College of Idaho football coach Mike Moroski can still remember the play that changed Boise State offensive coordinator Tim Plough’s career.
Moroski, then the offensive coordinator at UC Davis, was on the sideline for a spring scrimmage in 2003 heading into Plough’s first season as a quarterback for the Aggies. He watched the freshman trail a running back to the right side of the formation on a speed-option play, plant as a running lane opened, and crumple to the turf without a single defender laying a hand on him.
“It was devastating, and I think he was never quite the same,” Moroski told the Statesman when Plough joined the Boise State coaching staff in January.
Plough’s playing career was never the same after he suffered what many experts refer to as a “career ender” — an injury that essentially means you’re done.
“All four ligaments in my left knee were torn,” Plough said. “I planted weird, and it just kind of exploded.”
It took him 18 months to play again, but that simple play in a scrimmage was the start of a string of injuries, which required Plough to have five surgeries in five years. It ultimately did end his playing career.
For Plough, the injury was also the beginning of a battle with depression, which he said took the joy out of the final years of his playing career and helped shape him into the coach he is today.
“I’m the first to admit now that I was having some serious mental health issues,” Plough said. “That’s one thing that pushed me into coaching. I made a lot of mistakes, and I would love to help guys steer clear of those mistakes and stay on the right path.”
Redefining how he measures joy helped Plough overcome those dark days and lead a more balanced life. It was a notion first proposed to him by former UC Davis head coach Jim Sochor, who was not only his mentor, but also a father figure to former Boise State coaches Chris Petersen and Dan Hawkins.
Sochor taught Plough to find happiness in something other than wins and losses, and that remains at the core of what the Broncos’ offensive coordinator teaches his players today.
“Happiness and sadness are both result-oriented emotions,” Plough said. “We try to teach everyone to detach from the results and just focus on the process, which will hopefully lead us to joy.”
‘A downhill spiral’ for Plough
While recruiting him out of Ramona High in California, Moroski remembers thinking Plough was going to be the next All-American at UC Davis.
His ability to beat teams with either his passing or running jumped off the highlight film, and his athleticism made him as talented a center fielder in baseball as he was a quarterback.
Plough was one of the first players on a full scholarship at Davis, but he was never really healthy long enough to get his career on track. He played for the Aggies from 2003 to 2007, but appeared in only 16 games.
“Injuries can be devastating to a young person,” Moroski said. “Tim did his best and he loved football, but by the end, he started viewing the world and the game in a different way. A little more like a coach, maybe.”
After missing a year and a half because of that first knee injury, Plough got back on the field. When he finally saw action late in the second half of a blowout, he tore the ACL in his right knee. His seasons were then cut short by meniscus tears in his right knee in 2005 and 2006, and after he won the starting job as a senior in 2007, a Lisfranc fracture (foot) ended his career.
As devastating as each setback was, Plough said his second ACL tear was the most difficult to overcome, especially when the results he got didn’t match the effort he put in to get healthy.
“I probably worked the hardest I ever worked in my life and got myself in really good shape and was competing for the job,” he said. “Like every quarterback, I thought I did enough to win it, but they named another guy the starter.”
That other quarterback was John Grant, who led UC Davis to one of its biggest wins in program history in 2005 against Stanford.
The plan going into that game was to have Grant play the first half and Plough play the second, and Plough said the coaches made it clear that whoever had the better game was probably going to start the rest of the year. As fate would have it, Plough never even got on the field.
“We beat Stanford because John played the game of his life,” he said.
The starting job was Grant’s after that. Plough replaced him in the fourth quarter of a lopsided win a couple of weeks later and suffered a torn meniscus.
Plough hit rock bottom in 2007, when he was physically healthier than he’d been in years. He won the starting job, but it was evident to him right away that he wasn’t the player he used to be.
“When I was a younger guy, I was a good athlete,” Plough said. “But it had been so long that by the time I was playing, I was overweight and couldn’t really run anymore. I did that to myself, and that was a tough realization for me.”
Chronic pain led to an issue with prescription drugs during the final couple years of his playing career, Plough said, and he did anything he could to take his mind off of an overwhelming sense of inadequacy and frustration.
“I never felt at the time like things really got out of hand, but looking back on it now, I was not in a good place,” he said. “I was really in a downhill spiral.”
Plough’s struggles to cope with what he perceived as failures were not lost on his coaches.
“A lot of people don’t understand the pressure many of these athletes are under, and it comes from the outside and within,” Moroski said. “We could have done more to support him back then.”
Finding help at Boise State
Plough continued to turn to Sochor for advice after his playing career ended, but it wasn’t until his mentor died in 2015 that he sought professional help.
“I found someone I could talk to and really help get my life on track,” Plough said. “It’s something I still do all the time, and something I’m a big believer in. It’s OK to admit you’re struggling.”
Boise State athletes don’t have to look far for someone to talk to like that. Director of athletic performance-psychology Stephanie Donaldson had a private practice in Boise for 10 years, but she closed it in 2018 to join the athletic department as its first full-time mental health professional.
Donaldson meets with athletes one-on-one and works with both players and coaches in group sessions. Job No. 1, she said, is getting across the message that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness.
“It takes a significant amount of strength to reach out for help,” Donaldson told the Statesman. “I always tell people it takes way more courage to say, ‘Hey, I need help. Can we talk?’ than to bottle it up and keep it to yourself.”
College athletes face stressors that range from being on their own to financial security and academic success. But Donaldson said injuries — particularly the career-altering kind — are especially traumatic events that often required mental rehabilitation as well as the physical kind.
She said athletes unable to compete in their sport for a little as seven days begin to exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“It’s acknowledging it as a grief process. It’s a transition in your life,” Donaldson said. “It’s working through and honoring the grieving process that goes with it and the feeling of sadness, the feelings of denial and working through feelings of anger and really processing it. “
Processing emotions takes time and effort, Donaldson said, and while college athletes seem like superheroes to many, they’re not immune to the doubt, insecurity and fear that come with losing the ability to play.
Boise State linebacker Riley Whimpey said he was driven to tears while trying to regain the form he showed before tearing an ACL late in the 2018 season.
“It was in fall camp, and I just wasn’t the player I was used to being,” he said. “I was struggling on the field, and off of it, I was really in my head. I would go home and cry to my wife.”
Whimpey said he began meeting with Donaldson that year and returned to the field armed with techniques that helped him overcome his doubts.
“She helped me flip around those thoughts, get out of the negative loop and focus on positive self talk,” Whimpey said. “If there’s anything I can say to anybody going through it, it’s to reach out and get help, because it makes a big difference. To this day, it has made a big difference in who I am as a person and how I play on the field.”
Former Boise State quarterback Chase Cord’s long battle with injuries forced him to give up the ame, and he was open about the pressures that came with trying to get back on the field.
“The guys were looking to me to lead them, to bring them energy,” Cord told the Statesman in March. “It got hard to show up and give that to them day in and day out because of the physical and mental challenges I was facing.”
Leaning on the coaching staff
Boise State players in search of help coping with injuries also have valuable resources on the coaching staff, including defensive analyst Kharyee Marshall, who was hired in January after spending the past two years at Oregon with new Boise State head coach Andy Avalos.
Marshall was a defensive lineman at Boise State from 2010 to 2013, and his playing career included a long list of injuries. He never suffered a major injury before joining the Broncos, but his luck changed as a redshirt freshman with a meniscus injury that required surgery. He had shoulder and knee surgery the following year, and his redshirt junior year came with a plantar fascia injury and yet another shoulder surgery.
Marshall started all 13 games of his senior season, but he was slowed by a couple of ankle sprains and spent part of the year with his hand in a cast, thanks to a thumb injury.
The Phoenix native said he didn’t really give much thought to the toll his first injury took on him. It was just part of the game. But as the injuries began to add up, he found himself in a dark place and had to lean on those around him to climb out.
“I had great coaches around me who saw me in the locker room, put their arm around me and said, ‘We’re going to get through this together,’” Marshall said. “If I didn’t have this place and my brothers surrounding me, it would have been tough to get through.”
Marshall said he was able to turn to his then-girlfriend, Julia, who played on the Boise State women’s basketball team from 2009 to 2012 and was going through injuries of her own. The two are now married, and they just welcomed their first child — a son named Xavier — on April 10.
“It helped to have someone at home to kind of go through it with,” Marshall said. “Just having someone there was big.”
Of course, players can always talk to Plough, who has passed the lessons he learned to any player willing to listen.
He’s also used his experience to help more than one get on the right track.
When he was coaching at Northern Arizona (2013-16), Plough said he noticed the warning signs of prescription drug abuse in one of his players and was able to get him help before it got out of hand.
Football can be a violent sport and players are going to get hurt, but they don’t have to go through it alone, Plough said. He echoed the advice given by Donaldson and Whimpey.
“There are a lot of people out there who struggle,” he said. “You’re not any less of a man or a woman if you have these issues. Seek out someone to talk to, whether it’s your coach or a medical professional.”