CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina receiver Joshua Adams zipped down the sideline, pulled in a short pass, and grinned as if he had caught a game-winning touchdown.
It was only practice, a drill he had performed hundreds of times. But nine months ago, after being diagnosed with ANCA vasculitis, a rare autoimmune disorder that attacked his kidneys, he wondered if he would ever leave his hospital bed, much less put on his pads and return to the football field.
"There were a lot of people who said I would never play again ... and when things got bad, I would lay there and think, 'If I could catch a pass right now, I would be the happiest person alive,' " said Adams, a redshirt sophomore. "Getting back out there drove me, pushed me - and I'm more appreciative now, because you never know when it's going to be your last time on the field."
Adams, who is from Cambridge, Mass., isn't expected to play Saturday when North Carolina (5-1, 1-1 ACC) faces Miami (2-3, 0-2) at Kenan Stadium (12:30 p.m., WRAL). But now that his disease is in remission, he could appear in a game this season - something that has his teammates, coaches and even his doctors shaking their heads in wonder.
"You've got to understand that at the beginning of this thing, we thought that football would be icing on the cake ... if he got back to football, great,'' said Dr. Mario Ciocca, North Carolina's director of sports medicine. "The concern was for him, his life. There was a chance he wouldn't survive, a good chance that he would need a kidney transplant."
"Joshua loves football, so to have him come back and watch him do the thing he loves, it's a great feeling."
ANCA vasculitis is a type of autoimmune disorder in which abnormal antibodies attack one's own cells and tissues - in Adams' case, his kidneys. According to Dr. Ron Falk, Director of UNC's Kidney Center, the average age of someone diagnosed with it is 55, making Adams, 20, an extremely rare case.
Although one in nine people in North Carolina show evidence of kidney problems at some point in their lives, this illness didn't even have a name, much less a course of treatment, as recently as 25 years ago.
One of the keys to overcoming ANCA vasculitis is diagnosing it early. Adams said he feels lucky to have been in the right place, with the right doctors, "because not that long ago, if you got the disease, you would die."
Touch and go
After starting four games in 2010, including the Music City Bowl, Adams had returned to campus early in January to resume weight room workouts when he noticed blood in his urine. He had been feeling oddly fatigued the season before, something he and the football team's training staff attributed to physical games and hard workouts.
When tests revealed abnormal kidney function, Ciocca, the team's doctor, immediately sent Adams to his wife, Cynthia, a nephrologist in UNC's Kidney Center. That led to a visit with Falk, one of the foremost authorities in ANCA vasculitis.
"We were blessed that we were here in Chapel Hill ... where (Joshua) had access to Dr. Falk, who wrote the book on the disease," said Timothy Adams, Joshua's dad.
It was a touch-and-go challenge, though.
In and out of the hospital for months, Adams went through plasma replacement, through chemotherapy treatments.
At one point, he said he was taking upward of 16 pills a day, as he developed blood clots in his lungs and legs, gained weight - and then suffered a seizure.
He wasn't allowed to drive because of the drugs' side effects. He couldn't do anything that would bruise him, because of the blood thinners. He took antibiotics, steroids, and pills whose names he could barely pronounce.
He remembers one night he went to take a shower and was so confused he couldn't figure out how to turn on the water. Seeing him in the hospital, teammate Dwight Jones said, was heartbreaking. Teammates tried to comfort him with smiles and prayers.
"I kind of got depressed for a little while, and I thought of everything I'd done and everything I want to do. I want to ride a motorcycle, I want to bungee jump, I want to do a lot of fun things, because you don't know how long you're going to live," Adams said.
Back on track
Always, though, his goal was to return to the football field - a dream his teammates and coaches inspired every time they visited him in the hospital. His doctors and parents reinforced that as he was weaned off his medication and as he regained his strength.
"He needed the football as a point of reference to move forward, and not give up, and not let what was happening overwhelm him," said Timothy Adams, whose family had moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina the summer before. "He made it his goal to stay in school ... and every time he would fall down, he would get back up."
Most were smiling - albeit, a little nervously - when Joshua resumed working out during the summer. He returned to non-contact individual drills in August training camp, and by the second week of the season, doctors had cleared him for full practice.
"And that first day, when I got my first little pop (on a tackle) - it felt good," Adams said. "I felt so good to be back."
His teammates felt good for him as well.
"I used to see him out there, he'd have a little cool pack on. His body really couldn't get too hot," said Jones, a senior receiver. "He used to do a couple of individual drills. That was during training camp, and he never really did too much.
"Now he's doing a lot more. He's running routes on scout team, and I see him out there on scout team punts, and he looks like he's back at full speed."
There is no cure for ANCA vasculitis, and Falk cautions that like any disease in remission, it could return. Team doctors continue to perform weekly blood tests to monitor Adams' kidney functions, but when, and whether, he plays in a game this season is a matter of conditioning and roster space, rather than his disease.
"I just imagine myself out there every single time I watch the team - where I think I could make a play, a catch, something," Adams said. "Every day, I have visions of catching my first pass in a game, my first touchdown of the season."
He's not the only one. When Adams was at his most sick, and no one knew what might happen, Dr. Falk inspired his patient by telling him he knew he was going to catch a ball in the end zone during a game one day.
Adams, in turn, promised to give him the ball after he scores his first touchdown.
"And I have a feeling," Falk said, "I'm going to get it."
Staff writer Ken Tysiac contributed to this story.