Of all the stories in Sooner running back history that begin “If only he had stayed healthy…” the saga of Mike Gaddis’ career is one that is still talked about by OU fans today. And in terms of the game of life, it’s one that has a happy ending.
Coming out of Midwest City’s Carl Albert High School in 1987, Gaddis was one of the most highly recruited runners in the nation. At 6-0, 217, he was the prototypical tailback, having rushed for over 3,700 yards and 53 touchdowns in his prep career. Gaddis grew up as an OU fan and the Sooners had the inside track except for one thing – they ran the wishbone. So Gaddis jockeyed between his feelings for Oklahoma and the chance to be the next great tailback at USC.
“Bobby Proctor was my recruiter and he used to come pick me up when I was down there for track meets and bringing me over to watch spring practice and give me the grand tour. Made me feel like I was really a big man,” said Gaddis. “But even though I was an OU fan, I really wanted to play tailback. I didn’t want to be a halfback, so USC was in the picture and it really came down to those two schools and the difference was coaching.”
“USC had just hired Larry Smith from Arizona, brand new coach, I didn’t know who he was. Everything was the same except for the coaches for me. Obviously, Switzer had been there forever and I signed with OU. And I never looked back after that.”
But Gaddis’ OU career almost ended before it began. Tiring in early fall workouts, doctors soon discovered what was characterized as a “blood disorder” after running a series of tests. In reality, Gaddis’ was experiencing kidney problems, even though the coaches and doctors didn’t tell him the whole story.
“They talked to my mother about it and my mother kind of kept me out of it. Because at that time, to me, I felt perfect. I didn’t feel any problem. I felt normal,” Gaddis said. “Said they wanted to redshirt me, which I was upset about. I thought I could play that year. So I sat out that fall.”
The real story of Gaddis’ illness also wasn’t made known to the public. Rumors began circulating among the media and fans that Gaddis was just out of shape and not ready to play and that the health issue was a smokescreen to take the heat off of such a highly recruited player. Many doubted Gaddis would ever contribute at OU. It took a while before he proved them wrong.
Cleared to play in 1988, Gaddis started slowly before breaking into the lineup midway through the season. He had his official coming out party in the annual Bedlam Game in Stillwater, matching OSU Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders stride for stride as the Sooners took a 31-28 victory. Gaddis ran for 213 yards that day, Sanders 215.
“That was a special game because, number one, I was in a car wreck that week and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play. So driving up there on the team bus, they still hadn’t really cleared me to play,” said Gaddis.. “We get there and I’m feeling pretty good and the juices are flowing, so there’s no way I’m not playing. And the option game was just incredible that day.”
It was to be the first of three great games Gaddis would have against the Cowboys, a team that he wanted to punish each time he went on the field.
“Being from Oklahoma, you know what that game’s about and a lot of those kids you play against in high school, so there’s a lot of trash talking throughout the year and lot of trash talking for me with the coaches,” Gaddis said. “It was personal. Because I remember how hard they recruited me and then when I ruled them out, they said I couldn’t play. So I took it personal. I always got up for that game.”
Despite the flashes of brilliance, there were times Gaddis had to come out of the game for a breather, something he thought was normal, but something that was actually a product of his condition. He found that he couldn’t be the kind of workhorse back that some expected him to be.
“And I didn’t really understand back then and didn’t think about it much. But I could only carry the ball probably 20-25 times. Anything over that, I just couldn’t do it. Physically, I was just done,” said Gaddis. “And it would take me a day or two days to recover. Everybody else was going out Saturday night, but not me. I’m going home and I’m crashing. ‘Cause I’m exhausted. I’m in bed all Saturday night, Sunday I drag myself out to go to the meetings, but I’m exhausted until Monday. But that was normal for me, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
Coaches and fans were excited about Gaddis finally reaching his potential after the sensational finish to the 1988 season, but things were about to be turned upside down in the off season. Switzer was forced to step down and the Sooners were suddenly on NCAA probation that kept them off of television. Several players exited in the aftermath and the start of the 1989 season was in turmoil. Following a 6-3 loss at Arizona, it was up to Gaddis to start turning things around.
He ran for more than a hundred yards against Kansas in a conference opening victory, then destroyed Oklahoma State with a 274-yard performance, the fourth-best in Sooner history. Up next was Texas and Gaddis was ready to start thinking about his Heisman Trophy chances as the Sooners prepared for the annual Red River rivalry. Sports Illustrated had written a story about him being the best back that no one had seen because OU was banned from television, and he was geared up to make his mark against the Longhorns.
Gaddis had more than 130 yards at halftime but what started out as potentially one of the best running days by any Sooner against the Longhorns turned into a nightmare early in the second half.
“I take a pitch around the left and I’m getting ready to go 80. I mean it just opens up and that’s going to put me over 200 yards for the game, I’m going to have a 1,000 yards for the season by the end of the game, and I’m thinking, I’m getting ready to win this trophy, that’s why I came here to win a championship and win the Heisman. I’m Billy Sims. That’s who I grew up wanting to be,” said Gaddis. “And then boom, just like that – I put my foot in the ground, my knee gives out, next thing I know I’m rolling on the ground looking up at the sky wondering what in the heck just happened to me.”
“And even then, when they took me to the sideline, I just felt like it was a sprain. So I’m like, tape the sucker up and let me get back in there. Obviously, there like no way, we’re going to wait to see what’s going on. It was an ACL tear. I had two guys I grew up watching. Billy was my main man and then there was Marcus Dupree, so in my mind, Dupree blows his knee out and he’s pretty much done. I’m thinking I’m pretty much done.”
His season ended with 829 yards on just 110 carries – a 7.5 per carry average – in just less than six games. Gaddis had watched his Heisman dreams evaporate and even though he began rehabilitating, he doubted in his own mind if he could ever come close to being the back he had been. He could not even return to the field for a year and a half, and as the 1991 season arrived, he was listed as the fourth team tailback. That might have been the last we heard of Mike Gaddis if not for some comments made by head coach Gary Gibbs.
“I think he said something like we can’t count on Gaddis, something like that. And he sparked me to want to come back, so I busted my butt that summer, me and Coach (Pete) Martinelli, strength and conditioning coach,” said Gaddis. “What motivates me is when people say you can’t do it. If I don’t want to play, that’s my decision. But you aren’t going to tell me I can’t play. I go to coach Gibbs the day of the article and I’m told him ‘I’m getting ready to prove you wrong because I’m going to come back. I’m going to make you play me.’”
Still third-team when the season started, Gaddis finally got his last chance when the two backs ahead of him were injured in the conference opener at Iowa State. He came off the bench to rush for over 100 yards and would up regaining his starting spot down the stretch. Gaddis reeled off a 217 yard performance against Missouri and tore up his old favorite, Oklahoma State, with his third 200 yard game against them., running for 203 yards on a career-high 35 carries. He finished the year with more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns, turning down a chance for a medical hardship year to go to the NFL.
A sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Gaddis once again saw misfortune strike when he blew out his other knee after securing a spot on the team. He tried to come back with other NFL teams, but concerns about his kidneys rather than his knees made teams leery of giving him a shot. It was about the same time that the possibility of kidney failure started to become reality.
“I always believe everything works out for the best and I never second guess. When I was 18 at OU, they told me that when I was 25, I would probably need a transplant,” said Gaddis. “When I was 27 is when I started feeling the effects. The high blood pressure for no reason and headaches, so I started seeing a kidney specialist and about five years later, it was time to get it done.”
After testing all four of Gaddis’ brothers for a match, doctors selected his brother Brent as the ideal candidate to donate a kidney. Brent, who had been a basketball player at Southern Nazarene University, spent 10 months in psychological and physical evaluation, while Mike was on dialysis, before the two went to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas for the transplant operation.
“It’s a blessing every year with my brother’s kidney in me. I haven’t had any rejection. My body has accepted it”, said Gaddis. “Obviously, I’m on tons of medication so my body won’t reject it. Because I take so many immune suppressants, I have to be real careful around people who are sick. Even when my kids get sick, I have to be careful and worry about infection. Fortunately, I haven’t had any problems and this kidney could last me the rest of my life.”
“Looking back, you don’t really know how bad you are feeling, because that’s normal to you. When you know is after I had the transplant. Then I knew how bad I felt all my life. I never knew you could feel this good.”
Gaddis settled back in Oklahoma City, where he has operated an insurance agency for more than 15 years. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Andrea, for 20 years and they have two boys, Lunden and Roman . Gaddis keeps close tabs on the Sooner program and is especially happy for two of his old teammates who are now on college coaches.
“Ol’ Cale (Gundy) does a heckuva job with those running backs. I never thought he would be good running back coach”, Gaddis said. “But the ball doesn’t touch the ground, they run hard, they’re physical, I told him he couldn’t coach me, because I was fumbling all over the place. I had that ball out there like a loaf of bread. I grew up watching the wishbone.”
“Chris Wilson (now at USC), I played with him. Those guys are doing a good job. I never saw either one of them as coaches, but who does when you’re playing. It’s a good way to stay around the game, you’ve got to be patient, they’re in there breaking down tape and getting their guys ready, and then having to listen to the “experts” on the radio second guess every move. It’s a tough job. They’ve served their time and put in their dues and I think they’re putting in some serious hours. I get to go home every day.”
For Gaddis, the thought of what might have been is something that he’s learned to live with through the years. Despite the injuries and illness, he still managed to carve out a spot among the top ten all-time rushers at OU in what amount to about a season and a half worth of action.
“Just growing up an Oklahoma fan and then having an opportunity to go play at that school that you grew up worshipping and listening to on the radio every Saturday before every game was on TV,” said Gaddis. “It was my lifelong dream to go there, but not just go there but actually be able to be a good player there. My only regret was, there is no way I could know how my career might have turned out. I thought I could have gotten a couple of Heismans, honestly. When I look back, I never really started a full season.
“I’m pretty proud about that and maybe one day, my kids will really believe I played there.”