Earlier this week, Eastern assistant football coach Josh Fetter paid the ultimate compliment to his starting middle linebacker.
“He’s tougher than nails,” Fetter said of senior Cody McCarthy – and that might be underselling it.
Figuratively, McCarthy has lived on a bed of nails for much of his life; sometimes he’s made that bed himself and willingly slept in it.
If pain makes you stronger, McCarthy is the Atlas of the West Plains: He’s had surgery on both knees, a skiing accident that almost cost him a leg, and most recently a sudden onset of Type 1 diabetes that left him comatose and 40 pounds lighter.
Eyes on the prize
“I’ve learned to play through a lot of things that other people couldn’t play through,” said McCarthy, for whom the greatest pain would be life away from football.
That will come soon enough – McCarthy is a senior – but it will come on his terms, not dictated by the hard knocks of life. He’s known enough of those.
McCarthy is a blue-collar kid from Idaho who aspired to more, who became a teenage power-lifter to bulk up his football résumé and catch of the eye of recruiters.
“I made it a goal for myself that I was going to do everything it takes to play college football,” said McCarthy, who got a leg up on the competition in junior high as a sprint star. Later, he migrated from track to field, winning a state title in the shot put.
Both were means to an end: a college education. “My family couldn’t afford it … so I told myself I was going to do everything it takes to play college football,” McCarthy said.
As a 14-year-old freshman at Bishop Kelly in Boise, he started at fullback and linebacker, “playing against 18-year-olds and taking some lumps” but always getting back up.
Motivation came mostly from within, but also on the sideline where his father, Joe – a former linebacker at Boise State – served as defensive coordinator.
Midway through his high school career, McCarthy suffered a meniscus tear in his right knee. Five days later, he chose to play at a high school camp at Boise State. “I’d play, get on crutches at halftime, then go back and play,” said McCarthy, who admits the move drew some skepticism.
His talent drew attention. Rivals.com rated him as the 36th-best linebacker in the country, while Scout.com listed him as a three-star recruit. Along the way to a state title as a senior, McCarthy was the 4A state player of the year and was one of 50 players nationally named as Old Spice Player of the Year.
McCarthy drew interest from several schools, including Boise State, Washington and Oregon State, but his stock plummeted after a catastrophic ski accident at Lookout Pass in the winter of 2010-11. Landing awkwardly on a mogul, he was taken off the mountain by snowmobile.
“I almost lost my leg,” he says, displaying a scar that’s almost 2 feet long.
Change of direction
The injury kept him out of the USA All-American Bowl. “Physically, I just couldn’t do it,” McCarthy said.
He had scheduled a recruiting trip to Montana when Eastern assistant Ryan Sawyer called from Cheney.
Familiar with the Spokane area from a youth spent partly in Orofino, Idaho, McCarthy made the trip – and swiftly made a commitment to the Eagles.
An only child, he felt a familial connection with the Eastern players, including linebackers Zach Johnson and J.C. Sherritt. Despite a preseason knee injury, he was the only true freshman to play on defense in 2011.
During the next offseason, he began to feel ill, but wrote it off to a recent appendectomy. Pounds were dropping, and so was McCarthy, who was passing out from dizziness. “There’s something wrong with you,” said Nate Brookreson, then the strength and conditioning coach.
McCarthy was rushed to a hospital.
By then, McCarthy’s weight had dropped from 230 pounds to 190. He briefly slipped into a coma and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
“I attacked it like I did everything else,” said McCarthy, who carried an insulin pump, regained the weight and played 12 games the next year as a backup middle linebacker.
Last season, he moved to the top of the depth chart, starting all 15 games and finishing with 115 tackles, 13th-most in school history.
“I’m not the fastest or most athletic guy out there, but I have the ability to read and react, and play faster through my knowledge,” the 21-year-old McCarthy said.
“He’s a great mentor,” sophomore linebacker Miquiyah Zamora said. “He takes the young guys aside and helps them – he cares about people.”
True enough. Recalling his rescue from the ski hill, McCarthy wants to repay the debt. “People were there for me,” McCarthy said.
After earning his degree next spring in exercise science, he’ll pursue an advanced EMT degree.
“Helping people through adversity is pretty big in my life,” McCarthy said.
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