Kenny Mayne's big break

ESPN the Mag: Kenny Mayne's Injury

Kenny Mayne reflects on the 1980 college football game in which he suffered an ankle injury that he still feels more than 30 years later.

I USED TO throw a football 70 yards.

I wasn't a great college quarterback, but UNLV thought enough of me to pay for my education and even gave me a $380 stipend every month. Those were good days.

But there was one bad day.

On Oct. 25, 1980, during my junior season, we played at Oregon. I was a backup QB for the Rebels, so I didn't play much until the final quarter of a 32-9 blowout. In the closing seconds, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life: I tried too hard.

We didn't have a play in our package to score 24 points on one throw, but that didn't matter -- I was determined to make something happen. In the huddle, I called a "95," one of our "All Go" routes. I was supposed to drop back and launch the ball to one of my streaking wide receivers. Which I did. But just as I released the ball, an Oregon lineman hit me high, from my left. That locked me into perfect position for the guy coming low from my right. He put his helmet on my right ankle.

Game over. The final line on the play-by-play reads, "Mayne pass intended for Burris on left sideline, incomplete." Here's what was left out: "QB's right ankle, also incomplete." My leg felt strange, almost as if it was underground. One of the linemen knelt and asked, "Are you okay?" I responded, "I think you broke my leg." He apologized, and I watched him drift away into the crowd, where other Ducks were shaking hands and flirting with cheerleaders. For this story, I tracked down Brad Hicks, the guy who hit me from the left. The former defensive end was playing in one of his first college games, and he was looking to make an impression. "The guy over me just looked beat and tired," he says. "His head was down in his stance. I was all amped up, being a freshman, and I just blew by him. I had a full run."

The tackle snapped my fibula and shredded all the ligaments. Aside from the free scrubs from Eugene's Sacred Heart Medical Center, the only thing I remember was our defensive line coach giving me a scotch and water on the flight home. (Hey, we're UNLV, that's how we roll.) The next day a surgeon put plates and screws into my ankle.

That injury has haunted me ever since. When I was a kid, I wanted more than anything for my ability to throw a football to define me. Now, as a 52-year-old father of two, I hope that's not the case with the injury that prevented my athletic dreams from becoming reality.

I WAS NEVER going to be Joe Montana. But I can honestly say that at one point I was ahead of Randall Cunningham on a depth chart. That was in 1981, when he was a freshman at UNLV and I was a senior. My ankle had mended well enough that, for my final year, I once again was the Rebels' No. 2 QB. While I was nothing close to a star, I played with and against many guys who went pro. So I had an idea of what it took.

After I graduated in 1982 with a broadcasting degree, my college coach got me a tryout with the Seahawks, my hometown team. The next thing I knew, I was in Seattle throwing to wide receiver Steve Largent in front of the team's QB coach. "He's not terrible," he told the team's player personnel director.

Apparently, the Seahawks had pretty low standards in those days, because I was later offered a three-year deal that would pay me as much as $45,000 a year. Only on the first day of summer camp, the team's medical staff took a closer look at my ankle. During some leg exercises, my left ankle performed fine, but my right one betrayed me. "We can't let you take the field in this condition," the doctor said. One of the Seahawks' personnel guys gave me $10 to buy a meal on my way home. It was the only pro football money I ever received. And the last dollar was four quarters.

About a week later, I took a temporary production job at a local TV station in Seattle. Meanwhile, I kept in shape and threw for a few teams in the CFL and United States Football League. The free agent deal with the Seahawks would get me in the door; the failed physical usually closed it.

I was 25 when it finally dawned on me that pro football teams don't covet backup college quarterbacks with ruined ankles. I got more serious about television, an industry in which backup college QBs with ruined ankles can make a decent living. Even though my only previous on-camera experience had been community-service reports for the PBS affiliate in Las Vegas, by 1986 I was on-air talent in Seattle. My original plan was to cover hard news and one day be the guy reporting from, say, a rooftop in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Of course, it didn't work out that way. In 1989, I contacted a fledgling sports channel in Bristol, Conn., and asked the people there to hire me. Miracle of miracles, they gave me a few freelance gigs and in 1994 made me full time. In the 18 years since, I've anchored "SportsCenter" a few hundred times, interviewed everybody from Michael Jordan to Stevie Wonder and taken a trip around the world to play elephant polo.

Sadly, none of these experiences has helped my ankle. Since that incomplete pass at Oregon, I've endured eight surgeries. First they put metal in. Then they took metal out. One time a doctor put a pin through the end of my big toe. Another doctor took it out. Several doctors removed bone spurs. In between the surgeries, I've had massages, physical therapy, acupuncture. I've purchased about 100 bottles of liniment oil. I own a light-wave-therapy machine, a vibrating board, a low-level electric stimulator used on horses and five kinds of implements used for stretching. I ice, I heat and I hope. For years, the bad days were usually followed by good ones. But that all changed last fall, when I went to the darkest place I'd been since the Oregon game 32 years ago.

I'd been dragging my ragged ankle around the country to do my segments on "Sunday NFL Countdown"; by the end of the season, I'd limped through 21 weeks of baggage claims, rental-car outposts and football facilities. "Did you hurt yourself on 'Dancing With the Stars'?" many people would ask. I usually just smiled and said, "Something like that." But it got harder and harder to smile. The joint swelled so much on flights that airline employees would offer wheelchairs. Those good days that followed the bad ones? They disappeared. The best part of my day was bedtime, which I kept moving earlier and earlier. At 8 p.m., I'd think, Let's call it quits! But the next morning I'd have to get back on the damn thing. It took all my energy just to make it through the workday. Tom Brady noticed as we taped a TV piece and offered his sympathies. So did Pete Carroll, who encouraged me to hang in there until "they think of something." I was thinking of something, all right. By last Christmas, I was thinking of cutting it off.

When the NFL season ended, I met with surgeons around Seattle and discussed several options. The first was to fuse the joint. This would theoretically take away the pain but leave me with little mobility. Plus, I was warned that the fusion doesn't always hold and that the procedure might have to be repeated, with many more months of rehab.

The second option was to replace the joint, something I'd explored five years earlier. But in a meeting with associates of famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, they called that procedure "Satan's work" -- too new, too many variables, not a wise gamble. But if the ankle surgery did work, maybe I could run again? "We don't recommend running," they said.

The third option was amputation. I'd already ruled out fusion and ankle replacement; a newfangled prosthetic -- maybe like Blade Runner's? -- had a certain appeal. With no ankle at all, maybe then I'd be able to run.

The hallway to the amputation surgeon's office reminded me of something in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- dreary, sterile, clinical. Which is fitting, I suppose. The doctor and his staff were exceedingly kind … and encouraged me to think of anything but giving them my business. I told them I just wanted to run again. But they brought up scenarios I hadn't considered, like the difficulty of getting up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Or simply showering. I limped out of the Cuckoo's Nest, out of options and depressed.

Later that week, at a gym near my house, I ran into my daughter Annie's PE teacher. So of course we talked about my ankle. "I know you've probably heard this from everyone," he said, "but you need to see my chiropractor." I immediately scheduled a visit.

The first things I noticed in Neno Pribic's office were the signed pictures of NFL players. Most include short notes of thanks for "keeping me on the field." As I read them, I thought, I'd settle for walking to the kitchen without a limp. I showed Neno my X-rays, and he immediately dismissed all the surgical options. "Let's get this thing moving," he said, and he proceeded to pull and twist my ankle into places it hadn't been in years. I asked whether what he was doing could hurt it. "It can't be hurt any more than it is," he said.

Now, that made sense to me. And sure enough, at the end of the session I walked out with less of a limp and a lot more hope.

IF I EVER need perspective, it's close at hand.

My best friend, Mark Sansaver, has muscular dystrophy. He uses a walker most of the time and is likely destined for a wheelchair. But he doesn't let MD define him. In that spirit, I refuse to let my life be ruled by an ankle.

I see Neno as much as I can. I don't believe he'll heal my ankle, but where surgeons see only a ruined joint, Neno seeks to doctor the entire area: the calf, the Achilles and the foot. It's working. My picture might not be up on his wall beside those NFL players, but Neno is keeping me on the field too. I started having good days again.

This past spring, I was the car-pool driver after Annie's lacrosse practice. It was cold and rainy, the worst kind of weather for my ankle. Her friend suggested we run back to the car to get warm, but my daughter held her back. "Let's not," she said. "My dad's ankle is ruined. He can't really run."
The hell I can't. It wasn't elegant. It wasn't all that fast. But I beat them both to the car.

Soon after visiting Neno, I had another breakthrough. Remember the people who talked me out of amputation? One of them was David Hughes, a prosthetics maker who suggested I try a new brace developed by his colleague Marmaduke Loke, the lead clinician at Dynamic Bracing Solutions in San Diego.

He created the brace for soldiers who suffer devastating injuries. My only service to our nation was in Cub Scouts. But pain is pain, so I agreed to give it a shot. The brace slides onto my ankle and up to my knee. The pressure that used to be centered on my ankle spreads out over the calf and knee. And last month, when I took my first unorthodox strides at Marmaduke's clinic, there was no pain. I was so thrilled, it didn't even bother me that the man who changed my life is named for a cartoon dog.

I'm still getting used to how my foot always feels as if it's going to slide out of the shoe.

But on June 19, I ran pain-free for the first time in years. Now, if I can just remember how Marmaduke showed me to put on the brace.

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