Derrick Burns was entering the prime of his college football career. He had just completed his second year at Pitt and was in contention for the starting fullback job after spring practice ended in April. He also had rediscovered his love for the game after two difficult years under former coaches Todd Graham and Dave Wannstedt.
Then, in an instant, it was all taken away.
Burns suffered a stroke May 22 and spent the next few days fighting for his life before making what his doctors termed a miraculous recovery.
Burns could consider himself to be unlucky. He could feel sorry for himself that his football career that was about to take off was abruptly cut short.
But, after five months of digesting his new reality, Burns believes the opposite is true. He believes he is blessed and views the brain injury that changed his life as a new beginning.
Burns, 20, is now directing his energies toward helping people who survived strokes and other brain injuries. He is enrolled as a full-time student at Pitt and remains on athletic scholarship, but he spends much of his free time volunteering for the American Stroke Association and other organizations. He recently shared his story at an American Stroke Association convention downtown, and workers with the organization were so impressed they asked him to become a spokesperson.
"My whole life I've been searching for something I can do to help impact the world," said Burns, who grew up in New Wilmington in Lawrence County. "The stroke, this is something I can take and mold it into something. I realized I can change the lives of so many people who don't look at the world as the respectful, nice, beautiful, amazing place that it is. You really only do live once. God chose to spare my life and help me understand what this world is really about, so I can share everything I learned and help other people."
Burns knows from experience that brain injuries can produce tragic outcomes. Clint DeRosa, his friend and former teammate at Wilmington High School, died of a brain aneurysm when he was a freshman defensive tackle at Waynesburg University in April 2010. The injury Burns suffered could have been just as serious.
UPMC neurosurgeons discovered two blood clots the size of quarters in his brain and told his parents that surgery was too risky. Instead, they prescribed medication in hopes of dissolving the clots.
The prognosis was not encouraging. Even if the medication worked, they told Dan and Cindy Burns that their son would have permanent brain damage and were not sure if the paralysis on his right side would remain.
So, when Derrick Burns walked out of the hospital four days later, his doctors were more than surprised. Dr. L. Dade Lunsford, a UPMC neurosurgeon, sat at the foot of Burns' bed on the day he was discharged and asked Cindy: "Do you know how fortunate your son is?"
"It's a total miracle that he's alive," Cindy Burns said. "He had two massive blood clots on his brain. You don't survive that."
The only explanation doctors could give Burns was that his youth and his excellent physical condition were factors in his quick recovery.
"They put me on Heparin, which is a really strong blood thinner," Burns said. "The first day I was on it they saw progress. I was still in pain, but I could function. Each day, my right side would get stronger and stronger. They would hold my arm or leg up and ask me to hold it there. It would fall down, but then I would hold it back up. People who have strokes, that's not supposed to happen right away. Within a week, I could walk and I had full mobility. On my charts, the doctor said I had a miraculous recovery."
Burns had severe headaches for days before his stroke. A few weeks after spring practice concluded, he returned to Pitt for offseason workouts with his teammates. That's when the headaches came on strong. He went to UPMC for tests. An MRI, CAT scan and spinal tap did not detect anything. He was diagnosed with migraines and sent home.
But the headaches persisted, and Burns became so debilitated that he called his mother and asked her to make the hour-long drive to Pitt to pick him up. Meanwhile, Burns couldn't get DeRosa out of his mind.
"He was having these headaches just like me," Burns said. "He told his mom, just like I did. He was a tough guy. He was a strong guy. One of my good friends found him in his room. He died in his sleep. That was on my mind 24-7. Anytime I would get a headache, I would wonder is something wrong."
Cindy Burns took her son to their family doctor in Wilmington. He was given prescription medicine, but, when that didn't take the pain away, Burns begged his mother to take him to the emergency room.
"He couldn't even sit up when we got there," Cindy Burns said. "They didn't have a bed for him. All they gave him was a wheelchair. He was slumped over in the wheelchair. I had to take him outside and let him lie down on the sidewalk."
Doctors at UPMC Horizon in Farrell prescribed morphine for the pain and sent him home again. The morphine took the pain away, and Burns was able to sleep that night. He was awakened the next morning by a phone call from Charles Small, the assistant director of Pitt's Life Skills program. He was calling to check up on Burns to see how he was doing.
"There was a period there that was really intense when I didn't know if I was going to live or die," Burns said. "I knew I was sick, but I was too drugged up to realize what was going on."
The stroke did not end Burns' football career. Doctors told him he would have to sit out the 2012 season, but there was a chance he could play again. In the process of his recovery, however, doctors discovered two rare genetic disorders that would make a return to the game too dangerous.
Burns has Factor V Leiden gene mutation, which increases a person's risk of developing a blood clot. He also has Lupus Anticoagulant Syndrome, which also causes a disruption in a person's ability to control blood clotting. Both are rare in men, especially black men.
Burns is part African American, part Native American and part white. He was born in the Hill District and adopted along with his older brother, Chris, when he was 2 years old. Chris also played running back at Pitt before transferring to Massachusetts, where he is finishing his career.
"I never really understood what happened until I got to school and started dealing with the withdrawal from football," Burns said. "Then, I had time to sit down and actually think that 'Wow, I'm actually done. I'm not going to play football again.' "
Burns is thankful for one thing. In the BBVA Compass Bowl against SMU after last season, he got to play for the first and only time in college. The Panthers lost, 28-6, but Burns looks back on the experience with satisfaction.
"I got to play on special teams," he said. "I was on kick-return and punt. Just being on the field was amazing, when thousands of people are watching you at the stadium and on television. I remember the first kickoff, Buddy Jackson received it and almost took it back. I got to hit someone for the first time in a real game, and I knocked him down. I'm glad I actually got to step on the field before this happened."
Football wasn't much fun for Burns last season. Like many young players getting their first taste of college football, he quickly recognized the business aspect of the sport and got mentally worn down from the stress that goes along with playing in a Division I program. He wondered why he couldn't get on the field, and he didn't have good relationships with Graham or his coaches.
Things started to change when Paul Chryst was hired last winter. Burns had a love affair with the game in high school. He played on Wilmington's 2008 Class AA PIAA championship team. He was living the dream when he accepted a scholarship to Pitt in 2010.
Once Chryst arrived from Wisconsin, Burns said football became fun again.
"That's what made it so hard," Burns said. "Not until Paul Chryst got here did I ever have fun playing college football. I love this coach. It hurts even more knowing that I can't play for him because he's such a great guy.
"The coaches in the past really didn't have things together. It wasn't stable around here. Since he's been here, he's tried to get more in touch with players and be more understanding. The whole trust thing is coming back together. Before he came, we didn't have trust for anyone. It's really nice seeing the players and how they act with the coaches. There's no other guy who I would rather play for. Ever."
Chryst was among the first people to arrive at the hospital and sat with Dan and Cindy while they waited to hear from doctors.
"That was a scary sequence of events," Chryst said. "Obviously, I don't know if he knew it at the time, but he was well-equipped to handle it because of his family and his faith. He's come over and we've had a chance to see him lately. We're thankful when we see him. And he gets all that. That's pretty neat. His spirit is pretty neat."
For a long time, Burns couldn't bring himself to attend practices or games. It just didn't feel right. It was too soon.
More recently, he has been a regular visitor to the UPMC South Side facility. He finally watched the Panthers play on television for the first time Oct. 5 when they played at Syracuse.
"For someone who loved football as much as me, who thought about football every single day, it's hard to deal with that," Burns said. "But I've learned to accept it and put things in my life in perspective. There is so much more than getting a little fulfillment for a few years from being at a Division I school or even going to the NFL. I understand that now.
"This has made me want to be a better person. I always wanted to get fulfillment out of life. Football wasn't cutting it, so God was telling me I'm going to close this door and open up another one for you. It doesn't mean my life is over. It's just another part of my life.
"It's still difficult. That's what I want people to realize. I tell people I'm happy, but it's still difficult to know that something I did my whole life is done."
Other than taking the blood-thinner Coumadin for the rest of his life, Burns has almost no limitations, except being restricted from contact sports.
In addition to volunteering with the American Stroke Association, Burns also is lending his time to Urban Impact, a local community outreach program. He also is involved in Pitt's Life Skills program and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which Burns said helped change his outlook on life after he attended a meeting his freshman year.
Burns does not know what his long-term plans are other than finishing school and getting his degree, but he is enjoying the volunteer work. It keeps him busy, and telling his story gives others hope.
Chryst only knew Burns for five months before he suffered the stroke, but it is clear he made an impact on him. Chryst is in the midst of his first season, one where he is attempting to rebuild the program, but Burns' story has buoyed his spirits throughout the year.
"We shouldn't need reminders to how fragile life is, but, unfortunately, we get them," Chryst said. "That's why you're so thankful for the way it's played out. It's a great example of a guy taking a perceived negative and turning it into an unbelievable positive."