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August 18, 2010
The nation's leading active FBS career rusher stands only 5 feet 5 and has lived his entire life with just one kidney.
So one more obstacle isn't about to slow him down, even if it's the toughest one yet.
Kent State's Eugene Jarvis didn't realize he was born with one kidney until he lacerated it last season. He now is back on the field for one final season of college football, knowing full well the risks inherent in his situation.
Whether Jarvis maintains his status as the nation's most prolific rusher, he already has made a convincing argument that he's the toughest.
"I know there are going to be doubts and question marks about whether I can still do the same thing, whether I can still be how I was two years ago," Jarvis said. "I just use that as motivation."
Jarvis always has found a way to overcome his physical limitations because he never understood why his lack of size should keep him from reaching his goals. After all he's accomplished, he wanted the chance to end his college career on his terms. He sure didn't want his last college football memory to be that painful moment last fall at Boston College.
Jarvis said he was running a draw play when he suffered the hit that could have ended his career. At the time, though, he didn't realize the significance of the blow.
"I thought it might be a bruise," Jarvis said, "so I just kept on playing."
The gravity of the situation didn't become apparent until Jarvis used the bathroom at halftime. Kent State coach Doug Martin happened to walk by shortly afterward and noticed blood in the urinal.
"He tried to tell me, 'I'm OK. I'm OK,' " Martin recalled. "I took him to the trainer myself. He wanted to play."
For a while, it seemed as though Jarvis was through playing for rest of his life.
Jarvis suffered the double-whammy of learning that he had the most serious injury of his career while also discovering that he had only one kidney. One out of every 750 people is born with only one kidney, the National Kidney Foundation says.
"At first, I was scared to death," Jarvis said. "I'd never been out for a whole season before and I didn't know if it was going to affect my career overall. I was real nervous and scared."
That nervousness soon was replaced by frustration. While Kent State played out the season and finished 5-7, Jarvis couldn't even cheer on his teammates from the sideline. His recovery process included months of bed rest that weakened his body and his spirit.
"He couldn't do anything strenuous," said Jarvis' mother, Lela Leonard. "He just had to sit and look at the computer, play video games or just focus on the scores. He was very upset that he couldn't do anything.
"That wasn't him. He was so used to playing football. He was devastated."
The NCAA offered some relief by granting Jarvis a sixth year of eligibility, but that left him with the toughest choice of his life. Now that Jarvis knew he had just one kidney - one that had just been lacerated, no less - did he want to continue playing football?
Martin said doctors have told him that the only way Jarvis risks further damage is if the kidney is lacerated again.
Ohio State tight end Spencer Smith also was born with only one kidney. The list of NFL players with one kidney includes Arizona Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Baltimore Ravens defensive end Paul Kruger. Rodgers-Cromartie was born with a non-functioning kidney that was removed when he was 8. Kruger lost a kidney and his spleen after a Jeep rolled over him at the age of 13.
"We just let him know the risk is there - like there is for any injury. There is the chance that he could lacerate it again," said Pamela Long, the football athletic trainer for Kent State. "But we're taking every precaution to make sure it doesn't happen."
To that end, Kent State officials acquired a custom-made shirt that Jarvis will wear under his jersey. The shirt includes foam padding that runs from his breastbone to his hip. Inside the shirt, Kent State officials can slide in a plastic piece that also goes from the breastbone to hip in an effort to provide additional protection for Jarvis' kidney. Jarvis has been fully cleared to continue playing.
Martin compares Jarvis' "shirt" to the vests quarterbacks wear to shield their ribs, though he noted that Jarvis' padding isn't quite as bulky.
Even so, the safe move for Jarvis would be to call it quits.
"I said, 'If you were my son, I'd advise you not to play,' " Martin acknowledged. "He was hearing none of that. He was very adamant he was going to play. He just wanted it to be his decision."
Jarvis can't imagine life without football.
"I know football's a sport and you can only do it for so long, and you want to be good and healthy when you get older," he said. "But at the same time, my family knows football is what I do. It's what I like doing. Take football away from me, and it's going to be tough on me. They understood the decision."
The past few years already had taught Jarvis' family plenty about the importance of living every moment to the fullest. Jarvis' mother suffered a stroke in May 2008. Even as his mom recovered several months later, Jarvis could sense something different about her. She wasn't answering questions as quickly as before and there were delays in her speech patterns.
He finally talked his grandmother into taking his mom back to the hospital, where doctors found water on her brain and had to perform surgery.
Leonard believes her son's foresight saved her life. She attributes her current health in part to the efforts of her son and daughter, Bianca, who took time out from their college coursework to help her recover.
"I wouldn't be here today [otherwise]," Leonard said. "He knows his mom. It was a blessing. I didn't realize my son knew that much about me. I was in denial. I was saying, 'I'm OK. I'm OK.' "
Leonard since has recovered to the point that she plans to leave her Pittsburgh residence to attend each of Kent State's home games. As he stages his comeback, Jarvis uses his mother's example as inspiration.
"She's what keeps me going every day," Jarvis said. "I see what she's been through and how she's overcome that. Now her son has to overcome something as well."
As the shortest player in the starting lineup of any FBS program, Jarvis has spent his whole life overcoming skepticism.
An analysis of FBS rosters across the nation reveals only four players shorter than Jarvis: Western Michigan running back Dareyon Chance, Kansas State wide receiver Adam Repass-Orduna, Kansas State running back Robert Rose and South Carolina tailback Bryce Sherman. Each is 5-4 and none is expected to crack the starting lineup this season, though Sherman could serve as one of the Gamecocks' main kick returners. Several other players across the nation also are 5-5, but Jarvis is the only projected starter in that group.
Jarvis' mom is 5-2 and his dad is 5-8, so there was little reason for him to believe that he'd ever grow up to play major-college football. But he never stopped dreaming big.
"I've heard I'm too small to play, that I won't be able to pick up blitzes, that I can't do this or that because I'm not 6-3 or 230 [pounds],'' Jarvis said. "I put that in the back of my mind."
Jarvis rushed for 2,196 yards and 38 touchdowns as a high school senior in 2004 to lead Pittsburgh Central Catholic to a Class 4A state championship. In '07, he rushed for a school-record 1,669 yards - shattering Kent State's previous school record by more than 300 yards - and ranked fifth in the nation at 139.1 rushing yards per game.
He has run for 3,426 career yards and has caught 70 passes for 743 more yards. When BYU's Harvey Unga decided to withdraw from school last spring, it left Jarvis with the most career rushing yards of any active FBS player.
Health problems have prevented Jarvis from matching the production of that standout sophomore season. He rushed for 801 yards and nine touchdowns while battling an ankle injury in 2008, and he got hurt in the second game last season.
He now is eager to make up for lost time. After working out with the team on a limited basis during spring practice, he has resembled the Jarvis of old this summer.
"You really can't tell any difference at all," Martin said. "He looks like the same player he's always been."
If Jarvis can stay healthy all year, he has a chance to end his career as one of the greatest players in the history of Kent State's football program. He needs to rush for 564 more yards to break the school career record held by Astron Whatley, who ran for 3,989 yards from 1994-97.
But he's not thinking about personal records. Jarvis is more focused on ending his career with the bowl bid that has eluded him so far. Kent State went 6-6 when Jarvis was a redshirt freshman in 2006, but the Flashes haven't posted a winning record since 2001 and haven't earned a bowl bid since 1972. The only FBS program with a longer drought is New Mexico State, which hasn't gone bowling since 1960.
"The most important thing is winning," Jarvis said. "I've been here six years and only had the one season where we went 6-6. I want to get over that - have a winning season and have a bowl game."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.