Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a six-part Bradenton Herald series on the state of college athletics.
By ALAN DELL
Hiawatha Rutland sat sobbing on a curb in Ames, Iowa.
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The dreams he had as a star running back at Southeast High had vanished.
He felt alone and abandoned.
In the third game of his senior year as a running back at Iowa State University, Rutland suffered a career-ending injury that left him with foot drop, a condition characterized by nerve damage and/or paralysis of the muscles in the anterior portion of the lower leg.
Three years later, the emotional trauma overwhelmed him.
“I was maimed and had no real plan. I did have a degree, but that was not enough to satisfy me,” he recalled recently. “I rehabilitated my leg and, three surgeries later, it was still never more than 63 percent of the original. My life was not looking like the life I envisioned.”
After getting his degree, Rutland returned home as he searched to find himself. He remembers sleeping on his mother’s couch trying to figure out what went wrong and where he was headed. He eventually decided to go back to ISU to get a master’s degree. The program involved working a part-time job helping other students.
He was back in familiar territory, the place where his dreams were planted.
Unfortunately, many fans at ISU thought he was an ex-athlete just hanging around.
One day, people in a truck started yelling racial slurs at him, and chased him through the streets before he eluded them.
“People would say wild stuff to me about being washed up and so many other ignorant things,” Rutland said. “The depression would come and go, and one day everything just overwhelmed me. Someone said something offensive to me and I snapped. I sat down in the middle of the sidewalk and cried. They took me to a doctor, who said I was depressed.”
Rutland said he volunteered to see a psychiatrist and was going through mental health therapy and taking medication when he got a bill for the treatment. He was under the impression the insurance he had with ISU under his job/scholarship would cover his costs, but it didn’t.
Rutland stopped the treatments and managed to get his life back on track, though it hasn’t been easy. He got his master’s in educational leadership and policy studies from ISU and is teaching high school in Harlem at the Lower Manhattan Arts Academy.
The insurance he has with his current job would only pay for part of the treatment. Trying to get the NCAA through its insurance carrier to handle the rest of the cost has been difficult, he said.
‘You have to do everything’
This is not at all what Rutland had planned when he signed his national letter of intent to attend Iowa State in 1999 after leading Southeast with more than 1,500 yards rushing.
Rutland waited patiently for his chance at ISU and became the starter his junior year in 2002. He led the team in rushing (614 yards), despite missing some time because of an injury, and was the leading pass catcher among running backs.
Rutland had hoped to be the feature back his final year, but in the third game of his senior season in 2003, running the ball on the last play of the first quarter against Northern Illinois, his life would change forever.
His body went one way and the rest of his left knee seemed to go another. When Rutland got into the locker room at halftime, he couldn’t move his foot. After just 30 carries for 97 yards, including three touchdowns and showing promise as a receiver out of the backfield his season and career were over.
A few days later, after surgery, he was diagnosed with foot drop and was told it was one of the worst football injuries a player can suffer.
Southeast head coach Paul Maechtle said ISU officials later told him that Rutland had the worst injury in the history of its football program.
Eight years later, Rutland says he faces tough obstacles today in trying to get treatment that will help him in what he perceives as a tangled web of medical insurance procedures involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“You have to do everything yourself. They don’t offer any information on new medical procedures that could help you,” Rutland said. “My knee hurts and it alters the way I walk. I’ve got back and hip problems because I don’t have a foundation in my knee.”
An ISU spokesman said in a statement that Rutland was frustrated with a request from the insurance company that was handling his injury through the NCAA. It wanted him to have his current/recent medical claims filed to the primary health insurance provided by his current employer.
“Hiawatha was informed this was a common practice in the insurance industry. It would likely be denied, but it was still a formality in the process,” an ISU spokesman said.
Now 30, Rutland says he is in constant pain from the injury. He can’t play basketball or go on a run. He said there is treatment available that could help him, but the insurance he has with the NCAA, provided by Mutual of Omaha, doesn’t cover the services.
So the pain comes. Some days are worse than others.
“I am in pain more or less 24 hours a day. It affects my mood,” Rutland said. “I have nerve damage in my knee and had to have a ligament transplant. There are procedures I could have done. There are injections on your knee I could get, but it’s like pulling teeth with the NCAA. They won’t pre-approve anything, and the doctor will not begin any procedures without it.
A lifetime relationship
“I am a little bit disturbed that they (NCAA) are not proactive -- especially with all the new technology that has come out, I shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get this done.”
According to the ISU statement, Mutual of Omaha was simply asking for more information.
“At one point Hiawatha called upset with the policies and procedures (of Mutual of Omaha) because they would not ‘guarantee payment’ on an injection, but they were not ‘denying payment’ either. He was told (by the insurance company) it was related to a medical necessity and/or ‘experimental procedure,’ which requires the medical provider to provide more information,” the ISU statement said.
Rutland has a different version.
“There was a lot of deception with the NCAA,” Rutland said. “You are making millions of dollars for the school and you get injured and they won’t help you. The depression was a side effect of my injury. The NCAA won’t pre-approve anything, and my doctor won’t do anything without the pre-approval.
ISU said in a statement that an athlete has insurance through the NCAA and the current carrier for Rutland is Mutual of Omaha. ISU is responsible for expenses up to the deductible ($90,000) and at that point the NCAA takes over and the processing (approving/paying/denying) is done by Mutual of Omaha. ISU Athletics helps with the transition to connect with necessary contacts and is available as a resource, but can’t speak or act on behalf of them.
Rutland’s dealings with the NCAA could be a lifetime thing, and he is disappointed about how it is turning out. If he doesn’t see a doctor at least once every two years about his knee, he said his NCAA insurance will be dropped so it’s something he cannot put behind him.
“I just want to be able to run and play with my kids when I have them. But I am thinking I am going to better myself and help other people and that is one of the motivating factors of why I am a teacher. I just wish the NCAA would be more helpful,” he said.