When the final gun sounded on Jordan High School's latest victory in the state football playoffs, Andrea Kjar did what she always does after a game. She found her husband, Eric, Jordan's young head coach, and gave him a hug and a congratulatory kiss. Then she slipped a plastic bag into his pocket that contained a hypodermic needle and a vial of liquid, and said good night.

After riding the bus back to Jordan High with his players and coaches, Eric Kjar retired to his office to watch film, but first there was personal business to take care of. He withdrew the contents of the bag, attached the needle to a vial and gave himself an injection of Avonex. Then he began preparing for his next game.

Kjar (say it "care") was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few months ago. He could barely walk at the time. The disease can come and go with fits of full-blown debilitating flare-ups followed by relief from most of the symptoms. No one knows when the next flare-up will come, but for now Kjar's symptoms have abated.

"I've moved on," says Kjar. "I've tried to live my life normally. Football is great. I think about that and my family."

Kjar's football team has experienced the same ups and downs as his body. The Jordan Beetdiggers were 5-3 at one point this season and no better than 3-3 in region games. They've won three straight since then, including upset wins over Davis and previously unbeaten Cottonwood in the state playoffs. Now they're headed to the state semifinals for the first time in a dozen years. The coach and his team are the feel-good story of the tournament.

"He had a setback, and he battled back just like he tells the kids," says Kjar's defensive line coach, Craig Shaver. "He's a competitor."

You'd never suspect anything was wrong with Kjar. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, he looks like he could play for the team he coaches. He runs wind sprints and lifts weights with his players. During Monday's rainy, cold practice, he caught passes from his quarterback and threw passes to his receivers.

A three-sport star at Star Valley High in Kemmerer, Wyo., Kjar went on to play quarterback for Wayne (Neb.) State before repeated concussions forced him to switch to wide receiver. Now 31, he is in his second year as Jordan's head football coach.

With a job he loves, a new house in Lehi and a wife and four young children, he was a man who seemed to have just about everything he wanted. Then he took a blindside hit. Last May he began to experience numbness in his toes, and in the coming days the symptoms moved up to his pelvis, leaving him numb below the waist. He visited various doctors searching for a diagnosis.

Andrea and Eric suspected the worst. Two years earlier, Eric had experienced similar symptoms — a numbness on the left side and in his legs and hands, accompanied by severe headaches — but they subsided quickly, and doctors didn't have enough evidence to make a a certain diagnosis of MS. It often takes a second or third flare-up before MS can be diagnosed.

"Doctors weren't sure, but MS was definitely a thought," says Eric.

A week after the second flare-up of symptoms, Kjar — who is also the school's track coach — left the state track championships to undergo more tests at the University of Utah Medical Center. He was so weak that he had to lean on his 5-foot wife to walk from the parking lot to the hospital. The hospital staffers offered him a wheelchair, but he refused.

"It was pretty scary and heartbreaking to see," recalls Andrea. "My big strong husband — who works out with his football team — was having trouble walking."

Doctors confirmed their suspicions, finding lesions on the brain and spinal cord, among other clues.

"They diagnosed it for sure," says Kjar. "It's MS."

He continued to struggle with the symptoms for several weeks. His children noticed that he could no longer play with them, and at night Andrea heard them pray for help — Please, bless Daddy's legs that they'll get better.

"I was a wreck," says Andrea. "He is not the type to complain. He just wanted to find out what was happening and start a treatment and get better."

Kjar was hospitalized for three days and given heavy doses of steroids, which stopped the attack. The feeling in his lower body slowly returned. He has improved since then, although he continues to experience some tingling sensation in his legs. He hasn't had a flare-up since May.

"The doctor said it's different for everyone," says Andrea. "Some are in wheelchairs and need help. Others can live their lives pretty normally. We're hoping he has an attack only every couple of years. Eric's goal is to not end up in a wheelchair. The doctor said we might have an attack every year or every couple of years; some have attacks that are ongoing."

Kjar gives himself weekly injections of Avonex, which is supposed to reduce the symptoms and the frequency of attacks. Because the side effects of the drug include flu-like symptoms, he decided to take the injections on Friday nights after the games, which allows him to recover in time to return to practice on Monday.

"There is no prognosis," says Kjar. "You never know how it will affect you. You take it day by day."

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Kjar's players rallied around him when his symptoms flared last spring. They held a team meeting to discuss their coach's health and how they could help. "At first we didn't know what was going on," says punter Jeff Gaston. "We could see he was having problems, but we thought it was an old back injury that had bothered him before." Kjar finally explained his diagnosis to his team. One week, when their coach was out of town, the players showed up at his new home in Lehi and installed a sprinkler system and a lawn.

"We felt bad for him," says Gaston. "We all love him."

Says Andrea, "In the back of my mind I wonder when the next attack is going to happen, but you can't dwell on it. You've got to keep plugging along."

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. Send e-mail to drob@desnews.com.

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