Virginia's Canaan Severin pushes the limits of sickle cell trait

Canaan Severin, a carrier of the gene for sickle cell anemia, ranks third in the ACC in catches (19) and yards (264). Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Each week this summer, Virginia wide receiver Canaan Severin would head to the grocery store and load up his cart with brown rice, green spinach leaves and 15 chicken breasts. For the next few days, when it was time to eat, he’d put the chicken on his George Foreman grill and heat up the rice and fix the world’s most boring salad with the spinach.

When Severin was younger, eating was a competition with his brother, Justice. The two scarfed as much as their stomachs could fit -- and then a little more. Now, he ate the same thing for lunch and for dinner, day in and day out.

"It’s not easy," Severin said, laughing.

But this is the fuel that keeps him moving when that familiar feeling sets in, and his legs grow heavy and his chest gets tight, when those sickle-shaped cells flowing through his veins start to overwhelm the healthy ones, and the genes he inherited from his mother beg him to slow down. This is a fight against his own DNA, and Severin has spent the past two years arming himself for battle.

"At first, it was something I was doing almost temporarily, and then it became who I was," Severin said. "It’s helped change my life."

Severin has the sickle cell trait, meaning he’s a carrier of the gene for sickle cell anemia, a disease which creates sickle-shaped cells within the blood stream. Though the symptoms for most carriers are relatively benign, in athletes there are real dangers. Often they grow tired more quickly than their counterparts, and their recovery times are longer. In rare cases, excessive exertion can lead to severe symptoms and even death.

Until Severin arrived at Virginia, however, he coped with his condition by ignoring it.

"Growing up, I really just kind of didn’t want to think about it," Severin said. "I was trying to trick myself, convince myself that I didn’t have it."

This isn’t to say Severin didn’t understand the dangers. He knew those all too well.

Severin’s mother, Karen, had the sickle cell trait, too. When he was 9, she developed a blood clot and died. That’s when Canaan’s father, James, first explained the condition and told Canaan that he would battle it throughout his life, too.

"It was overwhelming," Severin said, "but my dad did a great job of keeping me positive."

Severin was a star on the football field, but he would be tired after a hard practice, and when his offense shifted tempo and pushed the ball downfield, Severin would notice a strange feeling in his legs that made them heavy and sluggish. But he could always push through it, and eventually he landed a scholarship at Virginia.

When Severin arrived on campus, trainers explained his condition in more detail, a legal requirement at the school. Severin had to sign a waiver in order to suit up, and his coaches were educated on how to properly manage his workouts and practices.

"It’s not about you toughing it out," head coach Mike London said. "When you get to that feeling, it’s OK to step out of line, it’s OK to go see a trainer."

Still, this was the first time Severin had really dealt with his condition head-on, and the early results were troubling for him. In his first two seasons at Virginia, he caught just five passes. Worse, some fans were eager to pin his on-field struggles with a lack of effort.

"People were kind of saying I wasn’t running hard or wasn’t going hard, but I guess people will never know the feeling of having the sickle cell trait," Severin said. "I had to work on my endurance, so that can’t be a knock on me anymore."

A turning point came after Severin’s sophomore year. Receivers coach Marques Hagans was blunt in his assessment of Severin’s early production.

"He was looking out for me," Severin said. "He just told me, 'Your career is halfway over, and I don’t want you to look back and wish you’d done more.'"

The advice wasn’t about pushing through the symptoms that had nagged Severin. It was about attacking them.

Severin developed a training regimen that included intense workouts in the pool, a boxing circuit and endless hours on the track and in the weight room. He changed his diet completely. Gone were the trips to fast-food chains or indulgent binges in the dining hall. Instead, he fired up the Foreman grill and ate the same meal day after day. He lost weight, added muscle and found the symptoms of his condition remained manageable even after intense workouts.

"All the inconvenience -- it’s a lot that comes with it, but I just told myself it was something I really wanted to do, and it’s not going to be easy," Severin said. "I told myself to keep going at all costs."

The hard work began to pay dividends last season. Severin had a breakout year, leading the Cavaliers with 578 yards receiving and five touchdowns and hauling in his share of spectacular grabs.

Virginia’s 2015 season opened with two losses in three games, a major disappointment for Severin. But his performance has been exceptional. Against Notre Dame in Week 2, he caught 11 passes for 153 yards. Against William & Mary on Saturday, he hauled in another spectacular touchdown grab. Through three games, Severin ranks third in the ACC in both catches (19) and yards (264).

The on-field success was a reminder that the hard work was worth it, but the motivation to keep going came from home. His family was thrilled to see him succeed in spite of his condition, and Severin knew his biggest fan appreciated the challenges he faced more than anyone.

"I can’t put an amount on the motivation that [my mom] gives me," Severin said. "That gives you adrenaline every day, and I know she’s always watching. So I just keep on going for her."