By Cory Mccartney
April 05, 2010

Lela Leonard can't help but be nervous.

She'd grown accustomed to the punishment football could inflict on her son's body during his days as a pee wee player in Pittsburgh and a star running back at Central Catholic and Kent State. But that changed last fall when Eugene Jarvis lacerated a kidney, and tests revealed the injured kidney was the only one he possessed. With Jarvis recently medically cleared to participate in spring practice, Leonard fears for her son's safety.

"Just everything that he's gone through, it's frightening to me," Leonard said.

The hit came Sept. 12, 2009, against Boston College. Jarvis took the handoff on a draw play in the second quarter and bounced off-tackle toward the Alumni Stadium sideline. As an Eagles defender grabbed his legs, he was hit by three more players, one of whom Jarvis recalls hitting him square in the side. At the time, the Golden Flashes' 5-foot-5, 170-pound jitterbug of a back chalked up the pain to nothing more than a bruise.

"I stood up and I felt like something was wrong with my side," he said. "I thought maybe it was a bruise or something like that, so I kept playing."

Coach Doug Martin went looking for the fifth-year senior at halftime and discovered him in the bathroom, urinating blood. Martin sought out the trainers and, despite Jarvis' pleas to play, kept him out for precautionary measures. "It was my last season and I didn't want any setback or anything like that," Jarvis said. "But at the same time, I wasn't using my head. I'm glad Coach did happen to see that."

When the team returned to Kent State that night, Jarvis was still in pain. He called teammates Brian Lainhart and Cobrani Mixon at 10 p.m. and told them he had to get to the hospital. A CT scan revealed a cut on Jarvis' right kidney, and another startling truth: Jarvis was among the one-in-750 Americans born each year with just one kidney, according to Congressional Kidney Caucus estimates.

The laceration wasn't severe enough to require surgery, but doctors prescribed 12 weeks of bed rest. That meant no more running, no more lifting, no more football that season.

"It just felt like the walls were coming in on me," Jarvis said. "At first, I wanted to know how long I was out for [that] season. Then he gave me a look as if I was done for the whole season. Then it really hit me, like 'OK, well what am I going to do? Am I ever going to play again, ever?'"

As Leonard looked at her only son, lying in a hospital bed distraught, her thoughts drifted back to her own fight. A year before, she and Jarvis were in a room not so different from the one they now occupied at Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna, Ohio. Leonard suffered a stroke in 2008, and the ensuing brain surgery required a lengthy recovery. Throughout that battle, Jarvis was there to care for Leonard and help her return to normal life. Back in 2009, with her son's football life in doubt, Leonard drew on her own triumph to deliver a message.

"Eugene, you saw a miracle happen to me," she recalled telling Jarvis. "I had a stroke, I had brain surgery and look at me now. I overcame it. God is by our side and he'll pull you through this and he'll make you be the best you can be. Mommy made it; you're going to make it."

Leonard joined her son at Kent, where Jarvis rested his body for three-plus months. For someone accustomed to the daily grind of being a Division I athlete, it felt like serving a sentence. To pass the time, Jarvis watched TV, read -- appropriately, he received another story of faith in the face of unexpected turmoil, Tony Dungy's Quiet Strength -- and received visits from his sister, aunts and an uncle. He stayed in constant contact with Martin and his teammates. He did anything to keep his mind busy. "I needed them and that pretty much kept a lot of attention off me thinking about football," Jarvis said.

Despite staying occupied, there were times Jarvis couldn't help but let his mind wander. When the Flashes were at practice, he'd think of what drills they were running, what gameplans they were installing. But more than anything, he dreamt of his return.

"I was just preparing for the future," Jarvis said. "If I got my year back? What was I going to do if I didn't? I was pretty much just planning my next move."

Immediately after the injury, Kent State had petitioned the NCAA for Jarvis to receive a sixth year of eligibility for a medical hardship. He had already exhausted his redshirt in 2005, when an error in the reporting of his high school grades led to his being declared academically ineligible as a true freshman. All he could do was await word from the NCAA and let his body heal.

On Feb. 14, Jarvis got his wish, receiving another year of eligibility. But he still had to convince his mom and coach that it was worth returning from a potentially life-threatening injury.

"My first talk with Eugene was 'If you were my son, I would not want you to play,'" Martin said. Jarvis understood the risks, but persisted. He was determined to return to the field.

Leonard and Martin ultimately threw their support behind Jarvis, who plans on wearing a rib-cage protector this season. After seeing Jarvis participate in the team's winter lifting and conditioning programs, Martin is no longer concerned about Jarvis' physical state after the layoff. "He looks like he always did," the coach said.

It remains to be seen if he can run like he always did. Jarvis believes he can be as good as or better than he was when he ranked fifth in the nation in 2007, averaging 139.1 yards per game. After amassing 3,426 yards in three seasons, he needs just 563 to pass Astron Whatley as Kent State's all-time leading rusher.

"I definitely can see that," Jarvis said. "I just have to work that much harder to get to where I want to get to. I know I have another opportunity and I want to make the most out of it as possible."

That includes making a run at presumptive MAC East favorite Temple, and, more importantly, ending the Flashes' 37-year bowl drought, the second-longest in the nation behind New Mexico State, at 49.

If Jarvis returns to his previous form, or something close to it, it will add another dimension to an offense that had to retool in his absence. With the diminutive back as the focal point of its offense, Kent State ranked 97th in passing offense in 2006, 111th in '07 and 98th in '08. But Jarvis' injury sped up the development of freshman quarterback Spencer Keith (who averaged 313.7 yards per game over his last four starts), freshman receiver Tyshon Goode (14.2 yards per reception) and junior wideout Kendrick Pressley (14.3).

"If they can do the same thing they did last year and add me to the mix, we can be a tough offense," Jarvis said.

On Sept. 2, Jarvis will run on to the Dix Stadium turf against Murray State. Those torturous months of bed rest will be long in the past. Leonard will be in the stands, as she always is for her son's games. By then, she expects she'll feel something far different than the apprehension she's currently experiencing.

"There will be an excitement," she said, "just to be able to see him overcome all the obstacles that have been in his way."

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