On July 22, Florida walk-on punter David Lerner was seized with pain in his abdomen. He began to lose his appetite, and the brown-haired, brown-eyed senior from Buchholz felt awful.
“I knew when I started having really bad abdominal pain that something was wrong,” Lerner said. “I maybe thought my appendix was bad or something of that nature, but I really had no idea.”
Lerner went to Florida’s athletic trainers and told them about his pain. The trainers sent him to a team doctor, and within a week Lerner was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s, a debilitating and painful inflammation of the digestive tract, left Lerner gaunt and beaten down just prior to the start of fall camp in his final season with the Gators.
The 6-foot, 194-pound punter quickly lost 15 pounds and was sapped of all his energy, leaving him pale and weak.
He had heard of Crohn’s on TV before, but had no idea just how serious and painful it was. With football becoming an afterthought for Lerner as he wilted away, the Gators helped him pull through.
“Two days after I got diagnosed, [Will Muschamp] called me and said, ‘whatever you need we’ll get for you. We want you,’” Lerner said. “He was very supportive. I was definitely depressed with everything that was going on, and that kind of gave me some hope.”
Players called and texted him, encouraging him and telling him that everything would be okay.
After spending some time in the hospital receiving IVs and medical treatment, Lerner began to improve. He still has to undergo IV treatment for two to three hours once every two months to keep his Crohn’s in check, but he’s improving.
“I still really don’t have a lot of energy and stuff,” he said. “But I’m starting to feel better and get back to my normal self.”
Somehow, Lerner has managed to stay on the football field through it all. He’s in a tight competition for the starting punter job with true freshman Kyle Christy.
Despite the fact that he’s had to take breaks here and there to hydrate or get out of the sun, Lerner has battled through his Crohn’s.
“My leg is fine, that’s the funny thing,” he said. “When coach Muschamp called me on the phone and he said, ‘how you doing, how you feeling?’ I was like ‘well, my insides feel terrible, but my leg still works. I can promise you that.’”
A slim, tired-looking Lerner met with the media Thursday to talk about the punting competition and how grateful he is for the opportunity just to be on the field.
“There’s never been a time in my life when I’ve been more happy to go to practice and be around the guys and even just to get screamed at,” he said. “It’s so much better than sitting in a hospital. It’s really made me realize that we take a lot of stuff for granted, just eating solid food is like a blessing.”
Not even the brutal Gainesville heat has kept Lerner from trying to win the starting punting job. Muschamp said he just keeps plugging away.
Even though he has had to closely monitor his diet and his hydration levels, Lerner has kept his chin up and gone to work at practice.
“There’s been a couple days where he hasn’t felt well and I’ve just told him to just take it to the house, just go and get some rest,” Muschamp said. “He’s going through a tough time, and he’s not complained or anything. He’s never asked to leave the field.”
Lerner feels good about how he’s hung in the competition for the starting spot, despite the pain.
“Me and Kyle are both neck and neck I would say right now,” he said. “There’s not a clear winner, it’s going to be a fight to the end.”
Neither has an easy task trying to replace the 2010 Ray Guy Award winner Chas Henry, who was one of the best punters in school history.
Lerner said he hit a nice punt out of the back of the end zone in Florida’s scrimmage Monday, and he also had a great pooch punt.
He knows the competition with Christy will be fierce, though. Christy was one of the top high school kickers in the nation.
“I think Kyle, that kid, he just has a leg,” Lerner said. “I wish my leg was that good when I came out of high school. The kid has a boot on him. I think in the upcoming years when he grows up a little bit and realizes what this is – because this is a lot different than high school sports and all that – I think in the future, he’ll be very, very good.”
Still, Lerner isn’t backing off.
After his battle with Crohn’s, he’s welcomed the competition and distraction of football.
“There are some days that I just don’t have as much energy as I normally would,” he said. “Sometimes that causes me to struggle a little bit. But for the most part I feel good enough to practice and stuff. When that happens I’m fine.”
His willingness to battle through a tough situation has impressed his head coach. Muschamp is always harping on character in his players, and Lerner has it in spades.
“David has had a great camp,” Muschamp said. “This is something he will battle and be fine. David’s an outstanding young man in my short time getting to know him. It’s unfortunate, but he’s a guy that he’ll handle the situation.”
The Florida head coach has been thoroughly impressed by the fight in Lerner.
“I think the true test of someone is shown through adversity,” Muschamp said. “Certainly he is an inspiration to me, just watching him and how he’s handled himself.
“Tough times don’t last, tough people do. He’s a tough young man.”