
“There was a combination of antibiotics that was working, but I was metabolizing it so fast that my body wasn’t giving the antibiotics enough time to do what they were supposed to do,” he said. “So the only solution they came up with was giving me an ungodly amount.”
The next day, he had trouble breathing. “They found infection in my lung, and they thought it was in my heart,” Fells said. “Thank God it wasn’t.”
Finally, after an 18-day span in which he had seven surgical procedures, he went home. But he never played football again.
To this day, neither he nor his doctors can trace the source of the infection.
Now, more than four years after his ordeal, Fells wants to do his part to raise awareness of the danger of staph and MRSA infections. He and former 49ers nose tackle Ian Williams, whose career also ended because of complications from a staph infection after left ankle surgery in 2016, were at the NFL Combine and shared their stories, hoping to make sure others avoid what they endured.
“We went through some traumatic experience, things that players shouldn’t have to deal with,” said Williams, who played with the 49ers from 2011-15. “We’re the guys who made it out alive. We’re fortunate. We’re the sports figures who made it out, but there are other people who are not in sports who have lost their lives due to staph or MRSA because they didn’t have access to the treatment we had.”
Fells and Williams have partnered with Applied Silver Inc., a San Francisco Bay Area company that recently invented an antimicrobial product that is used by hospitals and other health care facilities to clean laundry and help prevent the spread of germs. The 49ers use the product, called SilvaClean, which treats uniforms with a silver ion technology.
“Silver is a well-known antimicrobial and it kills bacteria, viruses like flu, mold and mildew, so it’s a pretty effective catch-all that helps keep the environment clean year-round,” said Applied Silver’s Priya Balachandran, who has a doctorate in microbiology.
With growing concern about the spread of coronavirus, Balachandran said her company has not yet tested its product against the virus but said that “we anticipate that it will be effective against it.”
It’s too late for Fells and Williams to undo the damage done by staph and MRSA, but they want today’s NFL players to be mindful of the risks, especially in a sport in which the players are in such close contact during games and practice.
“I was completely blindsided by it,” said Fells, who announced his retirement from the NFL in July 2016. “No one is walking around expecting to get MRSA. All I could focus on when I was in the hospital was myself and getting back to my wife and kids.”
It was an emotional reunion when he got home.
“My son is 4 and he yells, ‘Daddy!’ But he’s looking down, I’m on crutches, and he’s never seen me like that. He’s like, ‘I know you’re my dad, but what happened to you?’ Eventually I explained to him about germs, that Daddy got a germ in his foot and he’s trying to get better for you guys.”
Fells didn’t believe his career was over.
“Everyone said it was over, but I took everything with a grain of salt,” said Fells, who added that the Giants’ medical and training staff were extremely attentive to his needs during and after his hospitalization. “Throughout my career, people said you couldn’t do something, or doctors said you couldn’t come back fully from an ACL for a year, but it took me seven months. But I ran into this wall. My son saw me as Superman, I saw myself as Superman, and I was trying to be Superman for my family. But I finally found my kryptonite — MRSA.”
Fells, now 36, eventually resumed walking on his own. He can engage in physical activity — but only to a point.
“Six months ago, I had a stress fracture in my foot, just from overuse,” said Fells, who wore a walking boot to keep some weight off his foot. “I’ve had to change my lifestyle. I’ve got two young kids and I’m trying to be around for everything.”
Williams, 30, said the frustration of not finishing his career on his own terms lingers. “It’s something you can’t prepare for, you can’t see,” said Williams, who still wears a compression sleeve on his ankle.“It’s like — what? I can come back from this. But I couldn’t. It was the first time in my life that something had knocked me down that I couldn’t recover from. Now I have to be much more careful with what I do. It’s always in the back of my mind that it’s weaker than it used to be.”
Fells and Williams are just glad they lived to tell about it. And maybe, just maybe, they can help save others.