October 22, 2013

Stepping up

October 22, 2013 Chuck Porter Sports Editor

SALINA, OK — Fans in Salina have been familiar with Bret Fite’s feet for some time now.

The senior does it all with those feet. He’s a running back and a linebacker in the fall before he trades his pads for a bat and glove to play outfield and third base for the baseball team in the spring. He’s well-known for churning game-breaking runs out of the Wildcat backfield and his quickness on the diamond.

But what fans might not know about Fite’s feet is those feet are fragile. Fite suffers from a rare condition that causes severe blisters and almost kept one of the Wildcats’ best players sidelined for his last two years on the gridiron.

“It’s a hereditary disease of the skin,” Fite said. “Every little friction or little bit of heat will make it flare up, and a blister will pop up.”

Fite’s condition is called epidermolysis bullosa. Around one in 50,000 people are afflicted by the still-uncured disease, in which the epidermis and dermis layers of skin are much thinner than normal and are not properly anchored to each other, causing them to rub and create abnormally large, painful blisters. Fite is primarily susceptible to getting the blisters on the soles of his feet, especially in blazing summer temperatures.

After his sophomore season, Fite was in miserable pain after every game and practice, and told his coaches he had to quit. The pain had just become too much.

“During the middle of the summer, I just decided I couldn’t play. They got so bad over the summer I just couldn’t do it,” Fite said.

But Fite is anything but thin-skinned.

It took a sobering jolt of reality to put things into perspective for Fite. During the first game of the 2012 season, the Battle of 82 against Salina’s highway rival Locust Grove, starting running back Brett Kerns suffered a severe spinal cord injury diving for a pass. He made a miraculous recovery, but his career as a Wildcat football player was over.

“When Kerns got hurt, I was like, ‘Yeah, it [the blisters] hurts, but I can play.’ Kerns, he couldn’t play. Me, I could tough through it. I asked the coaches and the team if I could return, and they let me come back,” Fite said.

Fite returned to the team and entrenched himself as one of head coach Kyle Fowler’s top players during his junior season. This season, Fite has taken on the role of team motivator to go along with his established roles of featured ball carrier and defensive enforcer.

“Every time they have a little something that might bother them, I know that they think of me, what I go through. They tell me all the time, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’” Fite said.

“It inspires them,” Fowler added. “It makes them think twice, you know ... A typical player that develops a blister of some sort, they can’t even whine about it because they know if they come whine to [the coaching staff] about it, the first thing we’ll say is ‘Did you show that to Bret?’”

Epidermolysis bullosa is a hereditary condition that Bret shares with his father, Shorty. “He always tells me ‘I’ve done it. Toughen up,’” Bret said.

Shorty, a golfer, refused to ride in a cart when he went out to play rounds. “He wanted to walk the course just like everyone else,” Bret said.

The condition is just another thing Fite has to be wary of, on top of any other typical football injury that might spring up.

“We had to make a little adjustment versus Wyandotte, because he had muscle spasms and a concussion which didn’t allow him to play,” Fowler said. Fite siffered the concussion during the first half of the game against Colcord in Week 5, but he didn’t tell the coaching staff and led the ‘Cats to an important 16-12 win. Before missing the game against Wyandotte, Fite was both the leading tackler and leading rusher for the Wildcats.

“We try to limit what we can with him, but he's hardheaded and wants to be in the mix,” Fowler said. “He’s matured mentally. He knows he can’t go if he’s not healthy.”

On Friday nights, Fite will tape his feet to the point that he can’t feel them. Awaiting him after each game, win or lose, is searing physical pain.

Lately, though, it’s been a lot more “win” than “lose” in Salina, which certainly helps the recovery. The Wildcats are on a six-game winning streak heading into a showdown with Commerce, thanks in large part to Fite’s effort and leadership.

“He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever coached,” Fowler said. “If you had 40 kids that tough, you wouldn’t have to worry any week. He’s overcome a lot. I’ve been coaching for 24 years, and I’ve never given what we call an Iron Man award to anyone. But last year, seeing what he’d been through to get back out on the field, and knowing what he went through his sophomore year, we gave him an Iron Man award. That’s as big a compliment as I could give a guy. I can’t imagine having gone through what he's gone through.”

There are some organizations committed to researching and finding a cure for epidermolysis bullosa, the largest being DebRA (Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa Research Association). Fite said his mother, Tonya Backward, reached out to DebRA, and that his family and everyone around him has been incredibly supportive.

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