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SAN FRANCISCO — Brian Vickers is searching. It shouldn't take long. After all it was four years ago last month when it happened. That's a lot of time to find the words, to describe what it felt like to suffocate, to find life leaving his body, to feel utterly helpless. The NASCAR driver is searching and searching and ...

"You know, when I scuba dive," Vickers said, "I know the air is right there."

Vickers raises his right hand and points it skyward, as if the ocean's surface is a few feet away.

"It's right there when I need it (air)," he said.

Vickers lowers his hand, then his head, then his voice. This is as close as he can get to describing how fragile he felt in May 2010.

"I can't put it into words," he said.

Vickers had a pulmonary embolism in his lungs and a deep vein thrombosis in his legs. He had May-Thurner Syndrome, a rare condition that puts a person at risk for blood clots and a possible stroke. Vickers had blood clots in his legs, lungs and finger. He went through two heart surgeries. He missed 25 races that season.

In 2013 Vickers missed 19 races when a blood clot developed in his right calf. It was a similar situation to 2010. "You evolve as a human being when you go through life experiences," Vickers said. "Unfortunately it always seems that the bad experiences produce the most personal growth."

Vickers didn't see this coming anymore than he would predict an earthquake. In 2010 Vickers was 26 and a rising NASCAR star. On the night of his high school graduation he raced in NASCAR's second-tier Busch series. At 20 Vickers became the Busch Series champion, the youngest title holder in any of NASCAR's three divisions.

Ah, but life happens while you are making other plans. Heart surgery, blood thinners, stent insertions, these are things that don't enter the schematic drawn by a rising NASCAR star. And the following sentence is one Vickers never even considered uttering because, well, a young, healthy, in-shape, 26-year-old athlete doesn't feel or act fragile.

"More people die every year from blood clots," Vickers said, "than from breast cancer, HIV and car accidents combined."

On the website "stoptheclot.org" a sobering sentence crosses the top of the page: "274 people die every day from blood clots." Vickers has become a spokesman for the health hazard. Vickers has become what we would like but many times don't see in professional athletes — believable and respected.

Physical performances come and they go, along with the athletes that produce them. After all, how many of us have hit 450-foot homers in the Major Leagues? On the other hand there's something all professional athletes, pseudo athletes and non-athletes share. It's called reality.

Magic Johnson may be the most obvious example of creating an impact beyond his fame as a NBA star. Having contracted the HIV virus in 1991 Johnson raised an awareness of the disease to such an extent his influence on educating the public about HIV has been arguably as significant as what he did on the basketball court.

Because of what he has been through, Vickers can offer perspective, especially to those people who are obsessive about their career, for he was one of those ignoring everything else.

"No matter what I was doing off the track," Vickers said, "I always had one foot in (NASCAR). Now I'm two-feet-in when I do something. I disengage when I'm off the track. I have found how fragile life is."

After sitting out 44 races in 2010 and 2013 Vickers also found out how much he loved to race.

"When I was sitting watching a Truck or a Nationwide race," Vickers said, "that wasn't a problem. But when I was watching a Sprint Cup race, watching someone get in my car and race, it was like ..."

"Like watching someone else dating your girlfriend," I butted in.

"Yes," Vickers said with a laugh. "I was waiting for you to say that."

Anyone who has faced their own mortality has no problem with setting up someone for a one-liner. Or, for that matter, pushing the outside of the envelope.

Vickers is an experienced sky-diver and proposed to NASCAR this stunt: He would sky-dive into the infield at Daytona just before the start of the 500.

"I'd have my race suit on, ready to go," Vickers said.

No thanks, NASCAR said.

No problem, Vickers said. He wasn't going to close his shutters and hide from life. There would be other days, other ideas, other ways to feel life, like oxygen, coursing through him.

Vickers has been treated for four blood clots. Not once did he think giving up his passion. For him life is to be lived, not tolerated. "So, everything's OK physically?" I asked. "No problems, right?"

"As far as I know," Brian Vickers said.

Vickers said it with a calm, even dispatch. The words left him as easily as the breath that produced them. He's day-to-day, just like the rest of us, but that doesn't make him uncomfortable. Just the opposite. Taking an unfettered breath will do that to you. And for you.

(To contact Bob Padecky email him at bobpadecky@gmail.com.)