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Florida coach Urban Meyer reveals ailment that led to leave of absence


DESTIN, Fla. -- We could have made things easier on Urban Meyer on Tuesday had we simply written one question on a chalkboard and asked him to write an essay. What did you do during your leave of absence?

For the record, the Florida football coach went to a lot of volleyball tournaments. He went to the Masters with one of his daughters. He and the family visited Rome -- with far less hilarious results than the Griswolds.

Best of all, Meyer got an answer.

Since his sudden resignation on Dec. 26 and his just-as-sudden change of heart on Dec. 27, Meyer's health has been front-page news. He has tried to guard his privacy, but that has led to even more speculation. So on Tuesday, the first day of the SEC's spring meetings, Meyer revealed the ailment that hampered him through the tail end of last season and prompted the episode that sent him to the hospital with chest pains early on the morning of Dec. 6.

Meyer said doctors diagnosed him with esophageal spasms, which, according to the Mayo Clinic Web site, are an uncoordinated series of muscle contractions that prevent food from traveling properly from the esophagus to the stomach. Intense chest pain is a common symptom. Meyer said doctors immediately prescribed medication to prevent the spasms after diagnosing him, and that he hasn't had an episode since late January.

The pain -- combined with a fear of the unknown -- severely affected Meyer's quality of life as the Gators attempted to win a second consecutive national title in 2009, he said. "The physical pain, that was the part -- especially near the end of the season," Meyer said Tuesday. "And then to have someone say, 'Well, we're not quite sure.' Some friends I know have dealt with some issues, too, so that's very humbling. When they say, 'This is it. Take this.' OK, let's go."

Meyer said the spasms felt like "waking up every morning with a toothache in your chest for the last three years." Besides medication, Meyer can help manage the spasms by avoiding intense stress. That hasn't exactly been Meyer's strong suit. "I've just got to be smarter in the future," Meyer said. "And I'm going to be. I'm not going to let that happen again."

So Meyer has attempted to delegate more. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio has been Meyer's stunt double on several occasions. Strength coach Mickey Marotti has convinced Meyer the offseason program is in capable hands. "I think I've got a better appreciation for the guys around me," Meyer said. "You just bolt for five days. I've never done that in my life. 'OK, you guys have got it. Handle it.' The stadium is still standing."

Meyer is taking the advice of dozens of coaching colleagues who have offered an ear and their wisdom. Meyer declined to name them, but he and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski have acknowledged that they spoke earlier this year. Krzyzewski, who won his fourth national title in April, altered his work hours after a back injury (1995) and two hip replacement surgeries (1999 and 2002), and he offered some advice that Meyer probably could have used before his December decision to resign put him under a more powerful microscope.

"The main thing I told him was not to make decisions while you're feeling that way -- to feel better and then make decisions," Krzyzewski said at the Final Four in April. Krzyzewski also joked that Meyer's most public incident -- a confrontation with Orlando Sentinel reporter Jeremy Fowler in March -- was evidence that Meyer was feeling much, much better. "I didn't call him to tell him about press relations about a month ago," Krzyzewski cracked, "but it showed me he may have had his vigor back."

The confrontation raised even more questions about Meyer's health and state of mind, but outside of the public venue, it was typical of the sometimes bumpy relationship between beat writers and the coaches they cover. There seemed to be no animosity on either end Tuesday when Fowler cordially asked Meyer a question and Meyer cordially answered.

So do the diagnosis and medicine mean Meyer will be back to his old self this season? That will depend on junior quarterback John Brantley and a host of new defensive starters, but Meyer seems excited about the Gators' chances. "That's a good-lookin' team," he said.

In a way, Meyer seemed relieved to close the book on last season, which began with one expectation -- a 14-0 season and a second consecutive national title -- and ended at 13-1 with no title and a laundry list of unanswered questions. "A year of nonsense," Meyer said. Moments after that comment, Nick Saban, the coach of defending national champ Alabama, walked into the room. Maybe Meyer passed Saban the nonsense torch. Of course, Saban calls nonsense "clutter."

Or maybe Meyer never will get away from the nonsense. Maybe he'll just have to keep trying to get better at dealing with it. Tuesday, someone mentioned Meyer's meeting with the Pope during his visit to Rome. Meyer laughed.

"Big Gator fan," Meyer said of the Pontiff with a twinkle in his eye. "Talked about third-down-and-six. No. I did not meet him."