Surgeon General’s Warning: This story is not for those with faint hearts or weak constitutions. If a paper cut or a hang nail puts you in a comatose-like state, or if you have lame insurance coverage, please stop reading immediately and consult your doctor.
Playing college football requires toughness, courage and perhaps more than a smidgeon of insanity. You don’t have to catch a pass over the middle with a blood-thirsty, fire-breathing safety bearing down at warp speed to comprehend that. Football is a dangerous sport, and players frequently absorb punishment that the human body is not meant to absorb.
At BYU, there have beennumerous occasions when players have overcome serious injuries, and their own pain threshold, to accomplish amazing feats.
Here are some of the most gruesome and bizarre injuries, and gutsiest performances, in Cougar football history (cue up the theme song from ER, please):
ROBBIE BOSCO (1984 vs. Michigan)
Let’s start with arguably the most famous example of a Cougar playing through pain, in a game that determined the national championship in 1984. Quarterback Robbie Bosco suffered a partial medial collateral tear in his left knee, a grade-two ankle sprain and a bruised rib — all on the same play — in the first quarter after a late hit by Michigan’s Mike Hammerstein in the Holiday Bowl.
Immediately following the play, Bosco, wincing in pain, remained on the ground for several minutes, clutching his left knee. Bosco had to be carried off the field by team doctors and trainers. At that moment, many BYU fans believed that the Cougars’ shot at a national title was gone with Bosco. Eventually he was taken out of the stadium to be examined by team doctor Brent Pratley.
Bosco was replaced by capable backup Blaine Fowler until Bosco returned in the second quarter, hobbling on his heavily wrapped knee.
“When (the injury) first happened, I wasn’t sure I’d return,” Bosco remembers. “But the doctors said it wasn’t that bad, and I was able to walk on it a little. If I was able to walk, I knew I would play. When you are playing in a big game, you don’t feel much pain, as long as you are playing. It hurt on the sidelines.”
Because of Bosco’s lack of mobility, the Cougars turned to the shotgun formation, something they hadn’t attempted all year. “The injury took away a little of our offense,” Bosco says. “We wanted to roll out more and use some reverses. All I could do was fade straight back.”
All Bosco did was lead the Cougars to a come-from-behind 24-17 triumph by engineering two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. After the game, coach LaVell Edwards told reporters, “(Bosco) is in a lot of pain right now. He can’t talk to the media yet, but we’ll try to get him ready.”
Bosco left the stadium on crutches and a 100-watt smile. Considering the magnitude of that victory, it’s likely the pain he was feeling didn’t matter.
RENO MAHE (2001 vs. Utah)
BYU rallied to score a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 24-21 victory over Utah to improve to 11-0 and claim the Mountain West Conference championship, but that was nothing compared to the comeback wide receiver Reno Mahe staged.
On the Monday prior to the game, Mahe underwent an emergency appendectomy. Conventional wisdom said there was no way he could play the following Saturday. The Cougars practiced thatweek as if he would not be available for the game, and you couldn’t blame them. However, Utah coach Ron McBride predicted Tuesday that Mahe would play. BYUcoach Gary Crowton didn’t rule out that possibility.
“There is always a chance with what doctors can do these days,” Crowton said. “They did the procedure with a scope and it gives you a chance to heal pretty quickly. There’s always the possibility that he will be able to play.”
According to doctors, normal activities can be resumed within a few days of an appendectomy, but it takes 4 to 6 weeks for full recovery and strenuous activity should be avoided (yeah, football would probably be considered strenuous activity).
As it turned out, Mahe played. And he caught five passes for 94 yards and scored a 23-yard touchdown that night against the Utes. Early in the game, he was leveled by a Utah defender, who drilled Mahe in the chest after Mahu hauled in a BrandonDoman pass. Though suffering intense pain from the blow that could be felt from the nethermost bleachers at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Mahe simply bounced right back up as if to say, “Is that all you got? That was nothing. Dude, I just had an appendectomy.”
BREYON JONES (2005 vs. Notre Dame)
You know the cliché about leaving it all on the field, right?
Well, BYU kick returnerBreyon Jones literally left part of his finger on the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Jones caught a kickoff, saw a hole on the left side of the field and raced toward it. But as soon as he hit the hole, so did a Fighting Irish defender, whose helmet crashed into his left hand.
“I’m thinking the tip of my ring finger got caught in the little crossbar at the top of the helmet and I did a spin move out of it,” Jones recalls. “So I think my fingertip stayed in his helmet. Basically, I broke the tackle, and my finger didn’t.”
As he jogged back to the sideline after the play, he didn’t feel a thing. He was wearing gloves and when he looked down he noticed a part of his glove was missing. “I saw finger and bone sticking out. From the middle of the fingernail up was gone,” he says.
That’s when the pain came.
Jones asked team doctors to give him a cortisone shot and he returned to kickoff return duties. “We just finished the game up. They made me a little cast for the game. I cut off myglove, stuck my finger through, got a little cast, got it taped up and you’d never know.”
Following the game, doctors performed surgery on his finger. “They gnawed off the bone and the little skin that was hanging over and they flipped it over and put some stitches in it,” Jones says. “The next day was probably the hardest. When I woke up, my finger was throbbing.”
There was no attempt tolocate the missing appendage. “The doctor said, ‘You don’t want it.’ It was probably on somebody’s cleat. There’s not telling where it’s at.”
And you thought Rudy was the smallest object to see action on that legendary field.
JOHN BECK (2006 vs. TCU)
Just two days before BYU was to meet nationally ranked TCU in Fort Worth, a reporter was walking to the parking lot on campus when he saw Cougar quarterback John Beck, leaning on crutches and wearing a cumbersome boot on his foot.
“Need a ride?” the reporter asked.
“No, thanks,” Beck replied. “Someone’s coming to get me.”
During the week, Beck used a gold cart to get around to his classes on campus. And this guy was supposed to be the quarterback for a BYU team preparing on a short week to take on the team with the nation’s longest winning streak? TCU, meanwhile, entered the game well-rested, having enjoyed a bye the previous week, eagerly awaiting the chance to put the heat on a hobbled Beck.
Beck had sprained both ankles a couple of weeks earlier in a loss at Boston College. He sat out against Utah State, but everyone wondered how, with minimal mobility, he’d do against the Horned Frogs’ ferocious defense.
Beck turned in an exceptional outing, completing 23 of 37 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a stunningly easy 31-17 victory. It turned out to be one of the defining moments of Beck’s career.
“John has always been a tough guy and a competitor,” teammate Daniel Coats said. “It didn’t shock me that he was going to play hurt — if John had to crawl or whatever.”
Said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall of Beck: “He was outstanding. It was a courageous performance, a gutty performance, a tough performance, one that is a mark of a leader and a great quarterback.”
MAX HALL (2007 vs. Utah)
When quarterback Max Hall suffered a shoulder injury against Wyoming in 2007, one week prior to the annual showdown against Utah, Hall and the BYU coaches downplayed the severity of the injury.
It wasn’t until after the Cougars knocked off the Utes, 17-10, that Mendenhall acknowledged that Hall had sustained a grade-three separation to his throwing shoulder.
Under normal circumstances, a quarterback with a grade-three should separation would have missed the rest of the regular season and hoped to be available for a bowl game. Utah QB BrianJohnson had a grade-three shoulder separation early in the season and missed a few games.
But Hall was determined to play in the rivalry game, so he reported to the trainers’ room 20 times the first couple of days after the injury. His treatment included the use of packs of tobacco on his shoulder to reduce bruising (in case you wondered, that use of tobacco doesn’t violate the Honor Code).
Though Hall struggled for much of the game against Utah, he completed that now-famous, 49-yard, fourth-and-18 pass to Austin Collie on the game winning touchdown drive with a wet noodle for a shoulder.
Mendenhall was amazed that Hall was able to play at all. “His will and toughness was beyond what I thought was possible,” the coach said. “For him to go out and play the way he did was remarkable, considering the severity of the injury.”
BYU trainer Kevin Morris was equally impressed. “He is a tough kid,” Morris said. “He came in and worked really hard, and I credit Max. We gave him direction, but he worked himselfinto a position to play. Absolutely, it was unique.”
“What Max proved is he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and in the nation,” wide receiver Austin Collie said. “Even with an injury, he came out and played like he did.”
MARC WILSON (1979 vs. Texas A&M)
When BYU traveled to face nationally ranked Texas A&M in the 1979 season-opener, few believed theCougars were ready for prime time. The Cougars hailed from the lightly regarded Western Athletic Conference. BYU was a 16-point underdog.
Cougar coaches had decided the previous spring to redshirt sophomore quarterback Jim McMahon and go with lanky senior Marc Wilson. Just weeks prior to the season, Wilson suffered a ruptured appendix and nearly died. He made a miraculous recovery, although the nightbefore the game, he had a temperature of 102 degrees. Wilson wore a specialflak jacket to protect his body from the physical A&M defense.
“One of my friends on the team, Neils Tidwell, was going on his mission, so we went on a farewell fishing trip with his dad and brother in the Sawtooth Mountains (Idaho),” Wilson recalls. “We took horses to get back up in there. When we got there I felt sort of funny, and the next day I felt faint, like I was going to black out, every time I got up. So I lay in the tend all day and that night we decided I’d better get back home. In the morning we rode our horses out of there and I took a train back to Provo. I felt better so I didn’t go into the doctor. I even went golfing. One morning I got really sick again and they found out I had appendicitis. I started practicing with the team aweek before the Texas A&M game. I was 15 or 20 pounds underweight. They had been watching for a fever as a sign of infection and when we left to go down to the game, I had one. It hit me Friday night. I went to the hospital while the team went to work out. Fortunately, in the morning, the fever was gone and I was fine. Everybody on the team stepped up to compensate for my condition, and we ended up beating them.”
With 52 seconds left in the game, Wilson threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Clay Brown and a subsequenttwo-point conversion on a Wilson pass to Mike Lacey sealed the 18-17 victory.
It marked BYU’s first-ever win over a nationally ranked team on the road. The Aggies were the highest ranked team BYU had ever defeated at that time.
SCOTT JOHNSON (2008 vs.Colorado State)
This has to go down as one of the strangest, and most painful, injuries imaginable.
BYU defense back Scott Johnson suffered a double groin tear in a 45-42 victory at Colorado State in 2008. Ponder those three words for a moment. Double. Groin. Tear.
“Horrible” is the word Johnson chose to describe the injury, which is probably an understatement. He ended up missing the final three regular season games, then saw limited action in the Las Vegas Bowl.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall described how Johnson got injured this way: “He was on his back and both knees were kind of out and one (CSU) player hit this way and one player hit that way. Both groins were torn, one on each side. I don’t know if we could reconstruct that if he were to play 10 more years … If you see it on film, it’s one of those you don’t really like to watch.”
Johnson returned the following season. “(The recovery) was hard,” he said. “A lot of it was a mental thing, too, because when you start to try to recover, you feel like nothing is there. You feel like there’s something anatomically or physically worse than it actually is.”
It’s hard to imagine any injury much worse than a double groin tear.
RILEY NELSON (2010-2012)
Few quarterbacks took more of a beating than Riley Nelson. Part of it, of course, was his fearless style of play. Nelson never learned how to slide, or get out of bounds, and he paid the price.
His sophomore season in 2010 was cut short by a season-ending shoulder injury. Then in 2011, after he wrested the starter’s job away from Jake Heaps, Nelson sustained a broken rib and partially collapsed lung against Idaho after taking a hard hit.
Nelson was sidelined for the next game against New Mexico State, and few expected him to play against Hawaii.But Nelson made what offensive coordinator Brandon Doman called a “miraculous” recovery to throw for a career-high 363 yards and three touchdowns at Hawaii.
Then, in the second game of his senior year, Nelson suffered fractured vertebrae in his back against Weber State.
The nature and severity of the injury was a relatively well-kept secret for a couple of weeks, until it became clear that Nelson could barely function on the field.
Honestly, who plays football with a broken back?
After improving enough to return to action, Nelson injured his rib against San Jose State.
Looking back, for all of the punishment his body took as a Cougar, Nelson’s photo in the media guide probably should have been an X-ray.
TAYSOM HILL (2012 vs. Utah State)
Quarterback Taysom Hill, playing in place of an injured Riley Nelson, was just seconds away from putting the final touches on a 6-3 home victory against Utah State last fall.
But what ensued in the final seconds, under a bizarre set of circumstances, ended Hill’s season.
Hill absorbed a hard hit on the third-to-last play of the game, resulting in a torn LCL in his left knee and a damaged hamstring.
It was an injury that could have been avoided. Coach Bronco Mendenhall called it a “miscommunication” between Hill and the coaching staff.
The coaching staff signaled to Hill that the clock was running and Mendenhall said Hill thought that meant he should run the play that was called — a quarterback draw. The coaches apparently wanted Hill to line up in “victory” formation and kneel down with the ball.
“He took his eyes away. Victory was signaled in right after that and he got hurt,” Mendenhall said. “I’m responsible for anything that happens when one of our guys gets hurt. It’s really unfortunate. Cleaner communication on our part needs to be done. It’s not his fault, it’s our fault.”
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said he told Hill to let the clock run, but Hill “misinterpreted” the signal.
“It’s a great excuse, or a great explanation, but it doesn’t make anybody feel any better,” Doman said. “He called a play and went running to the line of scrimmage. I asked (Mendenhall) to call a timeout, and he didn’t get to the ref in time. … It’s my fault, at least that’s how I feel. I’m responsible for that, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get over him getting injured the way he did and the circumstances of how it happened.”
Ten months later, Hill has recovered from that knee injury, and much quicker than doctors anticipated. He is healthy and ready to play again. As he enters his sophomore season, Hill is hoping to stay injury-free.
Which is the hope of every college football player, who knows how dangerous, and merciless, this sport can be.