Athletics & Recreation

Men’s soccer player overcomes disease, surgery, to return to field with Pioneers

Reid Hukari in action with the Pioneers. Photo: Sarah Ritter

Reid Hukari in action with the Pioneers. Photo: Sarah Ritter

As a student-athlete, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of everyday life. However, while others were enjoying their routine of going to practice or sitting in class, one individual could only stare out the window from his hospital room, hoping for the opportunity to return to his team.

Two summers ago, Denver men’s soccer redshirt-junior Reid Hukari was playing in the offseason with FC Tucson in the Premier Development League when he began to experience difficulties breathing.

“I woke up in the middle of the night having chest pains,” Hukari says. “I couldn’t take a deep breath. It felt like a dagger was going into my back.”

Originally diagnosed with pneumonia, Hukari decided to cut his summer short and return home early as the pain persisted.

After starting preseason practice with the Pioneers, Hukari still struggled, experiencing shortness of breath.

“Everything was going well, but it seemed like my fitness was becoming an issue,” Hukari says. “I couldn’t run for a long period of time. I was getting exhausted in games and in practice. One morning I woke up sweating, starting to vomit and unable to take a deep breath. I knew something was wrong.”

With breathing still a demanding task, Hukari made the 20-minute drive to the hospital. Doctors ordered X-rays and soon realized the situation was more serious than originally thought.

“By the time I got to the hospital, the whole left side of my chest was hurting,” Hukari said. “Doctors found that my chest was completely full of fluid and about to collapse my lung. The doctors said if I hadn’t come to the hospital when I did, my lung may have collapsed in class or at practice and I might not be here right now.”

What was originally thought to be a minor issue turned into a monthlong stay in the hospital while doctors frantically tried to figure out what was causing Hukari’s chest to fill with fluid.

“I had two tubes in my back and one in my side for about three weeks, just draining fluid,” Hukari says. “It was terrifying to sit through. Finally, one day the doctors came in and said, ‘We’ve got it figured out. We’re going to go in, and you’re going to have surgery and this is what you’re going to do.’”

A fungus specialist had determined that Hukari had coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley Fever. The disease, typically found in southern California and Arizona, had made its way to the Colorado native.

Now with an accurate diagnosis, Hukari was told that he would need a thoracotomy, a form of lung surgery.

“We were all in shock when we heard the news,” head coach Bobby Muuss says. “Here’s a kid, tough as nails, where soccer is his passion, and to see it taken away so quickly, we were all in shock. The procedure they said they were going to do on Reid was a real eye-opener. It put a lot of things in perspective.”

The four-hour operation involved doctors separating Hukari’s rib cage, collapsing his lung and emptying all the fluid out of his chest. The hardened fluid found in Hukari’s chest was roughly the size of a softball, and his lung was three times the size it should have been.

“It was hard to be away from the team,” Hukari says. “After months of being with the guys, training and trying to get better and to have it go automatically to a situation where I’m only allowed to walk around in a hospital room and the hallways was devastating. The best part was that through the whole surgery, everybody on the team, all the guys would come by. I was never in my room for more than a few hours before another one of my teammates would show up. All the coaches, everyone at the University of Denver was caring. I got giant cards and letters of encouragement for me to get better. It was a great show of support.”

After the surgery, Hukari was told he may never play soccer again. Seeing it as a new challenge, Hukari remained determined to make it back on the field wearing crimson and gold.

“I remember going to the hospital to visit Reid after a game,” Muuss said. “The biggest thing he said was, ‘Coach, if I ever have the opportunity to play again, I’m not going to take anything for granted.’ He stuck by that. He has been one of the fittest guys coming into the preseason, and he worked hard in the summer to come back and play this year. The one thing he kept repeating was, ‘I’m not going to take anything for granted.’ He has done a great job with that.”

Since recovering this past summer, Hukari has started in 15 games for the Pioneers, helping them to an 11-3-3 record and the Summit League regular season title in the team’s inaugural year with the conference. Hukari has been instrumental in helping DU set a new Division I school record of 12 consecutive unbeaten matches, breaking the previous mark of 10 games in 2008. With nine points off three goals and three assists, Hukari has already netted two game-winning goals for the Pioneers since his return.

“Being back with the team is impossible to put into words,” Hukari says. “It is such a great feeling to know I’m helping my team when there was a time I thought that I may never be on the field again. Being out there and being with the people I care about so much and knowing they care just as much about me is an amazing feeling.”

The men’s soccer spring exhibition season continues through April 26, with home games on April 19 and 26. Visit for more information.


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