The question tossed toward New Orleans Breakers head coach John DeFilippo was simple.

"What happened to your foot?" DeFilippo was asked about the boot he wore on his right foot while meeting with reporters following a preseason scrimmage with the USFL foe Birmingham Stallions at Legion Field on Friday.

The answer? Well, that's a bit complicated.

The short answer is that the 44-year-old DeFilippo is battling a rather unique condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis. The short version of the explanation begins with an arthritic spine that includes pain and stiffness in the spine and may affect other joints. DeFilipo said doctors believe he was born with the condition, but it wasn't diagnosed until early this year.

DeFilippo said the problem began around Christmas. He had pain in his foot, along with back pain. Doctors thought it was gout at first but ruled that out quickly. The pain got so severe that he went to the emergency room at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. He spent six days there with doctors running a series of tests. At one point, he spent more than two hours emerged in an MRI machine.  

"It took a while for them to diagnose me," said DeFilippo, whose Breakers team is based in Birmingham and plays and practices at Protective Stadium. "It took doctor after doctor after doctor. It took six days in Mayo Clinic. I mean, if you spend six days in Mayo Clinic, they don't know what you have, that's really scary. They are unbelievable doctors."

Two different doctors told him that he may never walk unassisted again and thought it could be Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome. Eventually, the AS diagnosis was determined.

Obviously, he wondered what would happen with his coaching career. DeFilippo, the son of longtime college football coach and athletic director Gene DeFilippo and a quarterback at James Madison University in the late 1990s, is a longtime NFL assistant coach who made his name on the offensive side of the ball. He's been an offensive coordinator for five NFL franchises and was the quarterback coach in Philadelphia when the Eagles beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

His first opportunity to become a head coach began this past November when he was chosen to replace Larry Fedora, who decided not to return for a second USFL season.

"There was a time that it was touch and go whether I would be here or not," DeFilippo said. "When I went into Mayo, I would have put it 70-30 I would not be able to coach this team this year. The pain was unbearable. Fortunately, the doctors figured out what I had, and I'm on the mend."

DeFilippo said he takes 18 different prescriptions each morning and is wearing the boot to help with the pain. He said the foot pain has lessened but is now having trouble with his hands. He said he has lost feeling some of his fingers. But he still goes to work every day in preparing his team for their opener on April 16 against the Pittsburgh Maulers at Protective Stadium.

"Knowing Coach Flip before this, he's an unbelievably talented, passionate, brilliant coach, who I always wanted to play for," said New Orleans quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. "You see him pushing and grinding every single day, whether he's in a boot or (on a) scooter. He shows up with energy and fire every single day. He loves football. He truly loves the game. He comes out with that fire every single day. We all want to play for him."

It's not always easy, but DeFilippo said football is playing a big role with him getting through the day.

"It's been a pleasure being out here every day," DeFilippo said. "These guys have kept me going. It's been a rough go these last few months."

DeFilippo was asked what lessons he's learned through this process.

"It makes you very, very appreciative to do little things like walk," DeFlippo said. "To be able to get out of bed and it doesn't take you 20 minutes to get out of bed because your back is hurting so bad (or) almost having to call 911 to get out of bed because your back is hurting so bad. It makes you very, very thankful and appreciative of what you have. I'll tell you this: I'll never take my health for granted again."

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