DENVER (AP) Patrick Mertens' NFL dream was delayed by, of all things, a mosquito bite.
Fishing in a creek in 2011, Mertens suffered a bite that he didn't even feel at the time but which leveled the 6-foot-5, 290-pound defensive tackle from the University of Wyoming.
It left him partially paralyzed, sapped his strength, stole his stamina, whittled 75 pounds off his frame, forced him to the sideline his sophomore season and left him with tingling in his hands for a couple of years.
It also provided him the chance to prove his mettle as one of the toughest players in the country.
Mertens, who bounced back from a devastating year of physical maladies to play in 36 games for the Cowboys over the last three seasons, is hoping to hear either his name called on NFL draft weekend or his phone buzzing afterward with teams wanting him as an undrafted free agent.
Mertens started 42 games and played in 48 during his college career, which included a sixth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA last season, one in which he burnished his credentials and opened the possibility of some teams also looking at him as an offensive tackle.
It was at times a rough road for the 24-year-old from Sterling, Colorado, who was bitten while fishing in a creek on a cool spring day in 2011, leaving him with West Nile virus.
''I thought I just had a really bad sinus infection and I couldn't swallow so good and gosh, my ears hurt so bad,'' Mertens recounted. ''I was just kind of lethargic. That lasted for about 10 days and that started to get better and then I got pneumonia a few days after that because I hadn't been doing a whole lot.''
A few days later, he came down with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body's immune system attacks one's nerves, leading to temporary paralysis and leaving its victims with lingering weakness, numbness and fatigue for months or even years.
In Mertens' case, he couldn't walk for a few days or even smile as his face froze.
''Oh, I didn't even think about football there for about six months. I was just focused on getting back healthy and just being able to live more of a life again,'' Mertens said.
His recovery was a slow, steady one.
''They said you'll notice symptoms for a year, but your recovery time's three years,'' Mertens said. ''All my strength and speed and stuff came back relatively quick, six to eight months. My stamina kind of struggled there from anywhere from a year to maybe two years. But right now I'm 100 percent. I don't notice anything.''
Mertens lost about 75 pounds during the ordeal.
''I remember when he came back that fall and I saw him and I was like, `Whoa!' He looked like a normal person at 215, like what a lot of people are supposed to look like,'' said his position coach, Pete Kaligis. ''It was a little scary at the time for him and his parents and then to take that year off and to get his weight back and his strength back, that tells you right there the type of work ethic that he has.''
There are certainly more talented players, more hyped prospects and higher profile names in this year's collection of college stars who are about to cash in during draft weekend. Yet, you'd be hard-pressed to find a tougher one than Mertens, suggested Kaligis.
''You talk about resiliency. To me, resiliency is toughness. And he has toughness,'' Kaligis said.
If his NFL hopes don't pan out, Mertens plans to put his degree in agricultural business to use.
His love for the outdoors hasn't waned, and neither has his affinity for fishing.
''Oh yeah, I still do all that,'' said Mertens, who these days packs along with his rod and tackle box a can of mosquito repellant.
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