Athletes Vulnerable to Dangerous Staph Infection

As a defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins, Brandon Noble had the strength to bring down a 200-pound running back -- but today, sidelined with an infection, he struggles to pick up his baby.

"It felt like someone was lighting me on fire," he said. "It was really painful."

It began last April, when Noble was overcome with intense pain and flu symptoms. Doctors discovered he had MRSA -- which stands for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus -- a debilitating staph infection resistant to most antibiotics.

"One of the doctors, when I was checked into the ER, said, you know, 'If you had waited even another 24 hours, we could potentially be talking about either life or death or losing a leg,' " Noble said.

Stories like Noble's are becoming more common among professional and amateur athletes across the country. MRSA is sending more than 130,000 people to the hospital each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- and outbreaks hit sports teams because players often have open wounds and are in close contact.

"If you go back to the locker room and there are guys sharing towels, sharing whirlpools or sharing weightlifting equipment," said Dr. John Francis of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, "there's a risk of this bacteria commonly found in your skin to then be passed from one individual to another."

The first signs of MRSA are easy to miss. They can be as simple as a red bump on the skin. People often don't see a doctor until it has started spreading, and becomes much more dangerous.

In San Diego, Tynan Murray came down with MRSA while playing for his high school football team.

"It was really scary," said Vicki Francis, Tynan's mom. "They couldn't get his fever down. Nobody knew what was wrong with him."

Murray is fine now and takes precautions.

How to Avoid MRSA

To keep from getting MRSA medical experts recommend…

covering all wounds, no matter how minor.

not sharing towels.

and wiping down sports equipment.

Brandon Noble says he'll probably never be able to play professional football again.

"The kind of repercussions that can come from it [MRSA] are shocking and scary," he said.

All he really wants is to have enough energy to be a dad.

ABC News' Gigi Stone and Kathleen Hendry originally reported this story on "World News Tonight."