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How Bruins’ Marcus Rios fought back from life-threatening illness

How Bruins’ Marcus Rios fought back from life-threatening illness
Marcus Rios has made a return the UCLA practice field and anticipates to play for the Bruins soon after being hospitalized for more than a month with a rare life-threatening disease known as Aspergillosis.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Marcus Rios ran into UCLA’s Spaulding Field practice facility for the first time in months on Tuesday. As he did, the sophomore cornerback glanced up at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center across the way.

“Any time I’m walking down Westwood Boulevard, I look up there,” Rios said. “I have been through a life-changing event. You have to remember.”

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Rios’ workouts were far different early this year, and the view he had was looking down from the medical center to the practice field.

Rios spent most of two months last winter and spring in the medical center fighting aspergillosis, an aggressive fungal infection. He was in constant pain and nearly blind in his left eye. He had dropped from 180 pounds to 130. After he was finally released, doctors told the family they hadn’t expected him to live.

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Twice a day, Richard Rios would help his son put on what was becoming a well-worn UCLA sweatshirt, careful to get it around the seven IVs. The two would begin a journey around the hospital floor. Marcus Rios started at five laps and built up to 16.

Rios doggedly insisted on doing his twice-daily “workouts” to prepare for the day he would return to the team.

“He’d tell me he was going to be the best IV walker ever,” Richard Rios said. “No one walking with IV bags was going to be better.”

He paused, and said, “I know he’s my son, and I’m biased, but Marcus is the strongest person I know.”

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One day, they passed an empty room that looked out on Spaulding Field. Rios asked to be moved to it.

“Within two minutes, it was done,” Richard Rios said. “He had lots of cheerleaders.”

Said Marcus Rios: “I could see the guys working out. It was comforting.”

The game

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Richard and Ivy Rios are a middle-income couple who try to give back. He is an electrical foreman. She is a substitute teacher. The family lives in Elk Grove, south of Sacramento, where they have fostered more than 40 kids, Richard Rios said.

They had hopes for their own children but didn’t have the money to send them to four-year colleges.

Sports was the way to get there. Martina Rios, Marcus’ twin sister, is a scholarship track and cross-country athlete at UC Riverside. Christopher Rios ran cross-country at Sacramento City College, where he now coaches while attending Sacramento State.

Football was the point-A-to-point-B path for Marcus. Except …

“Dad would only let me play flag football until high school,” Marcus Rios said. “I was too small.”

Turned loose as a freshman at Cosumnes Oak High, he said he went from the junior varsity to varsity after three days.

He was on his way.

“Anyone who asked him, he would say, ‘I’m going to play at a big college and then in the NFL,’” Richard Rios said. “His teachers would call us and say, ‘That’s all he talks about as a career.’”

Richard Rios said that after 30 scholarship offers, his son picked UCLA.

“That’s why I never doubted Marcus when he told me last winter that he would get back,” he said. “He was determined. We would always tell our kids, ‘We don’t fear anything.’ We had something put in front of us to test that.”

The pain

The headaches began before he left high school and got worse when he arrived early at UCLA for spring practice in 2012. Doctors told the family he had a sinus problem and prescribed medication.

It didn’t help.

“I was sleeping less and less,” Marcus Rios said. “It went from a normal night, to four hours to three to two. I had no appetite.”

His roommate, UCLA receiver Nate Iese, watched and agonized.

“I’ve known him since high school,” said Iese, who played at Elk Grove Sheldon High. “It was painful to watch. His parents would have to come down to bring him medicine or just come to keep him company.”

Still, Rios played nine games last season, did all his workouts and was prepared to start against Arizona. But the pain became too much.

He underwent surgery for a sinus infection in November, then had two more. There was no improvement. In fact, things got worse.

“A day or two after the last one, he called and said he was having trouble seeing out of his left eye,” Richard Rios said. “We had the trainers get him to the emergency room. We got there the next day, and he had surgery before we even arrived.”

His son would spend the next 26 days in the hospital, having three additional surgeries.

“They anticipated cancer,” Richard Rios said.

Doctors zeroed in on aspergillosis, a rare fungal infection usually linked to those with cancer or AIDS. It was rare in those who had been healthy, like Marcus Rios.

He said doctors considered more surgery when they discovered the infection had entered the base of his brain.

“The doctors were scared,” Marcus Rios said.

He wasn’t.

“I’m a Christian,” he said. “I have faith in God. If it’s my day, then it’s my day. I think that was good for me. People in that situation worry a lot. All that stress will kill you.”

Rios, through his one good eye, would see players working out at Spaulding Field. He was determined to get back there.

The surgeries and medication began to work.

“Never once did he say, ‘Dad, I don’t want to die,’” Richard Rios said. “What he did say was, ‘I’m going to be back on the field.’ We love football. That’s the thing we hang our hat on. It was some kind of goal. It wasn’t, ‘We’re getting back to math class.’”

The gain

Marcus Rios was released from the hospital March 26 but needed to inject medication into his system daily through a catheter, called a PICC line, in his arm.

Few outside that inner circle believed he would return.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Coach Jim Mora said. “I was under the assumption from what he had gone through that him playing this year was an absolute impossibility.”

But, he said, “Marcus is so determined. I hope other players recognize how much this game means to him.”

There was a setback when Rios overdid the training he was allowed this summer. The catheter remained and he could not play until it was removed.

“They said that would be December, if ever,” Richard Rios said.

The PICC line was removed two weeks ago. Marcus Rios had an MRI exam, which showed no infection. He will need regular checkups, but doctors cleared him to practice.

“I was ready to suit up as soon as the PICC line was out,” said Rios, who is back to 175 pounds. “Two weeks of lifting, put me on the field and let me show what I got.”

The Bruins’ game against Utah on Oct. 3 is a possibility, though Mora said, “We don’t want to put any undue pressure on him. Let’s see where we are on Sept. 23.”

Marcus Rios is marking the days.

“This is definitely happening,” he said.

His mind was made up, even back in the hospital.

“I was there with my dad, watching the NFL draft,” Rios said. “I could barely see, but I could hear it. With him being there and my mom being there, I stayed positive. I was going to play again.”

Said Richard Rios: “Call it his word, call it faith, he knew the day would come. The rest of us didn’t have a choice.”

Rios paused again, and said, “My wife and I feel like we’ve been given a million dollars.”

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes


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