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Adrian Branch and Mike Brey, who were inducted into DeMatha High School’s Hall of Fame two weeks ago, haven’t changed much over the years. But most folks at the school’s induction ceremony had trouble recognizing fellow honoree Steve Smith.

Smith, who walked the halls and dominated the gridiron at the Hyattsville school two decades ago, was once an imposing physical specimen—”A thoroughbred, just a big guy,” recalls Stags head coach Bill McGregor. As a DeMatha fullback in the early ’80s, Smith could run the 40 in 4.6, and his strength and speed led him to be co-captain of Penn State’s 1986 national championship team and a player in the NFL for nine years.

At the Hall of Fame dinner, Smith was a much fleshier mass—and a slower-moving one, too. When called to accept the honor for his high-school accomplishments, he needed about five minutes to make the short trip from a front table to the podium, even with assistance from McGregor.

“Seeing him like that, that was totally unexpected,” says Buck Offutt, an offensive-line coach for DeMatha, who rates Smith as among the best athletes he’s seen in his 49 years with the school. “It was hard for a lot of people to take.”

But by the time Smith finished talking about the illness that had put him in this unfamiliar condition and how he planned to deal with it, even though his speech was occasionally slurred and halting, Offut and McGregor had stopped feeling sorry for him.

“The talk he gave was short, a thank you to everybody who’d helped him along the way, and about his faith,” says McGregor. “But it was very powerful, and just gave you so much admiration for Steve, and so much of just wanting him to be healthy again. When he was done, you just know that he’s going to beat this.”

In the days since the dinner, however, Smith has been told he might have a different “this” to beat than he previously believed. And that’s a blessing.

Last year, Smith was given a death sentence from his doctors. He’d noticed twitches in his shoulder, which he at first told himself and his wife were some sort of fallout from the pounding his body had taken in all those years at the highest levels of football. But when the twitches spread across his chest and into his arms, he sought medical treatment from doctors near his home in Plano, Texas.

In July 2002, he got the worst news possible.

“They told me I had ALS,” Smith says.

That’s short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurological disorder most commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Whatever you call it, there is no cure.

“I told my doctor I wouldn’t accept what he said,” Smith recalls. “Not to say I didn’t think he knew what he was talking about. But, with a diagnosis like that, I could accept what he’s saying, or I can fight, and I just made up my mind that I was going to fight, whatever I had to do.”

He spent the next several weeks going to other doctors and asking for other opinions. Everybody, however, agreed on ALS. And by the time a third physician confirmed the ailment, the symptoms had taken over his body.

“It seemed like for the whole month following the diagnosis, he seemed to deteriorate,” says Chie Smith, his wife. “I don’t know how much was emotional, but from then on out, the progression just kicked in, from weakness to his legs, to his arms and shoulders. His speech became affected. No question, it was the toughest month of our lives.”

As the Smiths quickly found out, the medical community doesn’t offer a whole lot of treatment to ALS sufferers.

“We were told Steve could undergo some vitamin therapy with a cocktail of vitamins and medicines that might slow things down,” says Chie. “And there is one drug prescribed for ALS [Rilutek] that might prolong your life for a couple months. But, really, there’s nothing at all. Certainly not a cure.”

But this summer, for the first time since the ALS diagnosis, the family was given its first dose of hope in a long time. During an extended stay at a homeopathic clinic in Nevada, Chie picked up a People magazine that had a story about a guy who had been misdiagnosed as an ALS sufferer. In fact, the man had Lyme disease.

Though its symptoms can also be devastating and the illness can even prove fatal, Lyme disease, unlike ALS, can be cured. Through massive doses of antibiotics, the protagonist of the People story was brought back to health. Lyme disease is generally transmitted through tick bites. For a few years after retiring from the NFL because of a back injury (he spent seven years with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders and two with Seattle), Smith had lived in a wooded suburb of Atlanta, and every morning he’d walked his dog through the trees. So he thought there was a possibility that he, too, could have contracted Lyme disease, which can mimic the symptoms of ALS.

The Smiths got in touch with Dr. Greg Bach, known as an expert in Lyme disease, and after a visit to Bach’s Philadelphia practice began treatments with an assortment of antibiotics and gamma globulin. Last week, after the DeMatha dinner, Smith revisited Bach and was told that tests have indicated he does indeed have Lyme disease.

“Since that People story came out, I myself know of maybe a half-dozen people who were told they had ALS but instead had Lyme disease,” says Pat Smith, president of the Lyme Disease Association (LDA), a New Jersey-based national nonprofit that promotes Lyme disease prevention, treatment, and awareness. “That’s just me, so that’s a significant number.” (Pat Smith has no relation to Steve Smith and was unaware of his case.)

The diagnosis in no way means Steve Smith is out of the woods. According to the LDA, at least 40 percent of Lyme disease diagnoses are wrong, either false positives or false negatives. And advanced cases of Lyme disease, even when treated, can still kill you. On the day I interviewed Pat Smith, she attended the funeral of a New Jersey doctor who had succumbed to the disease after 15 years.

But for Steve Smith and his wife, the Lyme disease diagnosis is nothing short of a godsend. On Thursday, he had a port installed in his chest to accept the IV that will deliver huge quantities of antibiotics for an hour a day over the next several months. He’s also begun getting testosterone shots to restore strength. His doctor has told Smith that it’ll be a few months before he’ll be able to tell if he’s on his way back for real. But Smith says he doesn’t have to wait.

“I have my faith, and I feel like I’m totally on the right path,” he says. “My goal now is to take one day at a time, take the treatment, and just get better every day. I’m told there’s no chance I have both ALS and Lyme disease. So Lyme disease isn’t great, but it’s better than the alternative. Once I start getting better, they can eliminate ALS.”

For whatever reason, Smith said, getting out of bed was easier this week.—Dave McKenna