Offensive lineman Ivan Douglas gestured to the plastic bottle of vitamin water he had gripped throughout the interview.
"You probably never see me without something to drink in my hand," he said as he sat on a leather couch in a lounge at Oakland Raiders headquarters in Alameda. "We take those small things for granted, but those small things can have a huge effect on your whole game."
It was, in fact, small things that sidetracked Douglas' once-promising football career and forced him off his college team. Small things turned him into an obscure prospect with only an outside shot of making the Raiders' roster. It's no exaggeration to say they almost killed him.
A massive man at 6-foot-8, 305 pounds, Douglas was laid low by a series of tiny blood clots. Now the 26-year-old must convince team doctors the problem is behind him -- and show the Oakland coaches he can play football again after a two-year layoff.
Douglas will get his first real test this weekend when the Raiders conduct their first minicamp of the year.
The future was rosy for Douglas going into his sophomore year of eligibility at Ohio State. The Cincinnati native had proved he was versatile enough to play either tackle position as a freshman, and was expected to compete for a starting job in 2001. His ascent ended abruptly in March of that year when a cardiologist told him two blood clots had settled between his heart and lungs. The clots had started in his legs, a classic case of pulmonary embolism, where a migrating clot blocks the blood vessels of the lungs.
Douglas' first reaction: "Well, let's get this cleared up in time for spring practice."
As he soon discovered, it wasn't nearly that simple. The doctor was reluctant even to let Douglas leave the examination room. If it weren't for his overall good health and the timeliness of the diagnosis, the athlete was told, the clots might have proved fatal. As it was, he spent two weeks in the hospital that April. Doctors ran a catheter through his groin to flush his veins with a "clot buster" and administered a blood thinner.
In a way, Douglas was relieved to get the news. At least it explained the shortness of breath that had plagued him during spring workouts, making it hard to walk to class and virtually impossible to attack the Stair Master for even a few minutes. The blood clots were preventing an adequate supply of oxygen from reaching his body.
Douglas sat out the 2001 season. But he came back strong in 2002, seemingly relegating his ailment to the past. He was the biggest player on the best college football team in the nation, starting 12 games for the BCS-champion Buckeyes. Sure, he was frustrated when a sprained ankle forced him out of Ohio State's title-clinching, 31-24 victory over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. But he was poised for success as his senior year approached.
Then it happened again. Douglas suffered another blood clot in his chest in July, 2003. He hasn't suited up for a football game since. Douglas helped the squad as a student coach and worked toward his degree in criminology, watching several of his Ohio State teammates graduate from the NCAA to NFL riches.
"It was pretty frustrating, but then again, it's also motivation," Douglas said. "Because you know that you played right next to these guys. You have as much talent as these guys. I actually looked at it as a point where God's kind of asking me, 'If you really want to do this, then you'll have to put a little more into it than everybody else did to prove that you want it.' "
Tackle Shane Olivea is one of the Buckeyes who has gone on to the NFL. He and Douglas formed bookends in 2002, Olivea on the right side and Douglas on the left. The Chargers drafted Olivea in the 7th round a year ago, and he became a rookie sensation who started all 16 games. He remains close to Douglas and is convinced his former teammate can compete at the pro level.
"I definitely think he has the athletic ability and the potential," Olivea said. "There's gonna be a lot of rust, physically and mentally. After that much time off, you're not as sharp. But that will only come with practice, and then getting into some games."
After two years of inactivity, Douglas began his uphill journey by conditioning himself for two or three months. He hooked up with the Raiders through his agent, Hayward-based Angelo Wright, and signed on March 1 after passing their physicals. He has been on-site four or five days a week lately, lifting weights and working on technique, flexibility and explosion with Raiders offensive line coach Jim Colletto.
"I feel like I have a very realistic chance of making the team, off of pretty much raw potential," Douglas said. "I have a little bit to work on. But I feel like when I get back to the point where I was before, or even past that, I'll be a powerful lineman."