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Friday, April 2, 2004
Downey cleared to play in NFL

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Once a week for the past three-plus years, typically on a Saturday or Sunday evening, Khiawatha Downey has plopped his oversized frame onto an under-stuffed couch, and ruminated for a few minutes over the ordeal to which he is about to subject his body.

Finally, equal parts anxious and reluctant, the big offensive lineman, who began his college career at the University of Pittsburgh and concluded it last season at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, moves forward with a much-practiced routine. He rolls up his pants leg, eyeballs the carefully measured liquid in a syringe, takes a deep breath, and plunges the inch-and-a-half needle into the meaty part of his calf.

Khiawatha Downey
Downey earned Division II All-American honors at IUP for the 2003 season.
And then Khi Downey rests his head on the back of the sofa and waits for the results of the injection, the roller coaster thrills and throes that will wrack his 340-pound body and perhaps cause him near-debilitating headaches for the next 48 hours, to kick in.

For this act and its side effects, Downey, once projected by many league scouts as a consensus middle-round prospect in this year's draft, has come under great scrutiny of late. He has, in fact, been removed completely from the draft boards of several teams who view Downey as too risky. For this, Downey, will tell you in an even-toned voice tinged with puzzlement and despair, he is being treated unfairly.

And he's probably right.

Before you leap to any conclusions, before you mentally congratulate all those diligent franchises you suggest might be taking an estimable stand, know this: Downey isn't some coked-out junkie, shooting up every weekend to satisfy cravings for another fix, willing to trade in his considerable athletic skills for the sake of the next buzz.

Instead, he is a multiple sclerosis victim, diagnosed in early 2001, after having started at Pitt for two seasons and established himself as a potential NFL draft pick. The injection? Avonex, one of the several prescription drugs approved for MS patients and designed to abate the progress of a neurological malady which afflicts about 2.5 million worldwide.

The problem for Downey: The relative ignorance of NFL teams toward the disease.

"At the combine (in February), I would sit in a room with, like, 16 doctors from different teams and, from all the questions they were asking me, it was like I was there to educate them," said Downey, who measured 6-feet-4 1/8 and 332 pounds at the combine sessions. "They didn't seem to know too much about MS, really, so there I was, trying to convince these guys that I'm all right, that I can play football. There was a lot of misperception on their part. I mean, you'd think they might know better, right?"

Perhaps, but most of the team doctors who attend the combine are orthopedic specialists, and more accustomed to evaluating torn knee ligaments than CAT scans of the brain, the kind that, in typical MS patients, reveal tell-tale lesions or plaque on the brain or spine. The public faces of MS often are high-profile celebrities such as comedian Richard Pryor, or Annette Funicello, the onetime sweetheart Mouseketeer of the 1950s, both of whom have been relegated to wheelchairs.

There are, however, millions of MS victims who function normally on a daily basis. It has been suggested, given recent advances, that those patients are the more viable poster child subjects for an unpredictable disease, but one that doesn't carry the same sentence than it did 20 years ago.

Let's get this out front, before we go any further, on Downey: He was booted off the Pitt team by coach Walt Harris, in the spring of 2001, following repeat violations of team rules. And Downey's indiscretion? He twice tested positive for marijuana, which briefly became his crutch, after he was diagnosed for MS.

His head swimming with plenty of misinformation -- like the off-base analysis that MS is a hereditary disease that he likely had contracted from his mother -- Downey fell into a deep depression. Convinced the disease was a potential death sentence, Downey sought comfort and escape at the business end of a joint, and paid the consequences.

"No excuses," Downey said of the team violation. "I was 20 years old or whatever, I'm told I might not be able to even get around, much less play football, and I just felt sorry for myself. But, hey, that's on me. No excuses. But I've never tested (positive) since."

While we are into soul-baring, a personal confession here, as well: One reason this humble correspondent was drawn to Downey's story is because a family member was diagnosed with MS nearly 19 years ago. I am no expert but do understand more about MS than I should, and certainly have familiarized myself with the disease more than have most NFL scouts or, apparently, team orthopedists. I have reviewed brain scans and CAT scans, studied the tiny pinhole lesions on the brain of my family member, cringed when the neurologist pointed to "areas of activity." Meet my stricken family member on most days, however, and you would never suspect the malady.

The same is true of Downey, who this weekend will travel to Indianapolis for what is commonly known as "Indy II," a re-check for all of the draft prospects who drew medical red flags during the February draft auditions. This time, when Downey confronts doctors, he will do so with a dossier of medical information and a recommendation from one of the country's most noted MS specialists.

Dr. Rock Heyman, a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a man who has studied and treated thousands of MS victims, has opined there is no reason that Downey should not be drafted, if his physical skills merit it.

"He has," Heyman said earlier this week, "no restrictions at all. I will say that in writing and make it very clear to people. Khi Downey, essentially, is asymptomatic. There is no weakness in him. If teams don't want to draft him because they don't feel he is a good enough football player, or lacks the skills to be in the NFL, well, that's one thing. But he shouldn't be avoided in the draft because of the MS. People have to move beyond that."

Whether personnel directors and general managers can see past their noses on Downey's situation, whether they will even attempt to enlighten themselves in the weeks remaining before the draft, remains to be seen. Downey and agent Joe Linta are willing to negate any risk involved by signing a waiver that would absolve teams of any future liability. There could be, Linta acknowledged, some workman's compensation issues, but nothing that is more significant than the norm.

Certainly, it seems that Downey, who earned Division II All-American honors at IUP for the 2003 season, is viable enough to be at least a late-round draft choice.

The North Carolina native started 10 games for Pitt at left guard in 1999, Downey moved to right tackle in 2000, missed some time the first half of the season with an ankle injury and then started the final seven games of the campaign. It was after the team's appearance in the Insight.com Bowl that Downey underwent a battery of tests to determine the source of persistent "stingers" (painful neck or shoulder injuries that can cause numbness in the extremities) he had occasionally suffered for two years.

It was during those tests that Dr. David Stone, the Pitt team physician, found the lesions that accompany multiple sclerosis. Stone referred to the discovery as "serendipity," and, indeed, had it not been for the "stingers," the MS diagnosis might not have been made.

Khiawatha Downey
Downey began his career at Pitt before transferring to IUP.
Downey, now 24, remembers how his mother, April Richardson, suddenly showed up unannounced at his apartment one day in early 2001. She seemed preoccupied, as if she had something she needed to tell him but couldn't blurt out, and Downey actually feared that his mother was terminally ill. A few days later, with his mother at his side, Downey met with the team trainer, who apprised him of his own diagnosis.

"My first reaction," remembered Downey, "was one of, 'Well, at least my mother isn't sick.' And then the term, you know, MS, it kind of settles in on you. I think it was after my mother left, with me sitting alone in that room, that the uncertainty hit me. I mean, you just don't know what's out there, you know. You ask yourself a lot of questions that you really don't have the answers for. Yeah, it's a pretty unnerving thing, for sure. Your mind is spinning a lot of different ways."

And now, with some NFL teams backing away from him, Downey acknowledges that his draft prospects are spiraling, as well.

The weekly Avonex injections caused side effects during the season that left him weak, usually through Tuesday mornings, and IUP coaches and trainers had to monitor him very carefully. There were occasions, noted IUP coach Frank Cignetti, a cancer survivor in his own right and, thus, particularly sensitive to Downey's situation, when his star lineman suffered through severe headaches, nausea, rubbery legs.

"It was tough," Cignetti allowed. "I know that teams are worried about investing money in a player who might have some question marks. But he seems to be doing better. And I would say this: From a skills standpoint, Khi is a better prospect than the two linemen we have in the NFL right now, Chris Villarrial and Leander Jordan. He's a player."

But is Khi Downey a player who will ever get the chance to play?

Heyman reiterated that he has zero qualms in stating, for the record, that Downey is clear to play without any physical restrictions. There is no correlation, a burgeoning body of research indicates, between the past "stingers" and MS. As for the side effects of Avonex, there are other medications that Downey could try, and Heyman is working with him to address some of the discomforting physical issues.

Khiawatha Downey
Downey
"There are options, as far as medication goes, and Khi never really sought them out prior to our evaluation of him," Heyman said. "He's a strong kid and (the MS) should not be a factor. We're talking about maybe some effects when he is in his 50s or 60s, long after a football career will have ended. So if teams evaluate him, they should do so on whether he has the abilities, the skills, on whether he is a good player. Of course, I understand that there are going to be some biases."

Indeed, of the seven teams surveyed by ESPN.com, three conceded that they have taken Downey off their draft boards. And representatives of six teams, all of whom chose not to speak for attribution, citing either medical confidentiality or legal concerns, admitted they had some concerns.

Hearing that, Downey is concerned as well, but recent contact by scouts from Cleveland and Philadelphia have been heartening.

"I guess you could say I'm somewhat optimistic," Downey said. "With the emphasis on the somewhat part. It's going to take some teams really doing their homework and saying, 'Hey, he's OK, really.' And I guess part of that is up to me. I mean, I guess that I have to stay positive for my own self, you know? But I have to be positive for them, too. All the medical people tell me I can have a good life. But it will be a better life, to me, if it includes football."

Around the league

  • Some league and team officials were privately crowing this week that they are getting a second bite of the apple in the Maurice Clarett case and suggested, yeah, again, they will prevail on appeal. Hey, maybe, they're right, since several labor experts, guys who know a ton more than we do about antitrust law, feel the expeditious revisiting of the case may well signal that the appellate judges disagree with the original ruling. But let's be candid here: Not even the league's top counsel, Jeff Pash, anticipated an appeal before the draft. In fact, he indicated in a February conference call with national reporters, that such action was highly unlikely. That said, now that the door is opened again, expect the league to be incredibly well-prepared and to come in with guns blazing. Overshadowed in the news of the appeal, though, is the unfair manner in which Southern California wide receiver Mike Williams could be treated if the appeals court either stays or overturns the initial Clarett ruling. It was the NFL, in the wake of that ruling, which re-opened the deadline for players to apply for entry to the 2004 draft. It was the league that, ostensibly, indicated the runaway training probably couldn't be stopped in time for this draft. So Williams, operating with a pretty large degree of reason and precisely following the guidelines the NFL established, opted to forego his final two college seasons. And now, based on what the appellate judges decide April 19, he could be in football limbo, bounced from the draft but ineligible to return to the college game. "Yeah, so he shouldn't have retained an agent, all right?" insisted one team official. Again, he did so with a reasonable degree of confidence, based on the NFL's actions, that he would be in the draft. And if, suddenly, Williams is drummed out of the lottery? Then the real ugliness begins, because he and his attorneys would probably launch a number of lawsuits based on antitrust laws. And in antitrust cases, damages are trebled. Meaning this: Instead of having Williams in the draft, with the potential of landing a $30 million contract, the league could be staring at damages of, say, $90 million. There is no doubt the league wants to stick it to Clarett, but Williams is a guy who could become an unwitting victim of sorts here.

  • Maurice Clarett
    Clarett
    Clarett, who after only one week of working with Tom Shaw, the New Orleans-based "performance enhancement specialist" recommended to him, has been prepping instead with a trainer in the Cleveland area. The erstwhile Ohio State tailback will audition for curious NFL scouts Monday on campus and, while there are plenty of skeptics, most personnel guys seem to be maintaining an open mind. "What helps him, as much as anything else, is that most of the other top backs have had (lousy) workouts," said one NFC personnel director. "On our preliminary board, we've got him penciled in near the end of the first day. But if he lights it up in his workout, and shows people he is serious about this, you'd probably have to move him up. There's a lot riding on Monday and I just hope the kid understands and grasps the reality of his situation."

  • It isn't certain yet if all parties have sent back their RSVPs, but ESPN.com learned this week that NFL has invited seven first-round prospects to New York, to be at Madison Square Garden for the draft on April 24. The seven prospects invited: quarterbacks Eli Manning (Mississippi) and Ben Roethlisberger (Miami-Ohio), wideouts Roy Williams and Larry Fitzgerald (Pittsburgh), offensive tackle Robert Gallery (Iowa), cornerback DeAngelo Hall (Virginia Tech) and tight end Kellen Winslow II (Miami). The league has gone to great pains in the past to ensure it doesn't have any moments like those that have occasionally been a part of NBA drafts, when some invited players have slipped in the first round and are forced to sit embarrassed as the television cameras document their agony in front of a national audience. Of the players who attended the '03 NFL draft, the final one chosen was defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, who went to the St. Louis Rams with the 12th overall selection.

  • Buffalo coaches and executives are excited by the progress that tailback Willis McGahee has made to this point in the team's offseason conditioning program. The former Miami star, who was chosen with the 23rd overall pick last year but never played a single down as he continued to rehabilitate from a catastrophic knee injury, has demonstrated no more lingering affects from the injury. "He's doing really well," said rookie head coach Mike Mularkey, who reiterated his plans to pair McGahee and starting tailback Travis Henry in some formations. "He's making cuts, running with decisiveness, and isn't hold back on anything. You can tell he's excited being back out there." Mularkey noted at the league meetings that, while the Bills would like to get Kordell Stewart, the quarterback is not yet ready to concede to a backup role. And make no mistake, if he signed with the Bills, the journeyman Stewart would almost certainly be asked to reprise the "Slash" role he once played with the Steelers. The Bills really don't have on their current roster the kind of versatile athlete around whom Mularkey can scheme up some trick plays. They might be forced to add such a flexible player through the draft.

  • Eli Manning
    Manning
    San Diego general manager A.J. Smith is indicating that the Chargers are leaning toward keeping the first overall choice in the draft, which probably means they would exercise it on Eli Manning. But there are still suggestions not everyone in San Diego is totally sold on Manning and the Chargers are certain to have at least one offer -- we're guessing from the New York Giants -- for the top choice. Rumors have the Chargers moving down twice in the first round to amass much-needed additional choices for what figures to be a pretty extensive rebuilding job. But one trade-down, let alone a daily-double retreat, is difficult to accomplish in the NFL. The rumor: That the Chargers would trade with the Giants, so that New York could take Manning, and drop back to the No. 4 slot. From there, so the rumor goes, San Diego would trade down again, this time with Cleveland, so that the Browns could choose Iowa offensive tackle Robert Gallery. That would leave San Diego with the seventh overall choice in the first round and they would use it on North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers. All we can say is that you can tell it's getting close to draft time when such rumors begin swirling.

  • There is a school of thought that Oakland, with the second overall choice, will opt for either Gallery or Texas wide receiver Roy Williams, and either player would certainly fill a big need. But with the offense being installed by new coach Norv Turner, the Raiders might not be able to afford passing on a quarterback prospect. Turner has long favored a strong running game complemented by a vertical passing game and it's not certain, even if he returns whole from shoulder surgery, that the venerable Rich Gannon will be a good fit for such a design. At his best, Gannon is a touch passer, not a guy with a bazooka dangling from his right shoulder.

  • Assuming there are no deals (a pretty bad assumption), here is how one AFC general manager sees the top 10 in the draft: 1. San Diego, Manning; 2. Oakland, Roy Williams; 3. Arizona, Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald; 4. N.Y. Giants, Iowa left offensive tackle Robert Gallery; 5. Washington, either tight end Kellen Winslow or safety Sean Taylor, both of Miami; 6. Detroit, whichever Miami player Washington doesn't choose; 7. Cleveland, Southern Cal wide receiver Mike Williams, but likely trade down; 8. Atlanta, cornerback DeAngelo Hall, Virginia Tech; 9. Jacksonville, defensive end Will Smith, Ohio State; 10. Houston, defensive end Kenchi Udeze, Southern Cal.

  • Darrell Russell
    Russell
    He can massage the salary cap better than most anyone else in the league and, during his long tenure with the Oakland Raiders, Bruce Allen was infamous for keeping a stash of reworked contracts in his desk drawer until he needed to officially file them with the NFL to create spending room. But in his new role as Tampa Bay Bucs general manager, Allen demonstrated at this week's league meetings that football and politics, indeed, make for strange bedfellows. In explaining why the Bucs would sign troubled defensive tackle Darrell Russell, a deal that literally has been in the works since one minute after the free agent signing period commenced on March 3, offered this lame rationale: "Bill Clinton did a lot worse things than Darrell Russell." Well, folks, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, and the Bucs have a right to sign Russell, even though he's been suspended twice in three years (once for 18 months) for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy and was once a suspect in a rape-related case in which charges were eventually dropped. But to resort to partisan politics, just to cover their butt for a dubious addition, well, the Bucs might want to rethink this one. Maybe it's time owner Malcolm Glazer came out of his cave long enough to review the comments of his new henchman. Allen's brother, George Allen, is the Republican senator from Virginia. His father, the late Hall of Fame coach George Allen Sr., once allowed President Richard Nixon to diagram a play for the Super Bowl. So, uh, you think Bruce Allen might lean a little to the right? There's an old saying about people who live in glass houses. An agent before he moved to the other side of the football tracks, Allen might have left behind a few skeletons, too. As to the suggestions that Russell is just another guy getting a second chance, well, he got his second chance last year with the Washington Redskins. How serious was he about getting his career back on track? He was suspended for the season finale, by a franchise that bought into his rehabilitative rhetoric, after missing a team meeting. By the way, the Bucs paid Russell a minimum base salary of $535,000, with no signing bonus, and not the $685,000 figure previously reported.

  • According to several owners, there was a strange scene Monday at the opening general session of the league meetings, held in Palm Beach, Fla. Typical of the first session, NFL Films prepared a 15-minute retrospective of the preceding season, reliving highlights from the year. The final clip was a replay of the touchdown catch by Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Nathan Poole, the last-second score in the season finale, the play which knocked the Minnesota Vikings out of the playoffs and catapulted Green Bay into a postseason berth. As the screen faded to black, and Paul Tagliabue began walking to the podium to deliver his opening remarks, Vikings owner Red McCombs began to heckle the commissioner in a pretty loud voice. At first, some of McCombs' peers thought his badgering was intended as a joke. But as it wore on, with McCombs offering the same complaint he has often suggested, that Poole only had one foot inbounds and that the score should not have counted, it became apparent he was serious. Owners said that the commissioner, demonstrating either great aplomb or the need for a hearing aid device, simply ignored McCombs' rant. By the time Tagliabue reached the podium, the Vikings owner had finally quieted down, and the commissioner proceeded with his remarks.

  • New York Jets officials seem confident that wide receiver Wayne Chrebet, who has been participating in the club's offseason conditioning program, will rebound from the repeat concussions that plagued him in 2003 and limited the nine-year veteran to just seven appearances. But as first noted by crack beat reporter Rich Cimini of the New York Daily News, team executives have reworked Chrebet's contract to provide a bit of a cap relief if he isn't sufficiently recovered or experiences more concussion problems. Chrebet, who figures to be the No. 3 wide receiver behind starters Santana Moss and the recently acquired Justin McCareins, agreed to reduce his 2004 base salary from $2.8 million to $1.5 million. Perhaps just as significant as the salary cut, the two sides have included a "split" contract component, which stipulates Chrebet would be paid a salary of just $500,000 if he is placed on the injured reserve list because of a concussion. The "split" clause rider does not apply to any other injury. The team also guaranteed $500,000 of Chrebet's base salary, meaning the Jets are liable for that amount even if the cagey wide receiver does not make the team. Chrebet's contract, signed in 2002, runs through the 2008 season. No season beyond 2004 was affected by the restructuring. By the way, Moss, coming off a breakthrough '03 campaign, is seeking to upgrade his contract. Agent Drew Rosenhaus recently initiated talks with Jets officials but nothing is imminent.

  • Amani Toomer
    Toomer
    The other New York wide receiver who re-did his contract this week, Amani Toomer of the Giants, netted nearly $5.9 million in so-called "new money" by extending his deal. Under his former contract, which ran through 2006, Toomer was due roughly $14.8 million, including $4.4 million in total compensation for 2004. The Giants instead negotiated a new five-year contract, through 2008, and the value is $20.66 million. For the new contract, which saves the Giants just over $2 million on their '04 salary cap, Toomer banked an $8 million signing bonus. His base salaries are $660,000 (for 2004), $1.9 million (2005), $2.4 million (2006), $2.85 million (2007) and $3.1 million (2008). There is a $250,000 reporting bonus for '05 and roster bonuses of $500,000 each for the 2006-2008 seasons. The total cap savings for the Giants 2004-2006 is $4.2 million.

  • Talk about a tumble: Three weeks ago, James Thrash was a starting wide receiver in Philadelphia, and then the Eagles signed Terrell Owens. That not only knocked Thrash way down the depth chart but also precipitated a trade, to Washington, along with a pretty dramatic pay cut. Thrash was to have earned base salaries of $1.6 million and $2 million in the final two years of his contract. But he agreed to extend the deal in Washington and didn't exactly come away with a bonanza. He got $500,000 upfront but his base salary for '04 dropped to $660,000. The total, $1.16 million, represents a 27.5 percent cut for '04. His base in 2005 is $665,000, with a $100,000 roster bonus, or 60 percent cut from what he was scheduled to make. In the extension years, he will make $1 million (in 2006) and $1.3 million (2007), but will probably be released by then and never see that money.

  • Punts: Veteran wide receiver Antonio Freeman, who rejected a Tampa Bay offer, hopes to catch on with a team (San Francisco?) soon, so that he can participate in the offseason minicamps. The last two seasons, Freeman hasn't signed until late, and feels he missed something by not getting in the usual spring work. … Seattle officials may be prepared to start contract extension discussions with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who is coming off a breakout season. The Seahawks have also interviewed former Bucs executive John Idzik for their vacancy as cap manager and chief negotiator. … Backup quarterback Jarious Jackson has declined suggestions by Denver coaches that he move to safety and will instead be released in coming days.… Broncos standout linebacker John Mobley, still rehabilitating from a back/neck problem, has not yet been cleared to participate in the team's offseason workouts. … As noted here last week, the Falcons still want to add a young backup quarterback, but might wait until June to see who is released leaguewide. The acquisition of Ty Detmer was designed to fill the team's No. 3 spot and to provide another tutor for Michael Vick. … Stung by the decision of free agent Brandon Short to sign in Carolina, the Minnesota Vikings continue to look for a linebacker in free agency.

  • The last word: "Of course, it gives me pause. Sometimes, it stops me in my tracks. Sometimes, I get up in the middle of the night and jump out of bed yelling." -- Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, on the $34.5 million signing bonus Indianapolis paid to Peyton Manning, and how it might impact future negotiations with Michael Vick.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.