Even with a damaged spleen and a hospital visit, Boise State safety DeAndre Pierce couldn’t comprehend what he was being told.
Three months without physical activity?
“No,” he thought. “I’m probably going to be out two weeks. That’s it.”
As usual, the doctors won. Pierce spent three and a half months “sitting on my butt” and missed the final nine games of last season.
He’s back on the field this fall — part of a group of impact players who are returning from significant injuries. They spent months dealing with physical pain, severe disappointment and the monotonous grind of rehabilitation.
And now they’re eager to show that they’re as good as ever. In some cases, like Pierce’s, the injury meant an extra year of eligibility.
“It sucked in the beginning,” Pierce, a redshirt junior, said of his injury, “but looking on it now, I’m grateful it happened.”
The players who were out at the end of last season included Pierce (the team’s leading tackler at the time), junior linebacker Riley Whimpey (also the team’s leading tackler at the time), sixth-year senior defensive tackle David Moa (a two-time all-conference honoree), redshirt sophomore quarterback Chase Cord (the backup QB at the time), sophomore wide receiver Khalil Shakir (a versatile offensive weapon) and junior wide receiver Octavius Evans (the projected No. 1 receiver last preseason).
All have practiced during fall camp, though some have been managed carefully, with limits on how many reps they take and trainers using video cameras to monitor their bodies’ response.
“That’s just our plan, and we’re going to stick to it,” coach Bryan Harsin said before camp started. “They’re going to want to go more, and we’re going to say no.”
The three longest-term injuries affected Moa (torn Achilles tendon), Cord (torn ACL) and Whimpey (torn ACL). Pierce returned on a limited basis in the spring, Shakir (sprained knee) practiced in the spring and Evans dealt with two separate injuries (a high ankle sprain last season and a foot fracture in the spring).
The months-long injuries are particularly challenging to overcome, said Marc Paul, Boise State’s associate athletic director for sports performance, health and wellness. The players can’t perform the athletic tasks that have come so natural to them, and everything from their daily schedules to their sleep patterns to their diets change during rehabilitation. They spend more time with doctors and trainers than coaches. They can feel isolated from their teams.
“There comes a point where it’s everyone else moves on and I’m stuck in this no man’s land,” Paul said.
Rehab, he said, is measured in tiny improvements, such as a couple of degrees in range of motion. Setbacks can be unexplainable, like experiencing a swollen knee the day after going for a short walk.
“That’s really hard to be able to understand that,” Paul said. “We operate in this warp-speed vacuum (in athletics) and that warp speed goes down to the speed you’re driving your car at through the parking lot.”
And toward the end of the rehab process, players become “dogs at the gate,” Paul said, itching to go. And that can be a dangerous time.
Just ask Moa, who partially tore an Achilles during a training run up the Camel’s Back Park hill in summer 2018 and reinjured it when he tried to play at Oklahoma State. That ended his senior season, but he was able to get an additional year from the NCAA. He underwent surgery in January.
“Going into Oklahoma State, it felt pretty good — the best it’s been since I got injured,” Moa said. “... And part of me just wanted to be out there with our guys, too, especially a big game like that, so I might have rushed it a little bit.”
The same thing happened to Shakir, who tried to return for the Mountain West championship game after missing two games. He lunged for a pass in warmups and reinjured his left knee, sitting out that game and the bowl game.
The injury, he said, was a mental challenge.
“You can sit there and pout and complain about everything,” he said, “or you can get better.”
Whimpey tore the ACL in his right knee Nov. 3 against BYU — a heartbreaking end to a breakout season (55 tackles in nine games).
His roommate, Cord, had done the same thing less than a month earlier.
“It was definitely a hard experience to go through,” Whimpey said. “It’s hard to accept.”
Cord, who hasn’t been made available to the media since his injury in an October practice, is nearly 10 months into his rehab and competing for the starting quarterback job. Whimpey, who is a little more than nine months into his rehab, is a likely starter at weak-side linebacker.
Both are still on the road to recovery even though they’re cleared to practice. It takes about a year, Paul said, for an ACL patient to “really get back feeling like you did before and get the strength all the way back and the explosiveness.”
Whimpey says his knee feels good — and overcoming the injury has had a positive impact on him.
“I built so much confidence in myself,” he said. “... It was tough, but looking back I’ve learned a ton from it.”
Cord, Whimpey said, had a previous ACL surgery. He provided a valuable resource for Whimpey, as well as a training partner. They competed during rehab tasks.
“He kept an eye out for me when I felt down,” Whimpey said. “He recognized that and was there to help me. He overall was a great friend, a great brother.”
Junior Benton Wickersham said the linebackers have enjoyed seeing Whimpey back on the field.
“He looks really good and he’s working really hard to get back for us,” Wickersham said.
‘Undisputed leader’ returns
Moa is the heart of the Broncos’ defensive line. His absence wasn’t just missed on the stat sheet — it was felt every day.
“When he’s out there on the field, practices go better,” Harsin said. “If things at practice are getting a little squirrelly, if you’ve got a guy like that on the field, he usually handles it. ... When he’s full speed — I hope that’s the case this camp — he’s a dangerous player because he’s just relentless.”
Added Pierce: “Everybody looks at him as an undisputed leader.”
The decision to return for another year of college was a “no-brainer,” Moa said, once he learned the severity of his injury. He was granted the extra year because he played only one game last season.
“It’s definitely given me a chip on my shoulder with some things that I need to get done this year,” he said.
For veteran players — Moa, Pierce, Whimpey and others — limiting reps in fall camp is made easier by their experience, Paul said. The muscle memory should return quickly for them, he said, so they don’t need the same amount of practice time as younger players.
Achilles injuries, like ACLs, are known for their long rehab process. The timeline for an Achilles patient to regain prior form is about nine months, Paul said.
Boise State’s athletic trainers have used video to watch Moa’s lower-leg muscles during drills in fall camp, which helps them assess him and show him what’s happening with his body.
“It’s really good feedback,” Paul said. “... They’re so used to watching film and analyzing athletic performance.”
It’s not food poisoning
Pierce was eased back into action in the spring and is back in his leadership role in the secondary, 10 months after his injury. His lacerated spleen was discovered after the Broncos returned from the Sept. 29 game at Wyoming.
“Initially I thought I just had food poisoning or something,” he said. “I was cramping and throwing up.”
The spleen is located in the upper-left quadrant of the abdomen and is responsible for filtering blood. A laceration means the spleen was damaged, Paul said. In football, that usually happens when a player has taken a hit in that spot, he said.
Pierce also has Sickle Cell Trait, which can cause problems for oxygen-carrying red blood cells at high altitude. The trait was discovered during routine testing when Pierce arrived at Boise State. Maybe 10 athletes in the Broncos’ department have the trait, Paul said.
The combination of a damaged spleen and Sickle Cell Trait can be dangerous, but Sickle Cell Trait doesn’t increase the chances of a spleen injury, Paul said.
Wyoming boasts about having the highest-altitude football stadium in major college football, at 7,220 feet. The Broncos also play above 5,000 feet when they visit Colorado State (this year), New Mexico (next year) and Air Force (next year), and they return to Wyoming next year. The training staff monitors anyone with Sickle Cell Trait more closely during those weeks, Paul said.
“I’d never played at that high of an elevation before,” Pierce said. “... It was my first experience with that. I had no clue. I didn’t even know where my spleen was.”