One of my biggest regrets is not preparing for a life after football. I didn’t know what I wanted to do besides the NFL. – Luke Staley
DRAPER — Long after the cheering stopped, Luke Staley is paying the price for those Saturday afternoons when he was the greatest running back in the history of BYU and the best running back in the land. It has been 15 years since he limped off the field for the last time, a trainer under each arm, and he’s been hurting ever since.
He recently underwent his 23rd surgery — his 12th since leaving BYU in 2001, almost one per year. There will be more. His shoulder is arthritic and needs to be replaced. Knee replacements won’t be far behind. His elbows hurt. His back hurts. His ankles hurt. His feet hurt. His neck hurts. His doctor says his X-rays look like that of a man twice his age.
Staley is 35.
He is angry. Football injuries and the wear and tear of the game took their toll. He believes that decisions made by him and those he trusted in his youth have robbed his quality of life in adulthood.
The pain has robbed him of time with his sons, ages 12 and 9. There are days when they ask him to play catch or basketball, and he has to tell them no because he’s in too much pain or buried in the couch under bags of ice. “It tears you apart, especially when it’s something productive or something that creates a bond between the two of you,” he says. “It’s hard to say no. They’re starting to understand. They see what I go through. They see the surgeries and the pain I’m in.”
The pain has robbed him of exercise and recreation. For years he has lifted weights at a gym near his home in Draper, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. There are days when he stands and stares at those weights and considers the options: Does he really want to lift weights and accelerate the process that is wearing away his joints and leave him suffering for the next few days? “Or do I bag it and go home and eat something?” he asks. There are days when he chooses the latter.
The pain robs him of sleep. A good night is four to five hours. He dreads the nights of sleeplessness, frustration and pain so badly that sometimes, before getting into the sheets, he stands looking down at the bed — just as he does those barbells — and contemplates the futility of what awaits him there. “The sleep issues have gotten worse year after year after year,” says Heather, his wife of 14 years. “I’ve watched him struggle. It’s a disruption when he’s down here trying to find something to do at night.”
During those long, sleepless hours he has created a solitary second life. While the world sleeps, he listens to podcasts about science and history. On other nights when sleep won’t come he goes for long drives, beginning at 2:30 or 3 a.m. — up and down Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, to Salt Lake City, the Great Salt Lake, the Bonneville Salt Flats, American Fork Canyon, the Alpine Loop. In his travels he has found himself wandering the streets of Portland and New York in the middle of the night in neighborhoods where he shouldn’t be. He packs a camera during his nocturnal wanderings and photographs a world at rest. He has a vast collection of cityscapes, beautiful, haunting and lonely, which he posts on Instagram.
“I drive around for a few hours, think, observe, or I read the news or learn about everything and anything … and take photos,” he says. “I love the peacefulness of a major city. Within a few hours the noise of the city is gone. There’s something serene in a city at night.”
He lives a separate, lonely life from others — or “an extended day,” as he calls it. One day blends into another and he starts the next one waiting for the gym doors to open at 5 a.m., then he returns home to see the kids off to school and begins his day job of selling medical supplies and services.
On the nights when he finds sleep he rests fitfully for a few hours, rises at 4 and heads out the door for pre-dawn bike rides in the mountains near his home. As he pedals up the trails toward the top of Corner Canyon, sweeping the road with his flashlight, he worries about mountain lions and bears that populate these foothills, but so far all he has seen are the eyes of unidentified creatures shining in the darkness.
He relishes these rides and watching the sun climb over the eastern peaks, but to ride on consecutive days is to court days of suffering. Biking is the one thing he can still do with only one ACL.
“I wonder what he would be like without the injuries,” Heather says as she sits at the kitchen table in her home. “Anyone who is in pain is going to be short-tempered. He gets in a funk. I can tell when he’s not feeling well. He’s short and detached. His moods are different all day long.”
She recalls the 18 months they were dating at BYU and the condition in which she found Staley after games: “His arms were raw — the skin was taken off; they were bloody and green, from the grass — and he didn’t even notice those things,” she says. “That’s how much pain he was in. I didn’t understand the long-term damage that was happening. I didn’t think we’d be dealing with it down the road. It has impacted us.”
In a sign of things to come, Staley showed up on crutches for the couple’s bridal photos and wedding, although he cast them aside when the cameras and guests came out.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? Staley appears to be indestructible. When he walks through a gym, even men steal a look. His calves look like twin snakes that swallowed large rocks, and given the cut of his shoulders, arms and thighs he appears ready to suit up for the Cougars again. As former BYU coach LaVell Edwards once observed, “The strange thing is, he’s the most perfectly built guy you’re ever going to see.” It’s as if God decided to chisel the perfect football body out of 6-feet-1, 220 pounds of granite.
But if the outside is granite, the stuff that holds it together is made of silly string. He proved remarkably injury prone, which seems to be in his DNA. Both of his older, football-playing brothers underwent surgery — one to repair a knee, the other an ankle. Doctors have told Staley that he has a high degree of joint laxity (loose ligaments and hypermobility), which makes him vulnerable to joint pain and injury. He has torn the ACL in his knee five times — four in his right knee.
After Staley underwent season-ending shoulder surgery midway through his freshman season in high school, a doctor warned him that, given his joint laxity, this was only the beginning. Staley missed the last few games of his sophomore season with a bone bruise and all but two games as a junior with the first of the ACL tears in his right knee. After managing to play his entire senior season without injury, he injured his “good” shoulder in his first full-contact scrimmage at BYU and late in the season tore the ACL in his left knee. Both required offseason surgery to repair. During his sophomore season, he sustained two more knee injuries. As a junior, he broke his ankle in the 12th game of the season. This recitation of injuries doesn’t do it justice as much as this: He underwent nine surgeries in three years of football at BYU and numerous painkilling injections before and during games.
Despite all that, he produced the greatest, non-quarterback offensive football season in BYU history, surpassing even the great Eldon Fortie. As a junior in 2001, he rushed for 1,596 yards on just 196 carries — a sensational average of 8.1 yards per attempt — and 24 touchdowns, despite missing the last two games of the season with a broken ankle. He caught 32 passes for another 334 yards and four touchdowns. The totals: 1,930 yards, 28 touchdowns. With Staley, BYU was 12-0; without him 0-2. If he had played those last two games and continued his 145-yard average, he would have finished with more than 1,900 rushing yards. He won the Doak Walker and Jim Brown awards as the nation’s top running back and was voted consensus first-team All-America. He showed up for the Doak Walker ceremony on crutches.
In pre-draft evaluations by NFL teams — designed to help underclassmen determine if they should leave school early for the draft — Staley was projected as an early second-round pick. “What the evaluation does not take into account is injuries,” he says. “I was red-flagged at the combine.” Staley skipped his senior season anyway, opting for the NFL draft because, as he explains, “If I would have come back for my senior year those concerns would still be there so it made no sense for me to come back.” He was drafted in the seventh round by the Detroit Lions. He tore the ACL in his right knee again in training camp and underwent another season-ending surgical reconstruction. He tried out for the Lions again a year later and was cut. He began to train for a comeback with the Utah Blaze, an arena league team, but tore the ACL in his right knee for the third time.
“It was time to move on and grow up,” says Staley.
Fifteen years later there is no sign anywhere in the Staley home that he ever played football. When Staley is asked, via text, the whereabouts of the Doak Walker and Jim Brown awards, the All-America certificates and so forth, he texts a photo of the awards stacked on the floor in the corner of a storage facility.
“It’s no longer about me,” he wrote. “I would prefer to hang my kids’ awards over mine. I don’t want to be Uncle Rico, living in the past.”
But in some ways, he is stuck in the past. On the kitchen table there is a two-inch stack of medical reports of his injuries and treatment during his playing days. While meeting with doctors over the years to address the pain and deterioration of his body, he began collecting these reports, and he has studied them repeatedly, highlighting various sections. He doesn’t like what he found there.
During Staley’s freshman year, he was injured on a goal-line run when a defender landed on his left calf. According to a report from the radiologist, the MRI “strongly suggests a tear of the (ACL) … with knee joint effusion (swelling).” But Dr. Kirt Kimball, BYU’s team orthopedist, notes in a report that the MRI was “essentially normal except for slight effusion,” and then in the next paragraph notes, “aspirated 30cc’s slightly blood tinged fluid.”
Kimball performed a diagnostic arthroscopy on the knee. When Staley awakened from the procedure, he found his brother and teammate, Dustin, in the room. As Staley recalls, “He told me I had a torn ACL. When I asked him if they fixed it, he said, no, they were going to try to get me ready to play out the season, possibly the last game and the bowl game.” The lateral meniscus — the cartilaginous pad between the femur and the tibia — was also damaged and part of it had been removed, but the ACL was left unrepaired.
In the post-operative report, Kimball writes, “The ACL surprisingly was completely ruptured.” Later, in the report, he notes, “… ultimately he will require ACL reconstruction.”
Staley wonders why the ACL wasn’t repaired on the spot; after all, how can anyone — especially a running back — play football without an ACL?
Kimball, BYU’s team doctor for 20 years and a former Olympic team physician, says 10 percent of MRIs are wrong and that he was not certain the ACL was torn when he began the arthroscopy. He says he did not have permission from the patient to repair the ACL on the spot, although Staley says he signed a waiver giving the doctor permission “to do what he needs to do.” But placing all such considerations aside temporarily, Staley wonders why he was cleared to play.
He missed the last three games of the season and then began practicing for the bowl game. On two occasions in practice, he experienced what is called a “positive pivot shift” — without an ACL, the knee slides out of the normal range of motion; it buckles, or hyperextends. The knee had to be aspirated (drained).
“I was taken to the training room where (Dr.) Kimball came and saw me,” says Staley. “He said it was a pivot shift and ‘your ACL is already torn and you can't tear it again.’ Each time I had a pivot shift I would be in pain and my knee would swell up. When I would have one, I wouldn't practice for a few days.”
Dr. Charles Beck, Staley’s current orthopedic surgeon, said he would never advise a skill-position athlete to play with a torn ACL because of all the lateral movement that is required and because “you’re causing other damage that can’t be fixed, like to the meniscus and the joint surface, which is even worse.” If there were any doubts about Staley’s playing status, they should’ve ended with the occurrence of the positive pivot shifts. “That was a red flag,” says Beck. “A big red flag. That means the ACL is not competent and you’re causing more damage. I would never recommend (playing). I would tell them they shouldn’t be doing this and to get out. No taping or bracing will save that knee.”
Kimball says the same thing almost verbatim about positive pivot shifts — “That’s a red flag that it isn’t working.”
Still, Staley played in the bowl game, but, not surprisingly, was ineffective — seven carries, three yards. He experienced another pivot shift on the seventh carry and was sidelined for the remainder of the game. A couple weeks later, he underwent surgery to repair the torn ACL, but there was also new damage. More of the meniscus had to be shaved off because of new damage. Once a piece of cartilage is removed, it does not grow back and this was the second time in eight weeks he had damaged sections of the meniscus removed.
Although Staley underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in each of the next two seasons, he missed relatively little playing time — two games as a sophomore and two games as a junior. “I didn’t miss a lot of games because I was getting shot up before every game so I could play,” he says.
Aside from the knee injuries, Staley was also troubled by ankle and shoulder injuries. During his junior season, he says he was given painkilling injections of Novocaine in his ankle and shoulder before every game and often his ankle was injected again during the game. Afterward, as the painkiller wore off, the pain was intense.
“You numb it, and then after the games that wears off and you’re in pain and you don’t sleep,” he says. “You do what you can to live with it. You sedate yourself to sleep. You’re miserable. Then the next week you do it over again.”
Early in his junior season, he injured his left ankle. With the help of the game-day painkilling injections, he continued to play. In the final seconds of the 12th game, he broke the already injured ankle on a run around the right end against Mississippi State.
It was the last time he would ever play in a football game.
When does a team doctor intervene, and is he conflicted by his responsibility for the welfare of an athlete and his loyalty to a team and winning games? These are not new questions. They were raised most famously when Robert Griffin III, then a rookie quarterback for the Washington Redskins, was allowed to return to the field when it was apparent to everyone he was too injured and debilitated to play. He reinjured the knee and has never been the same since. There was a lot of finger-pointing between the coach and the team physician afterward, but the bottom line is that Griffin was allowed to play because he insisted that he was able.
Kimball says he educates athletes about their injury and explains the options and ramifications and then lets them decide. “They’re adults,” he says. “I give my opinion. It’s not uncommon for an athlete with a torn ACL to say he wants to finish out the season. The likelihood of success is remote. … I never treat anyone without telling them the pros and cons and risks.”
Staley wonders if athletes — especially young ones — are prepared to make such decisions (to wit: Griffin III). Certainly, Staley was willing, no matter how much he hurt. This is considered an admirable attitude in football circles, rather than shortsighted. “It’s a tough thing,” Staley says. “You’re going to do anything you can to go on the field. But at 18, 19, 20 years old, you’re not mature enough to make that decision. You don’t understand. Yes, I’m responsible for a lot of this … I didn’t do my part in asking the right questions.”
He began asking those questions several years ago. As he explains, “When I left BYU, about five years later I started to talk to other doctors. They’d ask my history. Doctors started to question (the treatment) — what did they do? There was a lot of that. That’s when I backed away from the (BYU football) program; the bitter feelings started to hit home.”
According to Beck, who served as official surgeon for the U.S. Snowboard Team for 10 years and was one of the founders of The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (TOSH), the injections Staley received could account for at least some of the long-term damage to his shoulders, knees and ankles. For decades, athletes were given repeated injections of the anti-inflammatory corticoid steroids — cortisone — in combination with the painkillers Novocaine, Marcaine or Lidocaine — so they could continue to play. There was one caveat: It was believed that repeated injections of cortisone eroded cartilage and tissue. About a decade ago, Beck realized this was wrong.
“Cortisone was getting all the blame, but it was the 'caines' causing all the damage,” says Beck. “It’s toxic to cartilage — chondrotoxic. We found out the hard way.”
In the mid-2000s, Novacaine was slowly pumped into joints through a catheter as a way to control post-operative pain. Beck was the first to suspect a causal relationship between the pumps and the deterioration of the cartilage. “Those who used these (pumps) developed arthritis rapidly,” says Beck. “Research showed that constantly doing this kills cartilage cells.”
Beck published a report on the subject in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2007, but he began speaking to physician groups around the country as early as 2005 to spread the word. “It took two years for people to do other research and confirm it,” he says. “No one has shown that one shot can kill cells, but multiple shots, weekly injections, can’t be good and is certainly more toxic.”
There are many questions Staley has about the treatment he received at BYU, but on this point — the painkilling injections — Beck offers this defense: “Doctors didn’t know this when Luke was being (injected). Luke was getting bathed in it every week with good intentions; they thought they were just numbing it up so he could keep playing, and he was doing damage and didn’t know about it.” (Kimball says, “The pain pump … that’s a whole different animal. It’s pumping (the caine drugs) in there for two to three days. That’s bad. No one ever suggested that the occasional shot does the same thing.”)
Still, when asked about the wisdom of continually numbing a joint even if the drugs weren’t damaging cartilage, Beck says, “Pain is a protective mechanism. There’s danger in masking pain. It enables the athlete to play and allows the traumatized joint to be more compromised. It’s saying, let’s do what we can to let you play despite the long-term consequences, which could mean shortening your career and giving you horrible arthritis by the time you’re 30. … It goes back to the 1960s. They didn’t know how to diagnose and fix some injuries then, so they gave them cortisone and Novocaine to keep them playing.”
Looking back, Staley says he was "a naïve kid."
"I regret taking everything at face value. They’re telling me that if we don’t repair the ACL there won’t be more damage. That’s not true. It did do more damage. Then they’re shooting up my ankle and saying there’s no further damage you can cause. Then after eight or nine weeks of doing that it breaks.”
He says he worries athletes’ long-term interests continue to be ignored and that is why he is speaking out now after all these years. “The story needs to be told,” he says. “I don’t want to be that bitter guy, but I am to an extent. Players deserve the best quality of care.”
Staley says he has expressed these views with several BYU officials. A few years ago Staley, through lawyers, notified BYU that he was contemplating a lawsuit. “I met with BYU lawyers in a deposition,” he says. “BYU said they are not responsible. They said Kimball is not an employee of BYU so there is a separation by design.” Staley never filed the suit.
For his part, Kimball laments that Staley has hard feelings toward him and BYU. He recalls one vivid memory of the running back that provided a moment of personal satisfaction. The doctor was standing on the sideline of a BYU-Utah game months after repairing Staley’s left knee when he saw Staley break a run toward the sideline. “He planted and pivoted right in front of me and ran up the field, and I thought, hallelujah, his knee held up.’’ He pauses a moment. “I’m a volunteer; I’m not paid by BYU. I do it because I love it." It should be noted that even Staley refers to Kimball as “gifted.”
Staley, meanwhile, is trying to find relief from pain and to heal his body. He controls the pain through ibuprofen, anti-inflammatories and treatment overseen by Beck and rheumatologist Dr. Steven Call. Beck began to see Staley as a patient for the first time in 2012 and has continued to work with him. “His X-rays look like someone in his 60s or 80s,” the doctor says. Beck has tried to buy time for Staley’s worn-out left shoulder with injections of cortisone, but time is running out. “It needs to be replaced,” says Beck. “He’s put it off, but it’s becoming more painful. I hope he doesn’t put it off too long.” Staley puts it off because he knows once he has a new shoulder joint, the countdown for another replacement begins. For that reason, and given Staley’s age, Beck will not do a total ball-and-socket shoulder replacement; a plastic socket wears out faster than a metal ball, so he will replace the ball at the top of the humerus (upper arm bone) and simply smooth out the damaged surface of the socket for now. Eventually, he will require a total shoulder replacement.
Then there are the knees. “Neither is great,” says Beck. He has already operated on the right knee, the worst of the two, but eventually both will be replaced. “There are big puddles in it — the cartilage surface is chipped and worn away and the rebuilt ACL has been eaten away by bone spurs,” he explains.
Doctors have told Staley to continue to work out because it helps combat the effects of arthritis, but it’s a Catch-22; if he works out, he accelerates the wearing process of his already compromised joints.
“It’s a question of how many times are we going to have to replace it?” says Heather. “He wants to live like a 35-year-old. He does everything like he did football — intense.”
Luke Staley with his wife, Heather, and his children Crew, far left, 9, and Tate, far right, 12.
Like everyone else, Staley heard the news that BYU quarterback Taysom Hill was going to return from yet another injury, this time a tricky Lisfranc ligament tear. The parallels between Hill and Staley are obvious — both big, fast and injury-prone. “For me it wasn’t a question of coming back,” says Staley, “but what are you coming back to? Being a football player, you want to play until you can no longer walk; that’s the mentality of a player, especially a good one. You do anything you can to help the team. But I think he has a better mentality than I did. I was so shortsighted. I didn’t have the best plan once football was over. Taysom has done a better job of that and has options.”
Staley fell into a common trap; he wanted to be a professional football player and staked his future on it. “I was dumb enough to say I wanted to be a football player,” he says. “There are some who can do both school and football. All my time and energy went into football. I would love to have gone to medical school.”
When his NFL plans were dashed, he decided it was too late to go to med school. He and Heather were expecting their first child by then, and he had completed only 2½ years of college. He asked a school counselor for the quickest route to a degree; he graduated in sociology and then began a career in medical sales — drugs, services, devices.
“One of my biggest regrets is not preparing for a life after football,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do besides the NFL.”
Ironically, Staley has turned into a student since he left school. He fills up most of those long empty nights studying various subjects via podcasts and websites — Doctor Radio, 60-Second Science, Stuff You Should Know, Daily Curiosity. “I am constantly observing, thinking, researching,” he says. “I want to understand the laws of the universe and how it will directly or indirectly affect me. If I have a question, I want to find the answer. How something in a raw state is taken and transformed into an everyday item that has changed the way we live, how things work, how medicines were discovered, the universe. I love history. I love aviation. It’s truly endless.”
Heather believes that such pursuits serve a secondary purpose as a distraction from the pain. The night-time studies, the long nocturnal drives and the photography all turn his focus outside himself. Staley, a serious and intensely introspective man, calls the sleepless nights “my time.” Even if he would rather be sleeping, he has total freedom to go wherever he wants, although sometimes even that isn’t enough. “I wish you could drive in Utah and get lost,” he says. “I just want to go somewhere where I haven’t been.”
After a long interview, he worries about the image he has left with his visitor, so he sends an email clarifying himself. “There are things in my life that frankly suck and it is what it is. But in so many ways I would consider myself the luckiest person. Football was great but doesn't compare one bit to seeing my two boys grow up and (to) growing old with my best friend. Everyday I am amazed by the choices they make and the people they are becoming … I have got a great family and I would not trade my life for anything.”