Coleman plight: the sickle cell trait at high altitude


Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, who has the sickle cell trait, is preparing to play in the high altitude of Denver. This is no random undertaking.

“I just have to stay hydrated, that’s it,” Coleman said. “Really just stay hydrated and keep on things. Keep talking to the doctor during the game and see how it feels. That’s about it.”

The sickle cell trait is comprised of genetically abnormal red blood cells. People who carry the trait can suffer health complications from high intense physical exertion, sometimes at a high altitude.

The Falcons (3-1) face the Denver Broncos (4-0) on Sunday at Mile High Stadium.

In 2007, former Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark, who also has the sickle cell trait, required surgery to remove his spleen and gall bladder after playing in Denver. He sat out two subsequent games in Denver, including a playoff game.

Coleman appeared distraught talking about playing in Denver and clearly doesn’t know what to expect.

“I have never been there so I don’t know how my body is going to react to it,” Coleman said. “I’ve never played there.”

Coleman played collegiately at Indiana and his health has never been an issue.

“(The sickle cell trait) never really affected me,” Coleman said.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn wanted to acknowledge Coleman on Wednesday — “He’s in great shape and can’t wait to play — but earler in the week, the coach noted there have been medical advances regarding sickle cell since 2007.

“There have been a number of guys who have had sickle trait and have played in Denver over the last nine years and certainly before then,” Quinn said. “We fully intend on Tev playing and playing well.”

Cincinnati defensive lineman Geno Atkins, a former Georgia standout who also has the sickle cell trait, played a game in Denver last season, but was limited by a snap count.

Coleman, who splits the running back duties with Devonta Freeman, played 29 of 67 offensive snaps (43 percent) against Carolina last Sunday.

Coleman hasn’t talked to Clark, who played 13 years in the NFL and is currently an ESPN analyst. Clark told the Washington Post that Coleman should do what’s best for his family.

“I haven’t spoken to him,” Clark told the Post. “No one has ever reached out to me. I think it’s because, as I’ve said, I’m the 1 percent exception. I’m the exception. I’m not the rule. You can have the sickle cell trait and play at altitude, play in Denver without having (complications) happen to you. So they each have to make their own decision based on their circumstances.”

The sickle cell trait affects 1 in 12 African-Americans in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coleman is off to a great start in his second season, rushing for 129 yards on 40 carries with four touchdowns. He has also caught 13 passes for 181 yards.

The Falcons may have a more elaborate medical plan for monitoring Coleman. It’s common for NFL coaches to withhold some players’ conditions, which then requires the opponent to prepare for multi-player scenarios, just as more Freeman and less Coleman in this case.

However, Quinn has stressed safety with players returning from injuries. Coleman believes he can carry his share of the load against the Broncos.

“Just play together,” Coleman said. “That’s pretty much it. (The Broncos) are a good defense just like last week (against Carolina). We just have to keep on pounding it.”


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