Jaguars legend Tony Boselli on battle with COVID-19: ‘I’ve never felt so overmatched’

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ORLANDO, Fla. — For the first time in his life, Big Tony Boselli felt very small.

He felt vulnerable.

He felt overwhelmed.

Boselli is one of the biggest, strongest, fiercest football players I have ever covered. He was a 6-foot-7, 330-pound mountain of a man; a blocking bulldozer; a human wrecking machine who played offensive tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars back in their heyday two decades ago.

He should already be in the Hall of Fame and will be someday because of the intimidating way he once dominated opposing defensive linemen — Hall of Famers such as Buffalo Bills icon Bruce Smith and Miami Dolphins legend Jason Taylor.

“Let me not mince words here,” Taylor said not long ago. “Tony Boselli wore me out! In fact, if they didn’t turn off the lights, he would still be kicking my ass.”

But as Boselli lay in a hospital bed in the intensive-care unit of the Mayo Clinic last week in Jacksonville, he was physically getting his ass kicked for the first time in his adult life. He was getting dominated; he was getting destroyed; he was, in his own words, “getting buried.”

A microscopic organism known as the novel coronavirus pancaked Big Tony, knocked him flat on his back and was literally eating him alive.

“I’ve never played in a football game where I felt so overmatched as I did against this thing,” Boselli told me Friday evening, his voice still sounding weak after being released following five days in the ICU. “When this all started, I was thinking this couldn’t happen to me because I’m healthy and I’m in shape. You tell yourself that only old people and people with other diseases need to be concerned. And when I found out I had it, I was still like, ‘OK, this will just be a bump in the road and I’ll be fine in a couple of days.’ ”

And then?

“And then I’m laying in the ICU,” he says. “That’s when I finally came to the realization, ‘This is real. This thing can destroy anybody.’ ”

Boselli, now 47, says he first noticed coronavirus symptoms nearly three weeks ago, but he thought it was just a case of the sniffles. Then two days later, he started getting a fever and also found out that he and his wife, Angie, had had personal contact with somebody who had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Bosellis then called their doctor, got tested and found out they, too, had both contracted the virus. Angie showed mild symptoms and never really got seriously ill, but Tony kept getting worse. Finally, on the night of March 25, he couldn’t sleep because his chest became congested and he started wheezing thickly and heavily.

Boselli went to the hospital at the Mayo Clinic, thinking they would give him some medicine and fluids and he we would be back home in a few hours, but he soon found out that not even he could block this invisible enemy from blindsiding him.

“They took some pictures of my lungs and said, ‘You’re not leaving this hospital!’ ” Boselli recalls. “At that point, it became a whirlwind and nothing was making sense. Next thing I knew, I was in ICU and they put me on a bunch of drugs and started pumping me with oxygen. It was at the end of that first day in ICU when the doctor said, ‘If this doesn’t start working and your oxygen levels don’t get to where they need to be, we’re going to have to take it to another level.’ I didn’t know what the next level was, but that’s when I started getting worried.”

Boselli, ever since he played for the Jaguars all those years ago, has always been a man of faith. He and former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell were outspoken Christians during the glory years of the Tom Coughlin-coached Jags and even started a church and a ministry together in Jacksonville.

Besides the obvious physical havoc the coronavirus wreaks on its hospitalized victims, there is also the immense psychological toll of being quarantined alone without any of your friends and family there around you. That’s when Boselli turned to his God.

“It’s comforting to know a lot of people care about you and are praying for you, but at the same time, you’re there in a hospital bed by yourself,” Boselli says. “I am thankful for my faith because I had somewhere to turn and someone to talk to. I was talking to God, I’ll tell you that much — and, believe me, you have some pretty unique conversations with Him in those moments. A lot of thoughts go through your head and sometimes those thoughts will take you to some bad, dark places, and that’s when it gets scary.

“I don’t know if I ever thought I was actually going to die, but I remember saying to God, ‘I don’t want to die here. Don’t let me die like this all by myself. Help me get rid of this; help me get better.’ ”

Thank God and those remarkably brave and selfless healthcare workers, Boselli started slowly turning the corner. His oxygen levels started going up, his lungs started clearing up and his prayers for help turned into prayers of thanks.

In sports, we often treat the games as if they are “life-and-death” situations, and we glorify the athletes for putting their bodies on the line; for performing in “do-or-die” circumstances; for making the crucial bucket or completing the clutch pass in a “last-gasp” situation.

Boselli says when it comes to performing under pressure, football players pale in comparison to all those healthcare workers — the doctors and nurses and physician assistants and lab techs and mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors — who go to work every day in hospitals across the world in actual do-or-die, life-and-death, last-gasp situations.

“They are the true superstars,” Boselli says. “They are so sacrificial; so courageous. The doctors and nurses and technicians — everybody — they were all so amazing to me. I can’t put into words how much gratitude I have for what they are doing right now.”

Boselli tested negative for the virus a few days ago, but he says he still feels weak and tired. Before he hung up the phone, though, he had a message for you and me and the partisan politicians and the slanted cable news networks and the selfish spring breakers and everybody else who is getting and sending mixed messages about the magnitude of this deadly disease.

“Don’t listen to the politicians; listen to the health-care experts,” Boselli says. “They know what they’re talking about. This is not a joke. This not made-up. I was fortunate, but there were other people in that hospital who were dying. I know what the odds and statistics say; they say that people my age and younger who are healthy, the virus probably won’t be serious. Let me tell you, that’s a dangerous game to play and I don’t recommend playing it because you might end up on the wrong side of it like I did.

“But even if you want to take those odds and roll the dice for yourself, right now is the time to think about other people. As hard as it was for me to fight, I can’t imagine being older or having a compromised immune system or having diabetes or asthma and trying to fight this thing.”

We all need to take this pandemic as seriously as we would any other enemy who is trying to kill us. It doesn’t matter who you are — rich or poor, black or white, college student or senior citizen, Democrat or Republican, Gator or Seminole, mountainous former NFL offensive lineman or little ol’ lady from Pasadena — COVID-19 can take you down.

If can take down Big Tony, it can take down anybody.


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