MSU's Travis Trice becomes a leader in wake of mystery brain infection

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

MSU backup PG Travis Trice has recovered after a health scare he kept secret for a long time. (USATSI)
Backup point guard Travis Trice is better after a health scare he kept quiet for a long time. (USATSI)

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Travis Trice says he and the doctors still don't know what it was inside his brain that caused him to question his health, his life, his future.

Despite being a backup point guard for Michigan State, the 20-year-old Trice is what coaches and teammates consider a most vital player. He's become a big-time vocal guy for the team and could be the best backup point guard in college basketball. If Michigan State is to win a national title this season, it's hard to envision that coming to be without Trice in the fold.

So when No. 2 Michigan State takes the floor Tuesday night against top-ranked Kentucky in Chicago at the Champions Classic, the Spartans' junior will be feeling invigorated, fortunate, thankful for his place on this team. There were no guarantees he'd make it back here, and yet for so long so few knew what Trice went through in the summer 2012, and how one threatening, nebulous, uncertain health scare infiltrated and affected him through last season as well.

"That was the scariest thing that I've ever been involved with here," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who's been at the school for three decades, said.

The story of Trice's mystery diagnosis began in May 2012, when he first started feeling unusually, frequently tired. This wasn't commonplace college-age fatigue, where 9 a.m. on some days can feel like the middle of the night. Trice slowly but surely couldn't muster strength to make it to class, let alone get in the three or four workouts per day that he'd previously been doing. When it got to the point where he was sleeping well past noon, only getting up because his body craved food or water, or it was telling him to use the bathroom, then Trice knew something was disturbingly wrong.

Yet he kept this from his family. He was slow to tell anyone, really. How do you know it's anything serious at first, anyway?

"Before all this, I felt the best I'd ever been," Trice said.

Trice would wake up for workouts at 5 a.m. He'd mix in meals, classes and basketball until nighttime. But a "foggy state" soon became what Trice was living with, and at first it didn't faze him too much. Naturally, he thought it could be mononucleosis, or a general fatigue-related illness. But days went by and it wasn't getting better whatsoever.

"It was to the point where, some days, I wouldn't go to class -- because I'd sleep through it," Trice said. "I'd go to sleep at 9 o'clock at night and, next thing I know, I wake up and it's 12:30 [in the afternoon]. Or I wake up and it's 1, and I'm like, 'What happened?'"

His roommates, teammates Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne, didn't notice this because Trice's door would be shut. They didn't realize he'd still be snoozing well into the morning. So the problem persisted, and the attempts at a diagnosis came. He saw all the specialists in the area he could.

"Toward the end, you start thinking of brain tumor, cancer, AIDS. You start thinking of everything. I think for a while I went to a dark place."

"I was getting blood drawn, it seemed like every three days," Trice said. "They never could find out what it was. To this day, they don't know what it was or what happened. They knew it was brain-related because they tested everything else."

MRIs and CAT scans were needed. Trice was tired as he had to endure test after test. It was hell. He couldn't get better, and no amount of sleep was giving him strength. Trice's enervation crisis bled into the summer, and he was no longer able to be part of the team in many aspects. His 171-pound frame withered to about 150. He was sick, scared, and still not telling his family what was really happening. But Dawson and Payne knew. They initially, playfully gave him a little grief, but Trice was telling them the lights in classrooms were making it near-impossible to sit through and causing his head to hurt even more.

"It was definitely scary, throughout the whole thing it was, because at a certain point you're wondering, Am I dying?" Trice said. "Do I have some rare disease that hasn't been figured out? ... Toward the end, after a month and a half, you start thinking of brain tumor, cancer, AIDS. You start thinking of everything. I think for a while I went to a dark place."

Toward the end of last summer, Trice knew he had to see his family, tell them what was happening, and hope for the best. He went home. He told them, and then the family started going to church together. They began to pray. Reasons unknown, Trice's strength came back, and came back rather quickly. Call it a coincidence, call it whatever you want, but the experience affected Trice profoundly. He's become a man of faith now, attending church regularly, and that faith was only reinforced greatly by the Bible study sessions he attended in his hometown of Dayton this past summer.

The story didn't easily get resolved like that, though. More head-related scares came last year. Because Trice had virtually no offseason training, he was never the player he could be last year. And then there were the injuries -- to his head. He played in Michigan State's opener at Connecticut, in Germany, last November at the Armed Forces Classic. In that game Trice suffered a concussion. He also broke his nose. The brain was affected again. The concussion and nose injury led him to wear a mask and miss the next five games. He flew home more than 10 hours on a tight airplane while his head was pounding. It was agony.

Would he relapse because of the concussion? Was fatigue on the way? He said he wondered if that might be the case. Especially when a second concussion came against Illinois on Jan. 31. That led Trice to miss another four games. He pressed through, staving off the return of the enigmatic disease that had put him out of commission previously. But he admits those two injuries flashed him with some dark thoughts again, and certainly some uncertainty.

"That was the scariest thing that I've ever been involved with here," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

Today, thankfully, Trice is fully healthy. He's back up to 170 pounds. Could the "infection" come back? Perhaps. It remains a mystery. But because of his renewed faith, Trice said he doesn't think about that possibility at all. As for concussions specifically, Trice isn't worried about suffering another, and if he did, he said it wouldn't jeopardize his playing career. (But if he'd had a third one last season, he most likely would've been forced to sit the remainder of the season.)

"Hell of a kid, hell of a player, has had a hell of a summer in coming back," Izzo said.

Izzo said Trice worked harder this offseason than any player. He's amazed at his leadership and humble nature. He's the exact kind of player Izzo loves to have on very talented teams, because while Trice isn't close to being the most gifted player, he makes the right play as much as any guy, and Izzo knows how valuable that is.

Trice played 23 minutes in MSU's season-opener against McNeese State on Friday, putting up a really good stat line off the bench: 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Championship-level teams require star power, but most also boast a player or two off the bench that's capable of starting at most other programs. Trice is that guy. He's become a stronger person in a better place because of his health scare.

For now, and perhaps forever, the mystery infection is out of sight and out of mind -- hopefully literally -- for Trice.

 
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