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September 23, 2009

Flu having an effect on college football teams

Ole Miss wide receiver Dexter McCluster looked like the textbook definition of good health when he contributed two touchdowns and 115 all-purpose yards to the Rebels' win over Memphis on Sept. 6.

The next day, he went in for treatment on his shoulder but also because he felt weak and tired. He had a 104-degree fever and classic flu symptoms. By the second night, McCluster was throwing up blood and spent the night in the hospital.

"I would never wish that on anybody," McCluster said.

The Rebels had a week off, and McCluster returned for the Rebels' next game, this past Saturday, against Southeastern Louisiana. He'll be back at full strength Thursday against South Carolina.

His case is an example of how quickly the flu can hit.

McCluster knows enough about the flu to know how he ended up in a hospital bed: Wide receiver Jacarious Lucas occupies the locker next to him. Lucas felt sick leading up to the Memphis opener.

Actually, Lucas is one of several Ole Miss players who could have spread the flu to McCluster. More than a dozen Rebels players reported flu-like symptoms after the Memphis game.

College programs nationwide are attempting to prevent the flu or hoping they are through the worst of it, though flu season has barely begun. So far:

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy missed a day of practice and skipped most drills in the week leading up to Saturday's 34-24 victory over Texas Tech. He wore a mask during the week and slept more than normal to help kick the virus. The aftermath of the illness was apparent on game day. By halftime, McCoy needed peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Pedialyte, a children's hydration drink, to feel "recharged."

Leading up to Florida's 23-13 victory over Tennessee, three Florida starters - defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, tailback Jeffery Demps and tight end Aaron Hernandez - were isolated with flu-like symptoms. Tuesday, six more Gators missed practice with flu-like symptoms, and wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales, who was ill over the weekend, coached that practice wearing gloves and a mask. Said Florida coach Urban Meyer: "It is a panic level of proportion I've never seen before."

During preparations for his team's home game against Fresno State, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said more than 40 players were sick during the week. Several players needed intravenous fluids before the Badgers' 34-31 double-overtime victory over Fresno State.

Georgia quarterback Joe Cox took a private athletic department plane from Athens, Ga., before the season opener at Oklahoma State. Cox was kept off the team flight before the game because of flu symptoms. Team officials wanted to keep Cox isolated from the team and also wanted him to take a less-grueling route to Stillwater, Okla., which would not include a bus ride from Athens to Atlanta.

With a 102-degree fever, Penn State running back Evan Royster isolated himself from his teammates this past Friday. He was one of more than a dozen Nittany Lions nursing symptoms during the week. By Saturday, Royster had recovered enough to rush for 119 yards against Temple.

Football teams aren't immune to illnesses that affect a college campus, and more and more teams seem to be dealing with flu outbreaks.

"I can't remember any kind of year where we've had quite so many teams fighting this problem," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.

So far, most cases have been reported as the standard seasonal flu, not the H1N1 virus, also known as the swine flu.

"The level of activity we're seeing is very unusual for this time of year," said Tom Skinner, spokesman at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. "It's becoming more and more widespread. To what extent it is going to spread, we can't say. It's unpredictable.

"We are off to a pretty fast start to flu season. Whether or not that translates to a very bad or long flu season, we'll wait and see."

College football teams present a unique set of challenges when it comes to preventing the flu. Besides spending time in public areas such as classrooms and dormitories, student-athletes spend time in close quarters in locker rooms, weight rooms and on the practice field.

When Vanderbilt had an outbreak of the flu late in preseason camp, head trainer Tom Bossung suspected the return of the general student body combined with fatigued players contributed to 27 players reporting flu symptoms over a matter of days. But Bossung counts himself lucky: Only 11 of the 27 missed a day of practice, and only one missed two days of practice.

"It was interesting more than anything," said Bossung, who has been the head trainer at Vanderbilt for 10 years. "If you've got 12 guys on your injury report, you don't expect 12 to have the flu."

Flu prevention for athletic teams is the same as for anyone in the general population. Players are told to wash their hands thoroughly and often, cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough and stay home if they exhibit flu symptoms. The CDC also recommends vaccinations.

"Every year that I've been here, we have had players affected by the flu for games during the season," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "I don't expect this year to be any different. I know there's a widespread alert out there on the swine flu, and some other teams have had some problems with it. But we are doing all the things that everyone else is doing, with the sanitizer in each player's locker, washing their hands, trying to isolate anybody that has any symptoms."

McCluster, at least, hopes he's through the worst of it. Though it would be tempting for him to think Ole Miss has gotten the flu bug out of the way for the season, Skinner from the CDC says it's not uncommon for a second wave to hit the same community later in the season.

For now, all McCluster can do is shrug his shoulders and hope for the best.

"You can't prevent it," he said. "I've never seen anything like it. There's nothing you can really do about it."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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