Mike Hague looked at himself in the mirror and hated what he saw. He climbed on a scale and thought Bib the Michelin Man had jumped aboard with him. In that moment a couple of years ago on the opening day of BYU’s fall football practice, a thought fired through his mind that once absolutely was unthinkable: Maybe I should quit.
“I looked ridiculous,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is not me.’ I was big. I looked like a fat fullback. I was 5 foot 10 and weighed 235 pounds. I was like, ‘We weigh in today.’ I put on a heavy sweat suit and ran around the neighborhood just to see if maybe I could cut five pounds before I showed up. I didn’t like myself very much. I had a decision to make.”
That was just one low ebb and one crossroad in a football career that has had more than its share of both. Enduring sprains, tears, wild weight gains, extreme weight losses, ruptures, scopes, season-ending surgeries and busted dreams is now Hague’s legacy. The fact that he’s still playing the game, entering a delayed and delayed-again senior season, is a testament to either resiliency or foolishness.
“I’m not sure which it is,” the 25-year-old laughs.
But he is sure.
It’s his No. 1 takeaway from the past seven years.
“Nothing goes according to plan,” he says. “Nothing. You’ve got to be ready for that.”
Hague was supposed to be a college star. It was written in the stars. He was one of the best high school players ever to come out of the state of Utah. He rushed for 2,001 yards and 28 touchdowns during his senior season at Brighton High in 2006. He returned three kickoffs for scores. He also had 53 tackles and five interceptions, including one he returned for a TD.
When he chose BYU over Boise State, Oregon and Illinois, his future was 50 miles of open road. “I was going to come in, be an all-star running back at BYU and then …”
“It hasn’t happened that way,” he says. “You take what you have and make the most out of it.”
What Hague has done more than anything is survive.
His first season at BYU was promising. He played in all 13 games and had an 87-yard TD run against UNLV.
Then he went on an LDS Church mission to Tennessee, which he says is one of the best moves he ever made. It might have adversely affected his football only to the extent of the typical rustiness that plagues almost all returned missionaries, except that he gained a lot of weight. Over a two-year span of eating Southern-fried cooking — “Fried cornmeal … hmm … I don’t think there’s anything better than that,” Hague says — he bloated up 40 pounds, which was a huge hurdle for a once-fleet-footed back.
That next season — 2009 — he promptly messed over his ankle in a game against Tulane, requiring a couple of inserted screws to hold together bones in his foot. His year was done, and he was awarded a redshirt season.
The following fall camp was when Hague saw himself for what he was — or what he wasn’t — in the mirror before reporting. He really wanted to just walk away. But he couldn’t. “Instead, I decided to change my life. I lost the weight,” he says.
He did more than that. He became a dietary fanatic, transforming himself from a supersized fullback to an undersized one. He was too small to play the position, but he played it anyway, rotating with Zed Mendenhall.
In January 2011, Cougar assistant Nick Howell and Hague thought moving to defensive back was the answer for the incredible shrinking athlete. He was too small even for that by that time.
“I dropped 55 pounds,” Hague says. “I had 2 percent body fat. I was gray in the face. I was sick. I had no energy. I’ve seen the dark side of eating too much and of eating nothing but lettuce and oatmeal.”
It took an intervention on the part of his family, who told him, as he says it, “to start eating real food again, to stop being such a weirdo about it.”
His diet had dwindled down to a cup of oatmeal in the morning, lettuce and broccoli for lunch, a minimal dinner and then consuming nothing from 5:30 p.m. until the next morning. “Overall, I looked good,” he says. “I wanted to be a fitness model at one point. But I wasn’t healthy.”
He was less healthy after tearing a quad in the 2011 spring game.
“I had no muscle there,” he says. “I was just kind of hanging on for dear life.”
With the support of his family, he snapped out of his stubborn devotion to rabbit food and settled on a regular healthy daily intake. He recovered from the quad injury to contribute on defense and special teams in 2011 and set up himself for a productive senior season in 2012.
A lid was slammed on that production when he first took a helmet to his calf in the Utah game, and then ripped two separate muscles in that same calf at Boise State. Once again, his season – and maybe his football career – was over.
“They’d never seen an injury like that in our training room,” he says. “My calf was mutilated. It was more pain than I’d ever felt.”
In January, though, Hague decided he wasn’t done yet when he got a medical-hardship allowance to come back for one more year. Resiliency or foolishness?
It got worse.
During a spring workout session, Hague felt something strange in his left leg while running. The tendon connecting the hip to the knee went berserk. Team doctors did a scope, which didn’t correct the problem. In June, he saw a specialist who told Hague he had a serious issue with something called the IT band. The doctor says only one in 500 people with the same condition needed surgery, and Hague was the one.
The physician cut into the outside of the player’s knee — a long scar is plainly visible — and sliced the band, then punctured it over and over to help stretch out the thing. Then Hague had to rest it and eventually rehab over a two- to three-month period. He was supposed to be back for the Utah game, but he says he’ll be ready for Virginia in the season opener.
“If I lined up today,” he says, “I’d be 110 percent.”
Anybody believe that? Well … Hague does.
Looking back over his rolling experience at BYU, he shakes his head at what has happened to him. He says he’s the old, broken-down man on a team older than most, and he sometimes feels totally out of place with the 18- and 19-year-olds around him. He already has his degree and might have moved on, except that he says he always was taught by his parents to “endure.”
So he has.
“I committed to something and I want to finish it,” Hague says. “Until this year is over, I wouldn’t feel as if I fulfilled my commitment here. When this season ends, I can put it all to rest and feel good about contributing everything I had. I got knocked down — a lot. But I learned to get back up, to keep doing what I love doing … no matter what.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.