Winslow is latest chapter in Browns' mysterious staph story

In the macho-warrior world of the NFL, it was the equivalent of a paper cut -- one tiny scratch at practice, maybe an inch long. Ben Taylor went to bed that night with a sore elbow and thoughts of a Sunday game against the Steelers.

Within 24 hours, though, his joints ached and flu-like symptoms rocked his body. He spent five days in the hospital, had two surgeries and lost 10 to 12 pounds.

This is where the Cleveland Browns' staph story begins.

"I was basically that first one," Taylor said. "We had indoor turf, and it could've come from there. It could've come from the hot tub. … I got it, and I didn't know anything about it."

Taylor is an assistant coach at tiny Bridgewater College in Virginia now, two seasons removed from his playing days. But in 2003, he was one of the first known Browns players to be diagnosed with a staphylococcus infection. Back then, his illness amounted to a blip on the injury report. But now the microscope is on Cleveland, especially after tight end Kellen Winslow revealed, after a week of whispers over a mystery ailment, that he had staph.

The Browns have had a series of staph cases in recent years, a list that includes fast and nimble receivers and a 309-pound Pro Bowl lineman. Joe Jurevicius contracted staph early this year and has yet to play this season. Center LeCharles Bentley, a prized free-agent acquisition in 2006, got it after surgery for a torn patellar tendon. Bentley suffered the injury in his first training camp practice that summer. According to various media accounts in Cleveland, he was hospitalized for up to five weeks and nearly had his leg amputated. The infection was so bad at one point it reportedly was life-threatening. The 28-year-old lineman has not played since the 2005 season.

Bentley and his agent, Jonathan Feinsod, both declined to comment on his bout with staph. The Browns, too, have said very little about their recent history with staph, prompting more questions about whether the club has been bitten by a bug or is just plain snakebitten.

"I wouldn't call it an outbreak," said Thom Mayer, medical director for the NFL Players Association. "It's concerning. … But I have no reason to think, nor has anyone suggested, that the facilities [in Cleveland] are anything other than hygienic. This is one of those situations where the interests of the player, the interests of the NFL and the interests of the Browns are completely in line. No one wants this to become a bigger medical issue than it is."

The issue isn't confined to Cleveland. In the past week alone, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay have been linked to staph. MVP quarterback Tom Brady also has been struggling with a post-surgery infection, though the Patriots have not commented on whether it is staph.

Football players and other athletes have been getting staph infections for decades, although staph isn't confined to locker rooms. Jeff Hageman, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says there are roughly 12 million outpatient health-care visits for staph infections in the United States each year. But around 2000, Hageman says, a particularly virulent strain called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) started showing up in seemingly healthy people. MRSA, which is resistant to some antibiotics, had mainly affected hospital patients.

The St. Louis Rams invited the CDC to do a study on their facility after five players were infected with MRSA during the 2003 season. The investigation found that players were taking 10 times more antibiotics than the general population and that linemen and linebackers seemed to be most susceptible to the infection because they have the highest number of skin abrasions.

The Rams' outbreak was believed to be community-related, most likely caused by players' sharing personal items such as towels on the sideline. The club took actions that included more frequent towel changing, and made sure wounds were well-covered.

"After implementing basic measures," Hageman said, "to my knowledge they haven't had another [MRSA] infection since that outbreak.

"That was truly an outbreak. The infections occurred at the same time. The links of transmission were within the team, whereas I haven't seen any mention of that within the Browns."

In Cleveland, at least three of the staph cases were post-operation related. And unlike St. Louis, the Browns' infections have been spread out over time. Browns spokesman Bill Bonsiewicz said the club has had seven cases of staph since 1999 and that only two of those infections were MRSA.

Winslow's illness festered in the public consciousness for more than a week. But it's not just because he's outspoken, and that he has suggested to the media, on a couple of occasions over the past few years, that the Browns have an issue with staph. The infection stayed in the headlines, in part, because of a perception that the club wanted to keep it under wraps. It was revealed over the weekend that a member of the Browns' public relations staff had text-messaged Winslow requesting that he not discuss the staph infection publicly, but the team's general manager, Phil Savage, said Monday that no one from Cleveland's management had tried to pressure the tight end to keep quiet.

"Sometimes, there is a stigma associated to [staph]," Hageman said, "that 'Oh, I'm a dirty person.' But that's not the case."

The NFL -- and the Browns -- have made efforts to educate players about the simple steps they can take to help avert community staph infections. But post-operative staph isn't so simple an issue. Whenever an athlete goes under the knife, even the highest-paid and most beloved runs the risk of contracting infections.

"Athletes are no different than anyone else," said Jeffrey Borer, a medical consultant for the New York Giants and the NFL. "They have the opportunity to be infected just like anybody else. [MRSA] is a hearty soul. It survives and dominates over less-virulent forms of staph."

Taylor knows how powerful staph can be. He was a young linebacker finally adjusting to the NFL at the start of the 2003 season. A few weeks later he was in the hospital, getting a call from Browns owner Randy Lerner asking how he was doing. Taylor felt good about that, because he considered himself a grunt.

But now Taylor wonders where his football career would've gone had it not been for staph.

"Did it hurt my career? Yes, I think so," Taylor said. "Things were kind of moving along in what was looking to be a very good season.

"I miss playing the game. But I'm not out of the game because of staph. I'm out because they didn't think I was good anymore, I guess."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.