Washington State safety Eric Block — "a wonderful kid," in coach Paul Wulff's words — missed the last spring practices of 2008 and then was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a disease of the large intestine

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PULLMAN — He was always so good at hiding it. Eric Block would take the snap in Bellevue High’s Wing-T offense and handle the ball like a veteran blackjack dealer. Nobody outside of his teammates knew where it was going.

Block started as a freshman at Bellevue and was part of two state championships for the Wolverines. He had those, and a scholarship to play safety at Washington State, and it was all good.

Then, toward the end of his freshman year in 2008 at WSU, it all began changing. The awful stomach aches, food going right through him, his weight dropping when he needed it to rise.

Now he became deceptive again. This wasn’t something a 19-year-old wanted to discuss with anybody.

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“It’s a hard thing to talk about,” said Block’s father Scott. “Last year, he struggled a lot, even talking to my ex-wife and myself. He didn’t bring it up until he was really in trouble.”

Eric Block — “a wonderful kid,” in coach Paul Wulff’s words — missed the last spring practices of ’08 and then was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a disease of the large intestine.

He rebounded in the summer, and then, in the grind of fall camp a year ago, it laid him low again. Before it was done, he had lost some 30 pounds, down to 165, no place for a Pac-10 safety to be.

The siege lasted a couple of weeks, but wrought a lot more havoc. He didn’t do anything for weeks thereafter, finally regaining weight and playing special teams in the final two games.

“You definitely don’t have an appetite,” he said, remembering the worst of it. “Anything you do put in just comes straight out. It’s really hard to keep nutrients in there.

“It’s a lot like having the flu.”

He had a little relapse in the spring, nothing compared to the ordeal of last summer, and now, you might describe him a little like you’d picture the Cougars — tentatively optimistic and hopeful. He’s a second-team safety who will also play special teams.

The illness is a medical mystery. There’s none of it in Block’s family. Stress is believed to be a trigger, but as Block says, there was no particular pressure on him when he had his first bout of it.

Foods that some people can’t handle, like dairy products or wheat, are no problem for him. But he’s learned to push away from things that take longer to digest, like pork.

And foods that are the staple of some college kids’ lives — pizza, Taco Bell — well, never mind. Fatty foods, sugar and alcohol are pretty much no-no’s.

He can even be sensitive to cafeteria food (to which a lot of college kids would argue: Who isn’t?). He’s better with whole fruits and vegetables, unprocessed.

Block tries to eat lighter. His football player’s portions are smaller — the same total, but rationed into six to eight meals a day.

In other words, he’s got to be smart, smarter than the average college sophomore, and so do the Cougars. This might be the time his body becomes vulnerable to the strain of practice, so they have to err on the side of less work, more health.

“In two-a-days, my body kind of wears down,” Block says, adding that medication is helping him. “I’m just trying to stay positive, get as much rest and get my feet up as much as I can.”

The Blocks think of it as drilling into Eric the basics of diet that many adults face every day. Only he’s 19, and there’s no minimizing the impact of ulcerative colitis.

“It’s really mentally draining,” he said. “You feel you climb up to the top of the hill and get knocked back down again. You’ve just got to keep climbing back up.

“I think it’s something that’s going to make me stronger as a person, mentally and physically.”

At home, the Blocks hold their breath and hate even to bring up the subject with their son. “I get more joy out of watching him play football than anything else,” said Scott Block.

On the practice field, his son is asked about the Cougars this year. He says they seem hungrier.

He, as well.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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