A year ago, most Florida fans had never heard of Gainesville native David Lerner, who was a walk-on punter for the Gators.
However, a training camp battle with Crohn’s disease and a starting punting job changed all that in a hurry last fall for Lerner, who has continued to see awards pile up next to his name.
The 6-foot, 194-pound punter initially planned to hang up the cleats following the 2011 season, but he’ll return for another year for Florida after winning the Dick Schapp Sportsman of the Year Award for his efforts to raise awareness for Crohn’s disease.
Now he’s up for another award, the 2012 Uplifting Athlete Rare Disease Champion Award. He is one of four finalists, and the winner will be determined by online voting, which began on Feb. 1 and will continue until Feb. 26.
You can vote for Lerner here: http://www.upliftingathletes.org/take-action/rare-disease-champion
Lerner was also named to the 2011 Fall SEC Academic Honor Roll. He is majoring in sport management.
Below is a story that originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Gator Country Magazine. VIP subscribers to GatorCountry.com receive the magazine in the mail every month, and copies are available throughout Gainesville.
Toni Thorburn had never been an athlete or a runner. However, after running a 5K in September in Nashville, Tenn., she had her sights set on running a half marathon in Las Vegas in early December.
Instead, the symptoms of Crohn’s disease that have plagued the lifelong Florida fan since 1997 hit her extremely hard just a month before the race, wracking her insides with biting pain.
“I’ve just been kind of down lately, and haven’t been real sure if I was going to be able to complete this half-marathon and how I was going to get the strength to do it and trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel,” Thorburn said.
On Nov. 7, her phone lit up. One of her four brothers, Terry Moon, was on the line and told her to expect a very important phone call.
When Thorburn answered a call from an unknown number later that day, she was shocked to hear Gators punter David Lerner introduce himself on the other end.
Lerner, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in late July just before the Florida football team began fall camp, reached out to her to offer encouragement, and the two spent about 30 minutes on the phone.
“I told him a little bit about my story, and he shared a little bit of his story,” she said. “We talked about our doctors and our different situations and different medicines. It’s really kind of funny, we didn’t talk about football at all.”
The former walk-on punter from Gainesville lost about 15 pounds in late July over the course of about five days.
Hospitalized with the severe symptoms, it looked like Lerner’s career at Florida might be over before his final season even began.
He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, but, against all odds, Lerner was determined not to give up his spot on the football team, a spot he had worked hard for years to earn.
“When I found out that I had Crohn’s, I was kind of upset and a little depressed and a little emotional,” Lerner said. “People in the Gator Nation reached out to me.”
Within days of his diagnosis, several teammates, head coach Will Muschamp and dozens of Florida fans had offered him their support.
Despite having days that he had trouble getting out of bed and walking around campus, Lerner managed to fight through his Crohn’s to win Florida’s starting punting job.
More than anything, Lerner credits his ability to battle the brutal Gainesville heat and the sometimes torturous gastrointestinal pain to other people with the disease who reached out to him.
“What I’ve kind of learned over the last couple months is having this disease is almost like having your own little fraternity,” he said. “People that have it stick together and they support each other, because we all just kind of know what each other is going through.”
So when Moon reached out and explained his sister’s situation, Lerner knew exactly what she was going through.
Moon only wanted Lerner to shoot Thorburn a simple Facebook message, but Lerner asked for her phone number.
“Whenever I get a chance to pick someone else up, it’s like how could you not do that?” Lerner said. “How could I not reciprocate when all these people have supported me? How could I not give back to them?”
Thorburn was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 1997 at age 27, and she has a very active form of the disease.
Four surgeries, dozens of infusions and blood transfusions and structural IVs in her neck have left her with worn-out veins, scar tissue and severe daily symptoms.
After deciding to participate in the Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon & 1/2 Marathon with her local chapter of Team Challenge, a group dedicated to raising awareness for Crohn’s and colitis, the Franklin, Tenn., resident began her training.
However, after running the 5K in Sept. and raising about $4,100 for the half marathon, she hit a wall in her training.
Her symptoms grew increasingly worse and left her demoralized and depressed.
“I have daily symptoms. I have very active, severe disease,” she said. “I battle it every single day. A lot of it is mind over matter.”
Lerner’s call helped provide the extra motivation she needed to continue working toward the half marathon, and Thorburn plans on walking the half marathon on Dec. 4.
She knows even that will be a big challenge with her symptoms.
“This is a huge endeavor for me to try and do, so to speak to somebody that literally sprints every day and is out on the football field and in the weight room doing that kind of stuff every single day, it does help because he knows my pain and I know his pain,” she said. “It kind of puts in the back of my mind ‘okay, I can do this.’ If he can do it, I can do it.”
Lerner’s symptoms have improved significantly as he has undergone IV treatment once every two months to keep the Crohn’s in check.
Still, he’s well aware of the pain and emotional stress a bout with severe symptoms can cause.
Since his battle with the worst of his symptoms back in fall practice, Lerner has done everything he can to reach out to others and help them through the worst of theirs.
“He’s very down to earth,” Thorburn said. “He said he’s kind of unsure how to help people, but he knows that he wants to help people. He is surprised how many people have kind of come up to touch him or have put theirselves out there to get in touch with him, to not only give him words of encouragement, but to speak with someone that they know or love that has Crohn’s, especially kids.”
Lerner said he has been in touch with about a dozen people like Thorburn over the phone, and he’s reached out to countless others through Facebook or personal interactions.
“When you’re on the Florida football team, that’s just a huge tremendous honor,” he said. “A lot of people look up to us Florida football players. I kind of have a gift, a great opportunity, to try to help some people.”
The senior who earned a scholarship for the Gators after beating his Crohn’s to win the starting job said he knows people talking about their disease may not be the easiest thing.
He wasn’t sure what to do when he was diagnosed with it, but the encouragement he received from others helped keep him positive.
Lerner hopes others can experience the same encouragement by being open about their condition.
“To come out and say I’ve been battling this, that takes a lot of guts,” he said. “[Toni] put herself out there. How many people read that and then how many people are going to tell that to someone else?”
The Florida punter’s message to others suffering from the disease is simple.
“Just keep on plugging and keep on chugging away,” he said. “There might be some bumps in the road here and there, but you can still do whatever you want to do in life.”
After all, Lerner and Thorburn are living proof.
You can find more information about Crohn’s disease by visiting the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America at CCFA.org.