Clemson defensive end Justin Foster, who announced in February that he was ending his football career because of long-haul COVID-19 symptoms, will be rejoining the team in June, he told ESPN on Wednesday.
Foster said he spoke to coach Dabo Swinney on Tuesday and told him he isn't sure when or if he'll regain the form that made him a potential NFL draftee, but that he would like to try.
"[Swinney] said if you're feeling better, even if you're not 100 percent, you can start working with the team and we'll build you up from there," Foster said from his home in Shelby, South Carolina. "He said, 'You don't have to play 60 snaps a game; you'll just do what you can do.'"
An estimated 30% of people infected with COVID-19 develop long-haul syndrome, meaning they still experience some combination of symptoms of the disease months after recovering from their initial infection.
Foster was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June and experienced mild symptoms. After he recovered, however, he still felt chronic fatigue and had debilitating breathing problems when he attempted to work out. He has always had asthma and allergies, he said, but was able to manage them as he rose to play for one of the nation's top college football programs. After COVID-19, however, he found himself gasping for air at times after simply walking up stairs, and sometimes for no reason at all.
"Every day you wake up wheezing and you wake up tired and you just think this is never going to get better," he said.
Foster missed the 2020 season and announced Feb. 24 that he would give up football to concentrate on his health, realizing it might be the end of his career.
In conversations with ESPN in early March, he said he was focused on resuming a normal life and that he wasn't thinking about a return to the game.
"I was totally against everything with football. I just didn't want to be around it," he said Wednesday. "I know I was at peace with [not playing], but as I was getting better, I knew if I did get better in the next couple of months there would be some regret if I didn't at least attempt it."
Swinney said in a statement Wednesday that he understood Foster's decision but gave him the option to return.
"I know he wasn't in a good place mentally in January. I tried to talk him out of [moving on] then, but I did tell him, 'Hey, if something changes, the door is open for you,' and things have changed," he said.
The turning point for Foster's health seems to have been in mid-April when he received his first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Numerous hospitals have reported that roughly 40% of long-haulers feel sudden improvement after being vaccinated, and within a week of his first shot, Foster felt good enough to resume exercise.
"I started walking, and that was all I could do. Then I started to jog and walk until I could jog the whole rest of the way," he said. In the past two weeks he has intensified his workouts and resumed lifting weights.
Foster also began treatment at Duke University's post-COVID practice April 23, and was given new medications and advice about managing his symptoms. The improvement from just a couple of months ago has been dramatic, he said. The biggest difference, he said, is his belief that he can return.
"Physically I'm in a better place, but overall, how I feel mentally is the big thing. I do see myself getting better," he said.
He said his doctor told him he was physically ready to return to the field, and that when he has off days he needs to "suck it up" and push through. "Just knowing I can push through it is big," he said.
"It's not often you get a call from a great player that you think is gone and he says he's coming back, so just a great thing," Swinney said in his statement. "First of all, just really excited for Justin that he is feeling better with his health and his ability to train like he wants to train. And it's great for Clemson because that gives us seven guys that have started back on our defensive line."
Foster graduated with a bachelor of science degree in December, but has a year of eligibility remaining. The first obstacle was to reverse his medical disqualification with the NCAA, but it turns out the school never filed the paperwork to disqualify him, Foster said.
"My dad told me, and many other good friends told me, I have the rest of my life to pursue many more opportunities. You only get one chance to play the game and especially play at a high level like this," Foster said. "Just to start and to be able to get back to what I love doing, it's a big weight off. I'm ready to start grinding."