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Akpla all the better for offseason brush with death

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This story by BOZEMAN CHRONICLE reporter WILL C. HOLDEN on former Lincoln High receiver Elvis Akpla appeared Friday, April 15 in the Chronicle and is reprinted with its permission.)

Most hear the phrase 'critical condition' and lose whatever's left of their lunch. Elvis Akpla heard it and thought about how he might turn the experience into a research paper.

It's funny how the minds of neuroscience and cell biology majors work.

Okay, so the Montana State wide receiver admits it was pretty scary hearing about the increased enzyme count in his blood, a textbook signature of a failing liver.

'I was dying,' he said.

It's been a long road to recovery from the day he first started vomiting uncontrollably in early February until Saturday's Triangle Classic spring game in Great Falls. It started at Oregon Health Sciences University.

'I started feeling better right when I got there,' Akpla said. 'They told me I'd be fine; they were just interested in finding out what happened to me.'

Akpla was interested too. For a pre-med student, suffering from a never-been-diagnosed medical condition is something akin to a foot in the door.

Especially when it's the door to the brainiac breeding ground that is OHSU.

John Kitzhaber, ER doctor-turned-governor, has studied there. So has D. George Wyse, one of the world's foremost authorities on cardiac arrhythmia.

Someday, Akpla hopes to do the same.

'It's one of the best medical schools in the world,' he said. 'Going there, even as a patient, was probably the greatest learning experience I've ever had.'

It stands to reason. Rolling a patient with an unidentified condition into the ICU at a teaching hospital is kind of like walking to the center of Wal-Mart and announcing a two-for-one sale on LCD TVs.

Akpla couldn't count on his two hands the amount of MDs he saw during his four-day stay.

'I got to see how different doctors work, how they interact with their nurses, how they go about different procedures,' Akpla said. 'I asked a million questions whenever a new doctor came in. It was the sort of stuff I'd never have been able to learn reading about it in a textbook.'

Finding out that Akpla was fighting for his life a couple days after eating lunch with a few of his teammates shocked most Bobcats.

Tanner Bleskin didn't believe it.

'I thought it was a joke,' Akpla's fellow wide receiver said. 'It didn't really sink in until he was back. It was a scary deal.'

Over the course of his six-day stay in Portland, doctors at OHSU were able to form an educated guess about Akpla's condition - one that stumped even the most esteemed medical personnel in Bozeman.

It's believed that Akpla contracted some form of Hepatitis A from something he ate.

Akpla suspects he knows the food that triggered it. But he'd just as soon not mention the Bozeman-area restaurant where it came from.

'I still eat there,' he said. 'It was just a freak deal.'

He's back in school and on the football field now, though he admits he's a little behind in both areas. With his MCAT test coming up in June and spring football nearing its conclusion, he's working to get up to speed quickly.

Others have taken notice.

Doctors advised that head coach Rob Ash and his staff withhold Akpla from the conditioning drills that took place at the end of offseason workouts in March.

Without free reign to attend these workouts, the coaching staff had a hard time stopping him.

'He wasn't going as full speed as usual, but we heard he was getting through the entire workout every time,' Ash said.

It wasn't entirely surprising considering this was the same kid who took 12 credits last summer, something Ash called 'unheard of.'

'I don't think I've ever had a player do that,' Ash said. 'He's got one of the most difficult workloads on this team, and yet he's no maintenance for us at all. He just does it all on his own.'

Akpla might be coming into his own on the football field this year, too.

It's not that he's been a flop. His 43 receptions for 682 yards and four touchdowns were among the best marks on the team last year.

But Ash knows the University of Oregon sprinter-turned-wide receiver has yet to reach his ceiling.

'If you can't win one-on-one matchups outside, teams can put a corner on that side, cancel your receiver out and put another guy inside,' Ash said. 'For me, the whole strategy of football starts with being able to win that one-on-one outside.

'With his speed and size, Elvis is a guy who can do that.'

The soft coverage MSU received for much of its conference schedule after racking up 874 passing yards in its first three conference games - nearly one-third of which was accumulated by Akpla - seems to prove it.

The first piece of a recruiting class that included Everett Gilbert and Julius Lloyd, who teamed up with him to create the Bobcats' top trio of pass catchers in 2010, Ash said he remembers being 'thrilled' when MSU was able to sign Akpla.

'Wide receiver was one of the needs we identified right away when we got here,' Ash said. 'Elvis helped address that in a major way.'

And he's not done yet. Far from it.

Akpla says recalling his team's 30-7 thrashing last season of Eastern Washington, a team that went on to win the national championship, is the top reason why winning a national championship is a reasonable expectation for his team this season.

'We have to win,' Akpla said. 'I want to win a national championship. To go out doing anything less would be a disappointment.'