Punter Chris Birozes practices Wednesday afternoon. Saturday’s game will be his first following a liver transplant.

The first game of any football season is tinged with nervous excitement. But Saturday’s battle with Johnson C. Smith is especially significant for Bulldog punter Chris Birozes. It will be his first game since having a life-saving liver transplant.

“It definitely is exciting to be back,” Birozes said Wednesday on his way to the practice field. Having played the sport since sixth grade, he said it felt odd not to suit up last season.

In the fall of 2015, Birozes was diagnosed with Wilson’s disease, a rare, genetic disorder that causes copper to accumulate in the liver, brain and other organs. Birozes didn’t know it until the diagnosis, but his liver was failing and was therefore not properly producing blood-clotting coagulants, which means that any bleeding, internal or external, could have been catastrophic. One vicious hit on the football field, and things could have gone terribly wrong.

Chris Birozes

Chris Birozes

“If I would have gotten hit two years ago, it would have been really bad,” Birozes says. “If I had gotten hit really hard in the head, I probably would have died.”

Needless to say the 21-year-old understands a lot more about liver function now than he did then. In fact, the transplant process and the mentoring relationship with his surgeon that grew out of it put him on a new career path.

“I never would have thought I wanted to be a doctor going into college, and now that’s what I think God’s calling me to do,” says Birozes, a finance major on a pre-med track. “I’m here today because of a transplant. If I can give that to somebody else, I’d want to do that for the rest of my life.”

He credits Wingate’s faculty with helping him keep on top of his classes while he was ill and also with helping him make the transition to the sciences without missing a beat.

Birozes considered staying closer to home in Georgia after his diagnosis, but he says help from his professors and the university’s strong health sciences programs compelled him to return to Wingate to complete his undergraduate studies.

“That’s part of the reason I came back to Wingate,” he says. “This is exactly why God sent me to Wingate and not somewhere else. Right now, I see so much. The path is so clear as to why I was sent here.”

Birozes says his illness has also changed the way he sees others, making him more compassionate.

“No one knows I went through what I did, because my scar is hiding under my shirt,” he says. “You don’t know someone walking by what they’re going through. You just have to treat everyone with the same kind of respect and kindness that you would if you knew they were going through something hard, because you really don’t know what’s going on inside their brain.”

Birozes says he tries to keep that in mind every day at Wingate. “There’s over 2,000 students on campus, and they all have their own struggles,” he says. “I just want to make sure everyone else is treated right.”

A football player in a red shirt and blue shorts stretches on the field.

Chris Birozes stretches prior to punting practice Wednesday.

As for his own treatment as a member of the football team, Birozes doesn’t want to be singled out.

“There is definitely a reason that God made me a punter, that he allowed me to be in that position,” says Birozes, who will have another year of eligibility next fall. “If it was any other position on the team I wouldn’t be able to play. My doctors wouldn’t allow me.

“At the beginning of the season I was talking to Coach (Joe) Reich and I told him to just treat me like before, like a normal player. I still want to do fakes if he has that in the cards. I don’t want to have to run off the field.”

As happy as they are to have Birozes back, Reich and the Bulldogs hope to have little need of him on Saturday. They will take on the Golden Bulls in Charlotte with a 6 p.m. kickoff.

Aug. 31, 2017