The 1989 Oklahoma-Texas game is on the short list of college football games I attended as a non-working spectator.
It was memorable for two reasons: My parents were with me during that 86-degree afternoon in the Cotton Bowl, and OU running back Mike Gaddis sustained a life-changing knee injury.
Somehow, we scored great seats near the 40-yard line and only a few rows removed from the west sideline. In the only college game my mom and dad ever attended, Texas prevailed 28-24 because Gaddis didn’t play during the second half — or during the rest of the 1989 season and the entire 1990 season.
In less than two quarters against the Longhorns, Gaddis rushed for 130 yards before sustaining a non-contact knee injury caused by the Cotton Bowl’s AstroTurf — the most common artificial surface of that time.
On Monday, there was the crushing report that Gaddis had passed away at 50.
He was a brilliant football athlete. By midseason in 1989, he was positioned for a run to the Heisman Trophy. He seemed destined for a beautiful NFL career.
Those possibilities dissolved when Gaddis was the victim of a turf injury.
During the same years that Gaddis was a Sooner, quarterback T.J. Rubley and offensive lineman Jerry Ostroski were at the University of Tulsa. As the Golden Hurricane also played home games and most road games on AstroTurf, Rubley and Ostroski have scars as souvenirs of their time on turf.
Ostroski’s description of AstroTurf: “Just imagine taking your living-room carpet and laying it over the top of your driveway.”
He said players routinely sustained burns on their hands, forearms and elbows because of the friction generated from skidding on AstroTurf.
Reportedly, the first FieldTurf installation occurred in 1998 at a high school venue — Dick Bivins Stadium in Amarillo, Texas. Now ubiquitous, FieldTurf is football’s most important and beneficial advance in the past 25 years.
Non-contact injuries still occur, and OU defensive back Tre Norwood apparently sustained just such an injury last week, but they are less frequent on the newer turf.
“FieldTurf is the closest thing to grass,” Ostroski explained. “It’s a springier and more forgiving surface. You love a beautiful grass field, but by the midway mark of a season, it gets worn down. The consistency winds up being worse than FieldTurf.”
On the old AstroTurf, painted numerals and hash marks were especially rough on skin and became slippery trip hazards when there was rain.
In 1994, the Missouri Tigers played their 10th and final season of home games on a surface known as Omniturf. TU opened the 1994 season with a 20-17 road triumph over Mizzou, but the Hurricane lost quarterback Troy DeGar to a serious knee injury caused by the Faurot Field turf.
After the 1994 season, the Omniturf was removed and Missouri converted to grass. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline: “Mizzou Celebrates Departure of Hated Omniturf.”
“It was such a detriment to our program,” then-Missouri coach Larry Smith told the Post-Dispatch. “Our players hated playing on it.”
Of the total of 147 games that Ostroski played at TU and in the NFL, he estimates that 90% happened on AstroTurf.
“And at TU and Buffalo, we practiced on that turf all the time,” said Ostroski, who now is an employee of the TU athletic department. “It’s what you did. Nobody knew anything different back then.
“No matter when you played football, you’re going to have aches and pains later in life. But the guys who played on the old carpet turf, they probably have more.”
In September 1990, as the Golden Hurricane clashed with Arkansas in Fayetteville, Rubley rolled to his left in an attempt to escape pressure. When he tried to backpedal, his season ended.
Ostroski’s memory of Rubley’s knee-injury play: “Scramble. Plant. Twist. Pop.”
It was announced in the Razorback Stadium press box that Rubley probably would return for the second half. He didn’t return until the 1991 opener.
“I put my left foot in the ground and then you hear the big pop,” Rubley recalled. “That was it. On the old AstroTurf surface, there was so much torque.”
Rubley now is the interim head coach at Highlands Ranch High School in Colorado. The Falcons quarterback is T.J.’s son, Jake Rubley, a four-star junior prospect with offers from Michigan, Texas A&M, Penn State, Wisconsin, LSU and Iowa.
An older Rubley son, Ryan, was a TU quarterback in 2013-16. T.J. Rubley’s kids have spent their entire football lives on FieldTurf.
“Truly one of the best inventions ever for football,” Rubley said. “A lot of guys got hurt on the old turf, and if it was a bad knee injury, not a lot of guys were coming back from it.
“Mike Gaddis was such a great talent. Unbelievable player.”
Gaddis and Rubley each achieved an excellent comeback season in 1991. After having been sidelined for 22 months, Gaddis rushed for 1,344 yards on that severely diminished left knee. At TU, Rubley led the Golden Hurricane to 10 wins.
A year later, as a rookie in the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp, Gaddis sustained a right-knee injury that ended his career. He wasn’t tackled on that play, either. The injury happened as the result of a change of direction.
The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel recently compiled his list of the all-time top 150 OU football players. Gaddis was 94th. Among 25 running backs on the list, he was 16th.
If not for the 1989 knee injury, Gaddis might have been a top-30 Sooner overall and among the five highest-rated running backs.
The Midwest City native was at his best in Bedlam games. In OU victories over Oklahoma State in 1988, 1989 and 1991, he rushed for 690 yards and averaged 8.4 yards per attempt.
The stunning talent of Gaddis should be acknowledged for as long as people care about football, but he’ll always be just as readily associated with a cruel injury in the Cotton Bowl.
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