On the final play of the first quarter, in a college football game in DeKalb, Ill. one decade ago, Hiawatha Rutland’s left leg buckled.
Less than three games into his senior year — and his second full season as a Big 12 Conference starting tailback — the Iowa State star tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PC) and lateral collateral ligament (LCL) in his knee.
Team doctors immediately diagnosed Rutland with “drop foot,” a rare sports injury caused by peroneal nerve damage to the knee. The injury affects the ability to raise the foot at the ankle and put pressure on the knee, thus hindering basic, physical activities such as walking and climbing stairs.
Just like the knee cartilage that once gave him the strength to cut, juke and elude defenders with ease, Rutland’s NFL dream had collapsed.
“My leg looked like the letter ‘C,’ if you can imagine that,” he said. “I was just worried that I wasn’t going to be able to walk again.”
Rutland is now in the midst of a near decade-long battle with the NCAA and its insurance provider, Mutual of Omaha, to get approved for an injection that would help alleviate the knee, hip, shoulder and back pain caused by drop foot. Basic checkups and appointments are covered by Rutland’s insurance plan. The injection, which has been recommended by doctors in Ames, Iowa and New York City, isn’t.
Mutual of Omaha considers the procedure “experimental” and failed to approve five consecutive bi-annual prescriptions between 2003-2013, according to Rutland. He and his doctors continue to fill out the prescriptions once every two years in order to keep Rutland’s insurance policy active.
While “the brutal game” of football leaves its athletes susceptible to a wide array of injuries and physical ailments, Rutland said he has suffered just as much mental and psychological anguish. He binged for two years on alcohol and Cymbalta, a pill used to treat major depression disorder. The prescription was recommended by team trainers and filled by Iowa State’s student health center. Rutland even paid more than $1,000 out of pocket to see an off-campus therapist ”six to seven times” to help treat his depression.
“I would get black out drunk, go to sleep and wake up the next day in hopes of doing it again,” Rutland said. “Once it sunk in that I would never be able to play again, I was never sober.”
A LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
Many in Ames have called Rutland’s injury the second most catastrophic in Iowa State football’s 121-year history. The most brutal belongs to Jack Trice, Iowa State’s first African-American athlete and also the school’s first to die of injuries sustained during athletic competition in 1923. Jack Trice Stadium, named after the late tackle in 1997, is the only college football stadium to be named after an African-American.
While playing football is no longer a part of Rutland’s life (he still plays fantasy football), the pigskin-induced pain in his shoulders, back and legs affect him “every second of every day,” he said. Three surgeries and 10 years since the injury, Rutland still struggles to do the physical things that most take for granted.
Although he hides it well, Rutland struggles to raise his left foot when he walks, especially navigating through dilapidated streets in New York City, where he lives. The nerve damage in his left knee puts extra weight on his leg, and it’s common for Rutland to drag his foot and trip over cracks in the sidewalk. It’s why he rides his bike more than 20 miles a day, from his sixth-floor walkup in Harlem to the Lower Manhattan Arts Academy (LoMA), where he teaches ninth-grade English. Biking helps the 32-year-old to stay in shape. It also eases the pain.
During Rutland’s visit to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City in February he received another prescription for a Synvisc injection to rid him of his knee arthritis, but the procedure is still considered “experimental” and has yet to be approved by the NCAA and Mutual of Omaha. Synvisc, typically administered as a series of three injections into the knee joint, has been shown to help alleviate arthritis symptoms for six months and even delay the need for knee replacement surgery.
It’s the fifth prescription in 10 years that has gone unfulfilled.
“I just hope that they (the NCAA) change their policy and maybe one day they’ll cover (the injection),” he said. “I believe the goodness in people will prevail, I’m optimistic.”
The Synvisc injection, priced at $800 per shot for three shots, is a far cry financially from the thousands of dollars in medical insurance bills that Mutual of Omaha has already spent on Rutland. That includes rehab, physical therapy and three separate surgeries, as well as a knee scope in 2007. The NCAA even funded Rutland’s 362-mile drive from Ames to Rochester, Minnesota to visit different doctors, going so far as to pay for each of his individual meals on the trip.
“They’ve paid over $200,000 minimum,” Rutland said.
Rutland received a tendon transfer immediately following his injury at Iowa State in 2002, but it wasn’t enough to trump the lingering pain. He’s left with one option — send a letter of explanation to Mutual of Omaha to try and convince them the Synvisc isn’t “experimental” and that the injection will improve his life. He plans to send the letter in December, although there’s no guarantee it will get approved.
The NCAA declined to comment after multiple phone calls from The Sports Report.
“I REMEMBER IT LIKE IT WAS YESTERDAY”
Rutland was once a starting Big 12 running back with NFL aspirations. In 2002, as a junior, he led Iowa State in rushing yards despite missing multiple games due to injury. In 2003, he stormed out of the gates with two touchdowns in the Cyclones’ home opener and was again the team’s leading rusher through the first two games of the season.
“You figure you do that two years in a row, you gotta go to the league,” Rutland said.
In the third and final game of Rutland’s senior season — a non-conference battle against Northern Illinois — he rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter before suffering the injury. It happened on a newly installed play, a simple go route that before the snap had sent Rutland in motion from the backfield and into the slot.
Despite being told by coaches all week that they were “never” going to look for him as an option on the play, Rutland nonetheless found himself wide open and streaking downfield from the snap. But on what looked like an easy 60-yard catch-and-go touchdown, Rutland was forced to readjust his body and turn backwards in order to catch a ball severely underthrown. His leg went in the air, throwing him off balance. Then came the hit.
“When I came down my foot got stuck in the turf,” Rutland said. “Then I heard my knee pop.”
It was an 18-yard catch, the final play of Rutland’s amateur football career.
THE LITTLE THINGS
It wasn’t until a faculty vs. students basketball in the Bronx when Rutland fully realized the full extent of his injuries.
“I scored a quadruple-double, but I was in pain the whole time and couldn’t move for three weeks after that game,” said Rutland, who started dunking in his sophomore year at Southeast High School in Bradenton, Fla.
Because of his lingering knee pain, Rutland said he’s afraid to have children. He fears not being able to run with them at the park, play football with them in the backyard or show them how to dunk a basketball. He cycles through anger and worry about the prospect of being a father, and for the emotional burden he says he blames the NCAA directly.
“College football looks exciting on TV, but there’s a lot more happening than what they show you on Saturday,” Rutland said. “I don’t know who to talk to, who to ask for help. Even if players can’t receive money personally, they should have a say on where the money goes, especially if it directly effects your health.”
Rutland doesn’t complain about his injuries to his students, let alone his family and friends. Instead, the longtime Harlem resident chooses to lead by example. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2010 and has plans to compete in the 100-mile NYC Century Bike Tour this spring.
“Nobody can rebuild the knee,” Rutland said. “That’s proof of the existence of God.”
Follow Chris Dell on Twitter @MaddJournalist