Walk away from football, a game that has taken up a chunk of your life, helped shape your identity and been a part of almost every fall since grade school, and the void isn't something you just let skip by easily on the way to paying more Social Security.

That is this summer for BYU safety K.C. Bills. He's taken a tough detour.

Several weeks ago, the decision came down. He would not play football any more. Even if he wanted to, his doctor would not clear him. So, as Bills looks across the way at the Cougar practice field where his teammates are undergoing conditioning drills, there's a part of him left there, and it's not coming back.

Bills, one of Colorado's top prep football players, a Super Prep and Prep Star All-American, has three herniated discs in his lower back. He doesn't want to have them fused unless it is absolutely necessary. He wants to see how he can manage if football isn't in the way.

Right now, just sitting through classes or sitting through an entire movie is painful. Imagine how it would be to throw his body at a running back, get crushed in a pile of bodies, or even do Bronco Mendenhall's suicide drills. Right now he knows football, basketball, softball, just about every sport he's ever played is not an option and is in his past.

Bills had his back worked on several years ago, but all of it was undone during a non-contact practice leading up to the Las Vegas Bowl last December. He knew then that something had to change.

"It's frustrating, when this has been a big part of my life up to now," he said. "And it's been even more frustrating playing injured my whole career, not playing fully healthy and at my full potential. I never got to that point."

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Bills, who has played linebacker and safety, came to a final decision three weeks ago with Mendenhall.

"He was great in his counsel and advice on what I should do — he wasn't going to push the issue but wanted only what is best for my future health and quality of life," Bills said.

On May 18, Bills and his wife, Stacy, had their first child, Hailey, a daughter. He has been working in a real estate office and plans to finish his degree in one year. BYU has officially given him a "medical" release, which enables Bills to receive full benefits of his scholarship while his actual football grant-in-aid is given to someone else to fill out the NCAA sanctioned roster of 85.

"Everybody has to quit and walk away from the game sometime," Bills said. "My time is now."

Bills red-shirted in 2004 due to his injury. In 2003, he earned his letter playing linebacker as a freshman. That year he played in 10 games and had three sacks. He was credited for a safety against No. 3 USC, a play that helped the Cougars score 18 straight points.

Bills said he can't recall his back problems surfacing due to a direct injury either in high school or at BYU. "It might be a degenerative problem that is in my genes or something."

Walking away from the game before his eligibility is over still grates on him.

"I played under three head coaches while at BYU and loved them all. But I will especially miss this coming year with this team. I think coach Mendenhall has the team believing and has established a level of confidence where they are going to win a lot of games and be successful. I've seen the transition in the players and their confidence grow in themselves and the coaches. They will have a very good year."

Bills' best friends are members of the football squad and he still hangs out with them. He plans on seeing coaches and players everyday. But, he knows, it won't be the same.

He wants to face this back pain full on now, and see how he can manage it. "If you know people with back pain, you understand what they go through all the time. I don't want to have back surgery. I've got to do everything I can to try and see how this heals on its own without football. That's the right thing to do."

In the meantime, bodies are flying around on the practice field — running stairs, shuttle runs and gassers.

The star from Colorado now shifts to spectator.

For all his potential, the tantalizing hype, K.C. Bills is done.

E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com