The last time I saw Craig Garrick was six years ago, and he sounded hopeful. He had just gotten his mangled left knee replaced after years of suffering, and life seemed promising. He was so excited about the new knee that one day when he was driving past a high school, he stopped the car and sprinted up and down the football field just for the sheer joy of running again, the way he once did as captain of the Brigham Young University football team.
Garrick believed the knee would enable him to escape his old demons and finally move on with his life. I believed him and wrote an optimistic story. Like him, I reasoned that since he no longer had his bad knee, he would be pain-free, and if he was pain-free he would no longer need pain-killing narcotics but I was naive. I was crushed when I learned he had been arrested for narcotics prescription fraud again before my story was even published. A short time after that, I bumped into his wife Carol, and she told me, "I don't think Craig is going to live long."
Garrick died Sept. 3 at the age of 41. Officially, he died from complications resulting from abdominal surgery, but really he died from prolonged drug use, specifically narcotics and anabolic steroids.
Or maybe you could say he died from his obsession for football and from a single horrifying play that changed his life forever at the age of 18.
His old coach and neighbor, LaVell Edwards, spoke at his funeral. Garrick's teammates sat slumped on the pews, the old heroes from the undefeated 1984 national championship team, their hair graying, their faces a little more lined, and few of them terribly surprised it had come to this. Sitting in the congregation were Garrick's four children, his wife, two ex-wives, two brothers and four sisters, all of whom had been dragged through Garrick's tumultuous life of injuries, surgeries, arrests, odd jobs, marriages, drug rehabs and pain, always pain.
Surely, we all had the same thought: Such a waste . . . what could have been.
Despite his excesses and his failings, Garrick was irresistibly likable, a loving, kind, gentle giant who went out of his way to do things for people. He was the kind of guy who gave his national championship football helmet to a neighbor boy because, as he explained to his wife, "He has nothing."
But his flaws were an addiction to narcotics and a willingness to do anything to play football.
At the funeral Edwards spoke of how he once told Garrick's mother Janet that Craig shouldn't play football because of that bad knee, which was so badly deformed that it bent like a bow six inches to the side with every step.
"That's not an option," she replied. "If he didn't play, he would die."
So he played, and he died, 20 years later.
"We should do another story," Carol told me after the funeral, outside the chapel. "The last chapter. Craig would like that."
This is that story.
About three weeks before Garrick died, Kyle Whittingham, a former BYU linebacker and current assistant coach at the University of Utah, was waiting in the checkout line at Home Depot when a tall man wearing a Home Depot apron hailed him: "Hey, Coach Whittingham."
Whittingham gave the stranger a cursory hello and looked away, but the stranger persisted
"You don't recognize me, do you?"
Whittingham looked closer. "Craig? Is that you?"
It was Garrick, his childhood pal, whom he hadn't seen in a couple of years.
"He was a totally different looking guy," says Whittingham. Garrick's face was gaunt and angular from severe weight loss, the result of vomiting six, eight, 10 times a day for several months.
Whittingham and Garrick had set out together to achieve their dream of playing college football when they were in the eighth grade. They lifted weights together. They ran together. They played on the same Provo High team. They were both heavily recruited. They both went on to star at BYU.
"We were inseparable for 15 years," says Whittingham. "We were a pair."
But all these years later, their lives were dramatically different. At Home Depot, the differences would have been startling: Whittingham fit, muscular, prosperous; Garrick, raw-boned, pale, sick.
Garrick walked to the parking lot and talked to Whittingham and his children in their car.
"He told me that he was going to have stomach surgery, and I said I'd come see him in the hospital," says Whittingham.
Garrick had a large tumor in his stomach that was blocking the entrance to the small colon. It was bleeding into his stomach and had to be removed. "It was a routine operation for most people," says David Garrick, Craig's older brother and a recently retired surgeon. "I did a lot of them in the Gulf War." But in Garrick's case it was anything but routine. "He had so many problems that a tonsillectomy would have been a risk," says David.
Garrick had an enlarged heart, liver and kidney damage, internal bleeding, high blood pressure, anemia, poor circulation, arthritis and numerous tumors, among other problems. He had lost 30 pounds in just a few months because he was throwing up everything he ate, along with the blood that was leaking into his stomach. After examining Garrick, three different doctors were overwhelmed.
"I don't know what to do," they each told Carol.
Garrick's body was failing following years of drug abuse, which began during his BYU days.
But really his troubles began on a football field years before that.
Garrick never saw it coming. He stood up the tight end from Springville High to stop a sweep to his side, and then a wide receiver, sprinting down the line of scrimmage, blind-sided him, crashing into the side of his left knee. When the knee snapped, it sounded like a thick branch breaking.
It was September 1977, and Garrick was a prep All-American who was being recruited by Nebraska, UCLA and Notre Dame.
One block changed all of that.
Everything in the knee was gone; the only thing holding it together was skin. Doctors said it was if someone chopped Garrick down with an ax. When Garrick lifted his head and couldn't find his foot where it was supposed to be, he thought his lower leg had been knocked off. He finally found his foot off to the side at an unnatural angle.
"I was 10 feet away from it when it happened," says Whittingham. "It was such a shame. An illegal crack-back block. It was a sweep, and I was moving to the outside when I saw this flash coming down on Craig, then Craig was lying on the ground writhing in pain. It was not hard to tell it was serious. His life was never the same after that. From then on, it was one thing after another. It was a constant uphill battle."
It might be an oversimplification, but perhaps most of his problems the divorces, the job hopping, the narcotics and maybe even the steroids would have been averted but for that one play. Even so, if the injury had occurred a decade later, Garrick likely would have recovered from it with only a small debilitation. As David notes, "It was a four-hour procedure, and they flayed open the knee with a big incision, which exposes it to bacteria in the air. You can do that operation now in 45 minutes through a one-inch incision using a scope, with water running through the joint the whole time washing it out. There's a much lower infection rate."
Garrick underwent knee surgery just hours after the game (nowadays doctors wait a week or longer before performing the surgery to allow bleeding and swelling to subside). Soon afterward, the wound became infected, prolonging the recovery a year.
Over the years several doctors told Garrick it was the worst knee injury they had ever seen. He underwent four operations that first year and four more would follow. He missed the following football season, then played a reserve role for a season at BYU the only school that remained interested in him after the injury before serving a two-year mission for the LDS Church. When he returned to Provo he switched positions to the offensive line, where his knees wouldn't be as exposed to blocks, and continued to play, but he was in constant pain and relied heavily on narcotics to get him from one practice to the next.
He started at guard for 2 1/2 seasons and served as a team captain during BYU's run to the national title in 1984. At 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, he was the fastest, strongest lineman on the team. But to continue to play was a journey through hell. After games, while his teammates celebrated, Garrick stayed at home to ice and elevate his knee. Before practice it was heat packs and extra stretching, and afterward more ice. In private, he was doing much more to treat the pain.
A few years after Garrick left BYU, the school's training room was put on probation for lax policies regarding the availability of narcotics to players. The nadir came in the mid-'80s when several players were arrested for narcotics prescription fraud and were sent to court and drug rehab, but undoubtedly there were others who went undetected.
One of them was Garrick. He began taking narcotics (Percodan), as well as anabolic steroids, during his sophomore year at BYU, the former for pain, the latter to add muscle.
"People suspected (steroids) he was massive," says Whittingham, who graduated from BYU three years before his friend. "I'm not going to say I was completely unaware. But we never discussed it. When we were lifting together (before Garrick's mission), there was no steroid use, and we were about as close as two people can be."
Garrick's doctor-brother, David, was well aware of the drug use and confronted him about it.
"When Craig was in college I told him, 'Don't take these (steroids),' " says David. " 'The list of potential problems is many pages long. It will shorten your life, it will damage your organ systems and affect your psychology, and all for a short gain.' He said everybody's doing it, and I think everybody was. . . . I don't know if he was taking steroids (after he left BYU), but it wouldn't surprise me. His death was probably caused by the steroids more than anything. I told him when he was 30 that if he didn't stop he would never see 50.
"I think he started taking the narcotics because he wanted to play without the pain, but he didn't realize it develops into an addiction. After football was over, he continued to use narcotics and sedatives. He was very well connected. If I had a patient who was getting drugs, he could tell me where he was getting them."
Garrick thought he could quit the narcotics after he quit football, but he was wrong. When he stopped popping pills shortly after his playing days were finished, he had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.
"I thought I was sick that I had the flu," Garrick told me a few years ago, looking back. "I hadn't realized I was addicted. I was going through withdrawal. My body was so dependent on (Percodan) that it couldn't function without it. . . . The steroids were part of it, too. My glands had stopped producing" hormones.
Garrick did two monthlong stays in drug rehab after leaving BYU, once at the school's expense, and many more times he weaned himself off the narcotics himself. He also attended narcotic and alcohol support groups. But he was arrested a couple of times for using phony prescriptions to obtain drugs.
As Edwards says, "The sad part about that damn stuff is I don't know if they can help it. There are people who can get over it but not many. They just seem to drift in and out of it."
Garrick's narcotics addiction would always be a Catch 22: Narcotics gave him such sweet relief from intense pain but also fed his addiction.
This was what his life was like by the time he reached his mid-30s as I recorded in a story six years ago:
He couldn't straighten the knee nor could he bend it enough to sit in the back seat of a car. He couldn't stand for more than 15 minutes at a time. He couldn't play court games, couldn't climb stairs, couldn't shop, couldn't run unless he "galloped" and was willing to endure even worse pain afterward. By the end of the day, as he sat in a chair, the pain would well up until beads of sweat formed on his forehead and upper lip. It kept him awake, staring at the ceiling, until the wee hours. Every day he buried the knee in ice for a couple of hours.
The pain was unbearable, a constant, nagging thrumb and ache in his life.
"It was the only relief I ever got," he once told me. "I'd start to cry when the painkiller took effect because I was pain-free. I used to wonder, 'Does everybody's body hurt like this?' I used to look at someone and wonder, 'Is he feeling a lot of pain right now?' "
His second wife, Traci, recalls, "He had bags of ice on his knee every night. To watch him run or do anything, you knew he was in excruciating pain."
What Garrick needed was a knee replacement, but he couldn't afford the steep price tag. In 1995, after reading a Deseret News story about Garrick's plight, an old family friend named Paul Jewkes offered to pay for the artificial knee. At 71, he sympathized with those who suffered from chronic pain because he was suffering from pancreatic cancer (which eventually took his life).
It took six hours twice the normal time to replace the knee. The surgeon, who found old staples, stitches and gauze inside the knee from previous surgeries, told Garrick he should have been in a wheelchair for years before that.
The surgery was a success. It relieved Garrick of nearly two decades of constant pain and reclaimed his mobility. But six months after the surgery, he was arrested outside an Orem Kmart after purchasing narcotics fraudulently. In a plea bargain he was sent back to rehab.
This is what you learn when you married to an addict: There are secrets.
Traci, a high school dance teacher, vividly recalls a defining moment from her 2 1/2-year marriage to Garrick. She was doing laundry in a room that was being refinished. She saw a section of insulation was out of place, and when she pushed it back in place she found a stash of pills.
"Those were our only fights when he was on drugs," says Traci. "They brought on a different personality. Otherwise, we would've been fine. It's like Carol says; it was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Garrick was fighting a losing battle with his addiction. His body built up an amazing tolerance to the drugs.
"I've seen him swallow 50 Lortab at one time," says David Garrick. "I've seen him swallow a whole bottle. And it hardly fazed him."
Predictably, the drugs took their toll on Garrick's personal life. He was married three times, each time to a beautiful dark-haired woman, and he struggled to hold a job. He was verbally abusive, moody, mean and contentious when he was on drugs, sweet and charming when he wasn't.
"He was so charismatic," says Traci. "Probably the thing that makes me the saddest is that he could have taken the world. He had so much potential. I feel so bad that he fell so hard."
"He hated his drug addiction," says David. " 'It took over my life,' he'd say."
"What he was, was a really good kid," says Edwards. "Unfortunately, he got hooked on that prescription stuff. Otherwise, he was as good a guy as there was, a guy who just genuinely cared about people and wanted to do the right thing. You automatically liked him right from the start, and you still liked him after you got to know him. Look at the three gals he married. They're all cute girls with nice personalities. He didn't attract any duds."
Garrick was passionate about fatherhood. The day before his last surgery, he was the only father to show up at a school jog-a-thon at his childrens' grade school. Even when he was sick and throwing up several times a day, he would take his kids on outings.
"One thing I can tell you is he loved his kids," says Traci.
He seemed to have a soft spot for all kids. He brought lunch regularly for a little boy who shared the school bus with his boys and made sure he got home after school. While working at a convenience store a few years ago, he noticed a group of teenagers who hung out near the store, drinking and smoking. He used his own money to build a basketball court at their hangout and equipped the store with a ball the kids could borrow at the check-out counter. He watched over the kids, gave them "demerits" when they swore, and encouraged them. When he closed the store at night, he hugged then and told them he loved them, and they returned his affection.
This was the real Garrick, but drugs wore him down.
After his second divorce, he lived with his grandmother for a time. He had bachelor's and master's degrees and a teaching certificate, but he never settled on a career. He taught health classes part time at Utah Valley State College. He worked at the convenience store and sold cars. He was a counselor at a private school for troubled youths. He taught seminary. He worked the floor at Home Depot and tried telemarketing. Garrick was planning to pursue a career in high school administration this fall.
But nothing could replace football. For a man who loved the sport so much that he was willing to play it on one knee and drugs, there was no way to fill the void when his playing days were finished, and he often lamented that his knee had cost him an almost certain professional career. In some ways, he lived in the past.
"We had to watch reruns of football games on video," says Traci. "He defined himself through football. It gave him substance. His eyes got big whenever he talked about football."
A few years ago, Garrick told me, "I'm still trying to find my place. . . .
"It's like Jay McDonald (a former BYU teammate) said the other day. 'After that last game they should have taken us out back behind the stadium and shot us.' "
Carol wanted nothing to do with Garrick when they first met. He was a jock, and that was all she needed to know. He kept asking her out, and she kept saying no. When she finally acquiesced, she was taken by his charm and his struggles. A Canadian, she had never even seen a football game "I just clapped when everyone else clapped." They had two boys together.
Carol, curvy and petite, was dwarfed by her husband, but it eventually fell to her to take care of the family during their rocky seven-year marriage, which included separations. Garrick, often unable to work, was a stay-home father. Carol worked three jobs. She taught junior high school and afterward taught driver ed at the high school. On weekends she was a waitress. Money was tight. Garrick's stomach medicine cost $800 a month (she says she still owes more than $30,000 for medical care).
Sitting in her classroom between classes, Carol is bone tired, worn down by work and worry and late nights. "I just wanted one day when he wasn't throwing up blood," she says, weeping. "One day when I didn't come home to a sick husband."
She can't remember a single time when he slept through the night. It was always the same, waking up in the dark and seeing her big husband crying.
"He cried a lot toward the end because of the pain," she says. "And he hated being sick. He wanted to do more for me and the kids. He cried a lot about not being able to see his boys grow up and take care of me."
Carol is bitter that all the adulation and support Garrick received as an athlete at BYU evaporated when he was beset with troubles. No one was there when he was sick, she says. Some family members kept Garrick and his drug problems at a distance, but David and their younger brother Richard remained devoted. David was a modern-day Theo to Garrick's Van Gogh, making car payments for Craig, paying much of the expense for his rehab programs, giving him medical care.
"I'll do anything to get you better," he would tell Craig.
Garrick was also close to his mother, Janet, and was devastated by her death in 1998. That seemed to sober him and bring new resolve to get his life in order.
"He struggled, but he was always trying to come out of it," says Traci. "He would say, 'I'm going to beat this.' "
Says Carol, "He was always going to get better."
During the last couple of years, Garrick was unable to take aspirin, much less Percodan, because his stomach couldn't handle solids.
Before he even reached his 40th birthday, Garrick had the insides of an 80-year-old man, doctors told Carol. The most immediate concern was the tumor in his stomach he nearly bled to death in March from vomiting so much blood and had to be hospitalized but even if he had survived the stomach surgery, there were many other serious problems that awaited medical attention. Garrick's surgeon, who was unavailable for comment, told Carol that her husband's myriad health problems were attributable to steroid use.
Garrick underwent surgery on Aug. 29 and the procedure went well, but he seemed to fear the worst. The night before he died, he took Carol in his arms and told her, "Carol, I'm going to die. You have no idea how much I love you and appreciate you taking care of me. No one would've put up with this. Thank you for my beautiful boys."
David showed up earlier that same day and found his brother was restless with pain. He had warned doctors before surgery that they wouldn't be able to control Craig's post-operative pain "except with what would be a lethal dose for the rest of us." Garrick was given more pain medication, and he was able to relax and rest. The brothers watched a football game on TV, and then David left to allow Garrick to sleep.
The next morning he received a call from the hospital: Garrick was in full cardiac arrest.
"I was there in about 20 minutes," says David. "I asked them what happened, and they said, 'We don't know.' "
Three days later about 20 family members and friends gathered in Garrick's room to say goodbye. They each took their turns to say a last few words to Garrick, and then the life support system was pulled. About 12 minutes later he died.
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"I felt very strong that he was ready," says Carol. "I feel he's much happier. He's not in pain, and he doesn't have to worry anymore."
Searching for meaning in all of this, David says, "This can happen to anyone. Craig was the greatest guy he had the highest values but he fell victim to drugs and the need to compete."
As I say my own good-bye to Craig Garrick, I keep thinking of something he told me the last time we talked, shortly after his knee-replacement surgery: "Hopefully, I've been through my hell, and now I can have some heaven."
I like to think that now he does.