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Blaze mainstay Skaggs dies after emergency brain surgery

Published June 15, 2007 4:32 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Posted: 5:44 PM- Utah Blazer receiver-linebacker Justin Skaggs died Friday after undergoing emergency brain surgery at the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Skaggs, who was diagnosed with brain cancer on June 1, was taken to the hospital on Thursday at 5 a.m. by his wife. He was suffering a severe headache, according to Blaze director of communications Tom Goodhines.

Skaggs was examined and immediately taken into surgery to relieve swelling and pressure on his brain. But he remained on a respirator Friday, when Goodhines said members of the Skaggs family gathered in Salt Lake City to "talk about options."

The 28-year-old Skaggs was diagnosed with inoperable Stage III oligodendroglioma after suffering headaches and numbness in his hands and arms. He underwent a CAT scan and MRI on May 31, when two malignant tumors were discovered in the left lobe of his brain.

Due to the location of the tumors, doctors told Skaggs surgery was not an option. He started a planned series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments earlier this week.

"It sucks, but there's nothing I can do about it," Skaggs told the Tribune shortly after the diagnosis. "This is the most freaky thing that has ever happened to me. It is the most unbelievable thing. I am 28. I am healthy. I would never guess this would happen to me. But it has and I'm ready to deal with it."

Skaggs admitted he was "shocked" when doctors discovered tumors in his brain.

"It was the last thing I would have thought was wrong," he said. "I thought something was just wrong with my neck -- a pinched nerve or something like that. Any news like that would be tough to take. When a doctor [says] you have two brain tumors, there's nothing that can prepare you for news like that."

Skaggs attended Evangel University, a private Christian college located in Springfield, Mo., that is associated with the Assemblies of God Church. He has been a member of the Blaze since the franchise's inception in 2006. He finished with 47 tackles on defense and 52 receptions on offense last season, earning a two-year contract extension from the Blaze.

This season, Skaggs had not played up to expectations. A calf injury was considered a possible cause.

"Justin Skaggs is not the same player," coach Danny White said midway through the season. "We are in a quandary about it. He's just not himself. He has dropped some [passes], missed some [blocking] assignments."

Still, Skaggs did have some good moments.

He made seven tackles in a game against San Jose on April 28. He had seven receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown against Kansas City on May 12. He missed his first game because of his illness on June 4 against Colorado.

"These are the cards that I've been dealt," Skaggs said. "I am going to face it head on. ... I am ready to have a testimony, a story to inspire somebody -- a comeback."

Skaggs, the father of a 5-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, played briefly in the NFL with Washington. He tried out but was cut in training camp by San Francisco and Tampa Bay. He signed with the AFL's Orlando Predators in 2005 before joining the Blaze.

Even before Skaggs' emergency brain surgery, his chance for recovery was bleak.

Randy Jensen, a neurosurgeon at the University of Utah Hospital who did not work with Skaggs and could not discuss his specific case, said the life expectancy for a person with Stage III oligodendroglioma is generally two to five years.

Skaggs' illness is rare.

About 17,000 cases are diagnosed each year. In only 10 percent of those cases, the tumor has diffused and separated into other parts of the brain. That's what has happened to Skaggs.