Deb McCormick searched for something positive to latch on to as she sat in her Bend home Saturday with her husband, Greg Rawdin, watching the Oregon Ducks take on Fresno State at Autzen Stadium.
Her son, Ducks tight end Cam McCormick, was expected to take the field for the first time in three years since breaking his left fibula during the 2018 season opener. The injury led to numerous complications that at various points threatened to end his football career.
Under any other circumstances, circumstances, Deb McCormick would have attended Saturday’s game to witness her son’s return to the field. But unexpectedly, her father, John Torbyn, had recently died. Soon after, the longtime family dog, Rogue, also passed away. Both events left Deb McCormick emotionally drained. So, she remained at home Saturday. Hoping.
Then it happened. Cam McCormick, who had appeared in the game for two extra point kicks, finally got in for an offensive play during a fourth-down-and-two situation with just under 13 minutes remaining in the first half.
McCormick executed his block, helping to clear a path for running back Travis Dye to gain the first down at the Oregon 31. Then McCormick left the game.
Back home, tears streamed down Deb McCormick’s face. It was just one play, but for her, it might as well have been a five-touchdown performance. After a whirlwind of failed surgeries, repairs, complications, more surgeries, more complications and yet another surgery in of all places, Wisconsin, Cam McCormick had played in a college football game again.
“It was overwhelming,” Deb McCormick said. “It was so exciting to see him back out there. We must have replayed that play 10 times, at least.”
This story is as much about a mother’s support of her son as it is about his return to the football field.
Deb McCormick overcame deep bouts of despair that at times left her feeling helpless, with no more words of encouragement to offer her son while he also came close to giving up. But he didn’t and lifting him up time and time again was his mother.
“She pushed me to not want to quit,” Cam McCormick said. “There were times where I had to ask myself if this was what I wanted to be doing. It put me in a dark place a couple of times throughout these challenges that I’ve faced. But she’s always been there to support me.”
A BODY CHALLENGED
On Monday, Deb McCormick and her husband scooped up Cam in Eugene and the three went to Heceta Beach in Florence just to be together and reflect on what had been such a difficult journey.
McCormick’s foot felt great after the game. Only some soreness, he was told, would appear for about a year after doing activities but should clear up for good at some point. But that soreness was like enduring a bee sting compared to the numerous shark bites he had endured for several years.
And not just starting with his broken leg against Bowling Green in 2018. His journey through a cruel list of setbacks began his senior year at Bend’s Summit High School when McCormick tore his ACL during a football practice. That ended what promised to be a huge school year for him in football, basketball and track and field. The football team ultimately won the Class 5A state championship without him, further compounding his disappointment that he couldn’t contribute.
With his high school sports career over, McCormick decided to enroll early at Oregon, redshirt in 2016 and come back strong in 2017.
“Oregon did the right thing,” Deb McCormick said regarding the staff under former coach Mark Helfrich. “They stood by him. They never wavered.”
Nearly a year later, following winter workouts at Oregon under new coach Willie Taggart, McCormick and two other Ducks were hospitalized after suffering rhabdomyolysis, which destroys muscle tissue. McCormick, after spending a week in the hospital, ultimately worked his way back into shape and played in all 13 games in 2017. He started two games and caught six passes for 89 yards and a touchdown.
McCormick was hungry for more and in 2018, under new coach Mario Cristobal, McCormick beat out returning starter, Jacob Breeland to earn the starting job.
That season began with Bowling Green at home. In the first quarter, UO ran an outside running play to the left near Oregon’s sideline. McCormick performed a double-team block with Breeland and then moved to the second level to pick up another defender. Meanwhile, offensive tackle Calvin Throckmorton was blocking his man behind McCormick and drove the defender down onto the back of his left leg.
McCormick went down, then attempted to rise but failed. He said he felt like his bone had gone through the side of his leg. McCormick scooted himself off the field, got to his feet, hopped on one leg for a bit and then went right back down.
He was later diagnosed with a broken left fibula and torn deltoid ligament. Season over. But McCormick handled the situation well. He had been here before in high school. And although it was tough watching the team go on to win the Redbox Bowl over Michigan State without him, McCormick did his part by being a supportive teammate, knowing that he would be back as strong as ever in 2019. Or so he thought.
SETTING SIGHTS ON AUBURN
Following the season, McCormick began seeing blue and orange — the colors of Auburn, Oregon’s 2019 season-opening opponent. That game served as a beacon, driving McCormick to work as hard as possible to be on the field, Aug. 31, 2019, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington Texas.
By spring 2019, his injuries had healed nicely. McCormick participated in team drills and felt great. That changed three weeks after the April 20 spring game when he began experiencing discomfort and swelling in his left ankle.
The next few months went like this:
Deb McCormick says team doctors believed her son suffered a stress reaction because of overuse. McCormick rested for a bit then resumed workouts. But the pain returned. Doctors next determined the problem to be a stress fracture that would heal with additional rest. McCormick rested his foot again. He felt better and resumed workouts, again. But the pain returned. Again. Deb McCormick wondered if the hardware was the issue. Doctors didn’t believe so. By the time fall camp began in August, McCormick was still in pain and unable to practice.
The Auburn game was weeks away and an injury he had suffered 11 months prior still loomed.
At that point, McCormick began feeling hopeless. His mother worried about his state of mind and if he would just give up. One night, he broke down in tears in his bedroom at school. Teammates were unable to console him. His mother also tried and failed.
A NEW HOPE DASHED
Through the help of teammates, especially Juwan Johnson and Breeland, McCormick eventually dusted himself off and traveled to Texas for the Auburn game with a positive attitude and keeping alive the hope of playing that season. He suited up to feel a part of the team again. But warming up proved to be excruciatingly painful.
He rested the foot for two weeks, hoping to play at home against Montana on Sept. 14.
Before the game, doctors had finally diagnosed the problem and it was the hardware in McCormick’s leg, as Deb McCormick had feared.
“Basically, it was like a hardware malfunction,” Cam McCormick said.
The anchor that doctors had placed in his ankle, allowing a suture to go through the bone to tie a ligament in place on the other side, had caused another fracture.
Each time McCormick took a step on that foot, the anchor and suture move inside the bone, Deb McCormick said.
Her son would need a second surgery. Although the diagnosis was upsetting, it also offered McCormick new hope. The problem, he knew then, was fixable.
“The not knowing is what was killing him,” Deb McCormick said. “The hope every week that he was going to be back. That was the hardest part for him. Once he found out, it was easier to handle.”
But McCormick had a decision to make. He could have the surgery right away and end his season or attempt to play through the pain.
McCormick decided to give playing a try and suited up for the Montana game, which amazed his mother.
“The anchor was halfway through his bone and he still wanted to play,” Deb McCormick said. “That’s how bad he wanted it.”
McCormick and his mother, who attended the game, developed a signaling system so he could tell her if he thought he could play after warming up. If McCormick rubbed his right arm with his left hand he could play. If he rubbed his left arm with his right hand, he could not.
At first, McCormick said, his leg responded well during warm-ups. He rubbed his right arm. Deb McCormick noticed from her seat and became hopeful.
A bit later, however, McCormick sprinted to chase down a fade pass thrown by quarterback Justin Herbert. That extra burst sent a lightning bolt of pain through McCormick’s ankle.
He immediately rubbed his left arm. He simply couldn’t play. That night, he told his mother he should have the surgery.
The second surgery fixed the problem physically and gave McCormick a sense of peace emotionally. But losing another season, and one that saw the Ducks win the Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl, hurt even more than the previous season.
But McCormick knew he had plenty of football and other options ahead of him. He graduated with a degree in journalism/advertising in 2019 and began working on a master’s degree in advertising and brand responsibility. Last year, the NCAA granted him two additional years of eligibility. He has two years remaining after the 2021 season.
The healing of his leg was on schedule and he prepared hard for the 2020 season. Then the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the Pac-12 first canceling the season before establishing a 7-game shorter season later in the fall.
But just when it seemed like McCormick would finally return to the field, more misfortune ensued. First, McCormick was sidelined for both the season opener at home against Stanford and the second game of the season at Washington State because he was contact traced to a teammate who had tested positive for COVID-19.
A frustrated McCormick then eyed the Nov. 21 home game against UCLA for his return. But once again, his ankle became a problem.
McCormick had experienced pain during preseason camp, but nothing that caused him great. So, he pressed on with limited practice reps. At first, team doctors believed McCormick was experiencing tendinitis, according to Deb McCormick. But it never subsided and gradually worsened.
“He just kept having a lot of pain,” Deb McCormick said.
McCormick couldn’t play against UCLA. Once again, his season was in jeopardy and nobody could explain why with any certainty.
“At that point, I was like, do I even want to play football?” McCormick said. “Can I put my body through this anymore?”
But he knew he couldn’t quit. That wasn’t how he was built.
“My mom raised me to not quit, not to give up,” Cam McCormick said.
The only problem was that no clear solution was in sight.
By happenstance, McCormick came across a video of former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress praising Dr. Robert Anderson, a foot and ankle specialist who is the Green Bay Packers team physician. Anderson, who is well known for his successful surgeries performed on numerous professional athletes, had worked on Burress’ ankle during his playing days.
As it turned out, Anderson had mentored Dr. Nick L. Strasser, one of Oregon’s team doctors. In early December 2020, Deb McCormick, exasperated by yet another setback, asked Strasser to help her son get lined up with Anderson. McCormick and his mother traveled to Wisconsin for an exam in Green Bay on Dec. 21 followed by surgery in Appleton on Dec. 23.
During the 2½-hour process, originally expected to take 90 minutes, Anderson took out two screws that shredded the posterior tib tendon in McCormick’s ankle and put in tight rope to secure the deltoid ligaments. He tightened and cleaned up other ligaments and did a tendon transfer. Anderson also performed a controlled break of the heel bone and realigned it.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Deb McCormick had to wait in her rental car for most of the surgery.
The entire trip, paid for by UO, proved challenging and pushed Deb McCormick to the brink.
The COVID-19 pandemic was raging, making travel difficult and worrisome. After the surgery, Deb McCormick had to help her 6-foot-5, 260-pound son in and out of his wheelchair, the car and hotel room over the next couple of days. Although they had avoided snow, it was cold (low of 11 degrees) and windy.
“He is a big dude and I was there by myself,” she said. “And he was in pain. It was like hurricane winds and a door almost slammed on Cameron’s foot. It was hell.”
After getting McCormick from the car to the hotel room following the surgery, his emotionally spent mother returned to the rental car to move it and broke down.
“I lost it,” she said.
But she still had to be strong for her son. So, she pulled herself together, wiped away her tears and returned to the hotel room. Two days later, they flew home on Christmas Day.
Throughout the entire ordeal, McCormick, 23, remained in constant contact with his mother.
“It helps get my mind away from everything and going back to being a kid with my mom,” he said.
The two have always been close, but the past three years made them closer.
“I’m a momma’s boy,” he said. “I love talking to my mom. Not really having my dad in my life, I tend to lean on my mom a lot for everything.”
After returning to Oregon, McCormick stayed at home in Bend for about two weeks. He relaxed and let his mom baby him. The two decompressed from yet another trying ordeal with the help of Rawdin, whom McCormick said has been a big supporter of his and a rock for his mom during their 10 years together and especially the past three years.
By mid-January, McCormick returned to Eugene and began yet another rehabilitation process. He didn’t participate in spring drills, but the ankle was progressing. In July, he was cleared to participate in fall practices.
All that work, pain and heartbreak — then more work, more pain and more heartbreak — had paid off. But not without a steep and trying uphill climb that challenged both McCormick and his mother.
“He definitely feels he hasn’t accomplished what he wants to accomplish for himself,” said Deb McCormick, who credits her mother, Patricia McCreery, for providing immeasurable support during the past three years. “And I can completely respect that. And I support his decision. Have there been times that we’ve had that conversation: When is enough, enough? Yes. But he holds firm. And as his mom, I’m here to support what he wants to do.”
The last time McCormick felt good after a football game was at the end of the 2017 season. Until Saturday.
Through all of the ups and downs, McCormick and his mom say they are thankful for the help from both Cristobal and the team’s medical staff.
“I can’t thank them enough,” McCormick said. “They’ve done so much for me. They’ve got me to be able to be back out here three years later and they’ve kept with me, which is the biggest thing.”
At every stage, Deb McCormick said, Cristobal constantly reached out to them via text or FaceTime to see how they were doing.
“He always checked in,” she said. “Always.”
The entire ordeal taught McCormick just how fragile a football career can be. The silver lining, he said, was that he graduated and now is close to finishing his master’s. If he plays two more years at Oregon after this one, he could stack degrees like pancakes.
But his hunger for football remains stronger than ever. Not only to play at Oregon, but beyond. He went to UO intending to reach the NFL.
“I don’t think I’ve accomplished what I want to accomplish here yet,” McCormick said. “I’m not going to give up on my dream of playing football. I’m not ready to be done.”
If McCormick could have a strong season, even as a backup, and he received a positive draft grade from the NFL, he would consider departing next year.
“If I can just show out and I feel healthy and I feel like I’m at a point where I feel confident in leaving at that point, yes, that’s an option,” he said.
But first and foremost, he simply wants to play. He wants to leave a mark at Oregon. He and his mother hope he receives more playing time as the season progresses. He was Cristobal’s starter in 2018. He believes he could at least become a major contributor. Maybe more playing time will come Saturday when No. 12 Oregon plays at No. 3 Ohio State.
“I want to show everybody what I can still do,” McCormick said. “I know it’s been a while since I’ve been out there, but don’t doubt me. I’ve still got it.”
— Aaron Fentress | [email protected] | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).
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