PULLMAN — On a midsummer day, Connor Halliday stepped back and gunned a 45-yard post pass, really drove it. It felt so good. He had almost forgotten what good felt like.
Washington State begins football camp Thursday. That brings Halliday one day further from the crazy afternoon of Nov. 19, the day that defined his past eight months.
He wasn't great that afternoon, completing 21 of 48 passes for 290 yards and four interceptions in Washington State's 30-27 overtime loss, but you try standing in for three quarters and winging footballs against the Utah defense with a lacerated liver.
Knees, ankles, shoulders football players damage those all the time. Who gets a lacerated liver, other than somebody T-boned by a speeding car? Who plays a football game with one?
"Anytime you have an injury that makes you bleed significantly, and that's what we're talking about here," said WSU team doctor Ed Tingstad, "that's pretty well unheard of."
This was Halliday's first start at WSU. In his redshirt-freshman season, he had come off the bench the week before and riddled Arizona State for 494 yards on 27 of 36 passing in a big upset victory. He was the Pac-12 offensive player of the week.
But Utah was more stout up front, more together and now it had video of Halliday. Early in the second quarter, the Utes looped a blitz and a linebacker belted Halliday just as his right side was exposed on a follow-through.
"Right when he hit me, I couldn't breathe," Halliday said in his first extended interview since the injury. "I figured I'd broken my ribs."
He couldn't talk. He had Rickey Galvin, a running back, call signals for him.
Otherwise, Halliday hid his pain well. His dad had always told him to try to deal with it. Wade Jacobson, an offensive lineman rehabbing from surgery, offered him a water bottle on the bench, but Halliday didn't respond. It thudded to the ground.
"Taking a breath hurt like heck," Halliday said. "Throwing a ball hurt like heck."
Snow arrived at halftime and the game played on in the white. Twice, Utah took 10-point leads in the fourth quarter. Twice, Halliday rallied the Cougars back.
It went to overtime, and Halliday caught a blow on the bench next to Marshall Lobbestael, the quarterback he had displaced.
"I kind of put my head on his shoulder and fell asleep a little bit," Halliday said.
Lobbestael roused Halliday up, but overtime was a mess for him an intentional-grounding penalty and a final interception. Soon Halliday was in the locker room. Lobbestael and the other injured quarterback, Jeff Tuel, helped him remove his pads.
So well concealed was Halliday's condition that WSU publicists thought he was coming upstairs to postgame interviews. After seeing him in the locker room, Tingstad had other ideas.
"I drove him to the hospital," Tingstad said. "He said, 'Do we have to go to the hospital?' "
They tested his ribs and found no break. Halliday said, "I'm not trying to sound soft here, but I can't move without crying. I think it's more than a bruised rib."
They took another CT scan, and Halliday heard a physician say, "It's a lot worse than we think."
Halliday had a rupture of 14.7 centimeters, or almost six inches, in his liver, the organ inside the rib cage that metabolizes foods and neutralizes toxins.
The blood clotted and Halliday left the hospital after a few days. But, he said, "I just didn't understand how a football hit could put you in that much pain. For two weeks, I couldn't even walk."
But he had to finish the semester, so he had to walk to class, which was torture. In midwinter, while the new Mike Leach regime brought a whir of conditioning around him, Halliday tried jogging.
"Within the first 10 minutes, I almost fell over because of the pain," he said.
He got bumped, naturally, right on the sore side one day early in spring ball, putting him out again. He says he was in pain a full six months. His weight, down to 169 pounds in the hospital (he's 6 feet 4) is back near 190, but his wind has been slow to come back.
He soul-searched about continuing football, and the answer kept coming up the same: Bring it on.
"On the football field is the happiest I've been in my entire life. That's what I live for."
The reality is, Halliday is miles behind Tuel for the starter's job. But he plans to make a run at it, saying, "Even if I don't win that job, it'll make Jeff better and make the team better. I'll do everything in my power to win the job."
So the new staff should know two things about Halliday: He can play. And he can play hurt.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org