You never know.
Those three simple words are scrawled in magic marker on a small, broken rearview mirror that hangs in the office of Eastern Washington University’s offensive line coach, Aaron Best.
The mirror was once attached to the small motor scooter Eagles offensive tackle Brice Leahy was riding last summer when he smashed into the back of a car, suffering a horrific leg injury that dramatically altered his once-promising football career – and his life.
“I picked it up at the crash site,” said Best, who keeps the mirror as a constant reminder of just how fragile and fleeting some of the people we take most for granted can be.
Leahy was one of those people – a tough, smart, dependable leader who was coming off a successful sophomore season in which he started 10 games at right tackle before missing the season finale with an injury.
Leahy was an All-Big Sky Conference honorable mention pick that fall. Some seven months later, he was fully recovered from his injury and eagerly awaiting the start of fall camp when the scooter he was riding home from a friend’s house in Cheney hit a parked car.
Leahy was traveling at about 35 mph. The impact hurled him violently onto the car, where he shattered the back windshield with his head before somersaulting onto the roof and then sliding to the street.
“I just had enough time to swear before I hit,” Leahy said. “I went blind for a little bit, but I was conscious the whole time. And a few seconds after I hit the ground, I started thinking everything was going to be fine.”
But then Leahy looked down at his right leg, and the deep, ugly gash under his kneecap.
“I was cut from like here to here,” he said, running a finger from one side of his knee to the other, “and everything – bone, tendons, muscle, nerves – was hanging out. That’s when I started freaking out.”
The thought of never playing football hit home immediately. But a short time later, while lying on the operating table, Leahy found himself with an even more dire consequence to consider – the amputation of the lower part of his right leg.
Leahy heard medical personnel in the room discussing the grisly nature of the injury, which included multiple fractures of the tibia, along with extensive tissue damage. The leg was such a mess that first responders to the accident site were unable to find all of the pieces of bone missing from Leahy’s tibia.
Shortly before the surgeon arrived, Leahy overheard a couple of nurses discuss the possibility of amputating the injured leg from the knee down.
“I just started crying when I heard that,” he said.
But when Leahy woke following surgery, he still had his right leg – along with eight screws and a couple of metal plates the surgeon had inserted in the leg to repair the damage.
After a week in the hospital and still uncertain about whether blood flow to his gnarled leg could be maintained, Leahy returned to his home in Gig Harbor, Wash., and began the long healing process. With the help of his parents, he worked his way from a wheelchair onto crutches and then to a cane, while considering all along that his football career was over.
Then, later than summer, after Best and Eagles head coach Beau Baldwin made a visit to Leahy’s home, the long-shot idea of trying to play football again was hatched.
“I knew after that I was wanted back,” Leahy said. “And when I got back to school in the fall and was watching from the sidelines and seeing people not doing as well as I thought I could eventually do again, it really made me want to come back.”
Leahy, a fifth-year senior, spent the fall and winter undergoing torturously painful rehab sessions, surprising nearly everyone by suiting up for practice this spring. Still limping noticeably, he was held out of all contact work but began taking part in all drills this fall.
Remarkably, he has worked his way up to No. 2 on the Eagles’ depth chart at right tackle but has yet to play in a game – which is one of his readjusted goals.
“He’s pissed at me,” Best said of Leahy, “because he thinks he should be playing.”
Still, by his own admission, Leahy is only “about 70-80 percent” back to where he was physically before the accident. And that one misstep on a still-balky right leg that might allow a blitzing linebacker to take out Eagles quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell is a risk Best has been unwilling to take so far.
Leahy continues to hold out hope that he will get another chance to play in a game – perhaps as soon as Saturday, when Eastern entertains Montana at 4:05 p.m. on the new red turf in Roos Field.
“When I first started rehab, I only wanted to be able to walk again,” said Leahy, who has given up on his dream of playing in the NFL and plans to attend law school after leaving EWU. “I know I’ll never get back to where I was before the accident, but I feel like I could play if I could just get a shot.”
Whether he gets one will have little effect on the respect and admiration Leahy has earned from his coaches and teammates for making the considerable effort to get back on the football field.
“His injury was a gruesome as it could be,” Baldwin said. “I’ve been amazed at how he’s battled back from an injury that would have made most people just say, ‘I’m done.’ And it’s all because he wants to finish here as a senior and be a part of Eastern football.
“Sure, he’s dealing with the frustration of not being able to do some of the things he was doing before, but I was never worried about that. What I’m most impressed and happy about is that he’s back here finishing things off in the right way.”
Best calls Leahy’s unlikely comeback “phenomenal.”
“And even that’s an understatement,” he said. “I mean, this guy was centimeters away from losing his leg from the knee down, so whether he’s 100 percent and playing or just 80 percent and not having played a down, yet, it’s a phenomenal recovery.
“Here’s a guy who wasn’t doing anything crazy, just riding along on his scooter, and suddenly had his life changed forever by a freak accident. And, yet, he finds a way to make it back and play again.”
You never know.