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True Grit

When Princeton running back Jordan Culbreath fell ill with a rare disease, everyone gave up on his return—except him. Read his inspiring story of courage and conviction.

Inspiring story of Jordan Culbreath battling aplastic anemia

Pre-season practice is tough for any college football player, but Princeton running back Jordan Culbreath had never experienced anything like this. During the run-up to the 2009 season, he staggered through conditioning drills he’d shrugged off a year before. His head throbbed. Sometimes his gums bled without him even being hit. Always, he felt chilled.

Culbreath never said a word to his coaches or the team physician. Whatever it was, he’d tough it out. He’d begun his Princeton career as a walk-on and was now co-captain. “I’m a football player,” he told The New York Times. “It’s part of me and my identity.”

He lasted till the second game of the season, when he hobbled off the field with a twisted ankle. The team trainer noticed blood dripping from his mouth. The team doctor ran blood tests and immediately sent him to the hospital. Culbreath had aplastic anemia, a rare disease that impedes the production of red blood cells. It makes clotting difficult and football, life threatening.

No one expected Culbreath to return. Why would he? He possesses a brilliant scientific and mathematical mind. A mechanical and aerospace engineer major, he co-invented a cold water treatment tub that cut down the football team’s reliance on ice.

But Culbreath was determined to play. “Getting back on that field for me is about not allowing that illness to beat me,” he told the Times.

He trained on his own for almost a year, never telling his teammates of his plan. In August, he showed up at training camp. By September he’d regained his starting job as running back.

Turns out, simply returning to the field wasn’t good enough. His second game this season, Culbreath scored the winning touchdown in double-overtime against Lafayette. “No matter how bad [things get], you get back up and keep pushing forward,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I knew it’s what would get me ahead in life and now, in my recovery.”

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