COLUMBUS, Ohio — The call came during the dinner hour, from Dr. John Lombardo in Columbus to Mary Fran Kudla in Medina.

It was January 2003, and Lombardo had been caring for Mary Fran’s son, Mike, an Ohio State defensive end who had been admitted to the hospital with what appeared to be pneumonia.

Doctor and mother had spoken on the phone several times, but this call was different.

“He said I’d best pack a bag and come down really quickly, that it was extremely serious,” Mary Fran said. “I knew from the tone of his voice. That was my ’Groundhog Day’ drive. I kept driving and driving and wasn’t getting any closer.”

To see Mike Kudla now, with his massive arms and sculpted 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame, one would never know.

To watch Kudla play this season, bulling through offensive linemen, blasting quarterbacks, chasing down running backs, one would never know.

The NFL team he plays for next season will never know.

Only he, his doctors and his mother know exactly what he went through nearly three years ago. Only they can truly understand that the body that now is the picture of robust athleticism has been through hell and back.

They called him “Iron Mike” as a teen, both for his love of lifting weights and for his natural strength, derived from heaving thousands of bales of hay on his buddy’s farm.

He grew up as the middle child of Paul and Mary Fran’s five children, all with diverse interests and all instilled with faith and a strong work ethic.

Kudla played significantly as a freshman on OSU’s national title team — no small feat on a defensive line featuring four future NFL players.

Toward the end of the season, he began feeling run down and eventually was diagnosed with a mild case of mononucleosis. He skipped most of the Fiesta Bowl practices but played in the game.

Days after returning to Columbus, he took a turn for the worse. Kudla was admitted to OSU Medical Center under the care of Lombardo, then the Buckeyes’ team doctor.

Kudla’s condition deteriorated. He had lesions in his throat, a rash that caused his skin to slide off, and he began bleeding from his ears, eyes and nose.

He was diagnosed with Johnson-Stevens syndrome, an immune-system condition in which the body attacks its own mucous membranes. Secondary infections soon set in, and that’s when Mary Fran arrived.

“There was a body on the table with a sheet over the middle of it, but it didn’t look human,” she said. “He was in rough shape.”

She was no stranger to tragedy, having lost four children in infancy.

“I’ve crossed that bridge, but they were babies, not someone I had raised for 18 years,” she said. “Boy, there were a lot of prayers.”

A priest was summoned and he gave Kudla the last blessing.

Lombardo said about 10 percent of Johnson-Stevens syndrome patients don’t make it “if they have extensive involvement, and he did.”

Mary Fran did not leave Mike’s side for 10 days as doctors mixed and matched a drug treatment that would slowly bring him back from the edge.

Mike doesn’t remember much from those days.

“I can recall stuff from it,” he said, “but as sick as I was and the amount of medication I was on, it was one of those situations you just don’t want to remember it. They pretty much had me knocked out. It was bad, it was painful.”

Finally, he was discharged and sent home, to remain out of school and under his mother’s care for the rest of winter quarter. He had lost 52 pounds.

His life spared, Kudla set about rebuilding himself, like a modern-day bionic man. The effort was an outlet for his boundless determination and focus.

Mary Fran brought him back to Columbus that spring.

“That was a tough day,” she said. “He may be a big guy, but he’s still my baby.”

Though his coaches had been kept up to date on Mike’s condition, his appearance was still a shock.

“When he first showed up at the office, he had lost a lot of weight and was not real good looking,” defensive line coach Jim Heacock said.

Soon, the body was back. Kudla set team bench-press records, but it didn’t translate to success on the field.

He showed flashes of big-play ability, but injuries kept holding him back. A neck stinger and a painful torn labrum hampered him through much of 2004, his junior season.

Coming into this season, he knew how his career was viewed.

“Kind of underachieving,” he said. “I was hurt a lot and didn’t make as many plays as I probably should have early on.”

Defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock said he thought Kudla “always had it in him, (but) we felt he was a little cautious at times.”

That changed last summer, when Kudla threw himself into a revamped offseason workout program. He added flexibility and speed training, and coincidentally or not, he stayed healthy this season.

It showed. Kudla became an important force off the edge for OSU, leading the team’s defensive linemen in tackles for loss (8 1/2) and sacks (6 1/2).

Among his tackles was a memorable stop on Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney on fourth-and-2, when Kudla used a burst of speed and his strength to grab Maroney with one arm and drag him down short of the marker.

“He is an explosive guy, he’s a high-motor guy,” coach Jim Tressel said. “He plays hard, and all the pro scouts that come through, I keep telling them, ’Don’t forget about this guy.’ He’s special.”

Kudla was named first-team All-Big Ten.

Meanwhile, off the field, Kudla underwent a more subtle transformation. Anyone who dodges death is never quite the same.

He began to appreciate the little things, he said, “like putting on my cleats and running out to practice.” He takes more time to help people now.

Mary Fran said Mike went to the school where she works this past offseason “and signed 500 autographs without complaining for a minute, then gave (the kids) an encouraging speech.”

He enjoys fishing with his friends. One day, he picked up a guitar and began teaching himself how to play.

Two years later, it has become “a massive hobby,” he said.

“I love playing guitar, I play every day,” said Kudla, who strums mainly rock and country songs. “Once I start playing, I block out everything. You can only think about football so much and it consumes you. For me, that’s my release.”

He’ll likely take his guitar to an NFL city in the spring, and that thrills him because playing in the NFL was a childhood dream.

But though it seems like a long time ago now and he doesn’t talk about it often, his illness will always remain a part of him. Maybe it really is true, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“It definitely does,” Kudla said. “You’ve been to the darkest stages of wherever you could go, and it makes you appreciate everything, all the little things you never really think about, you kind of savor a little more. It put life in perspective.”

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