Hunter Knighton’s temperature hit 109 degrees on Feb. 24, 2014.
His brain swelled. His kidneys and liver failed. He had seizures. He fell into a coma.
That the 6-6, 295-pound University of Miami offensive lineman was alive Sunday to tell his story is a miracle in itself.
That he is destined to play football this season for the Miami Hurricanes is what drives him.
“I wouldn’t really be complete if I wasn’t able to do this,” Knighton, a redshirt sophomore backup center, said after a two-hour practice Sunday afternoon amid temperatures that soared into the mid-’90s.
“Football is my favorite sport in the world. Every moment away was hard, and finally getting back to this moment feels really good.’’
Knighton spent 12 days in a coma at UM Hospital after collapsing from heatstroke during an outdoor offseason team workout in February 2014.
“Three drills and then blackness and then it kind of felt like a dream for 12 days,” Knighton, 21, said.
“The first question I asked the doctors when I woke up: ‘How long am I out?’”
Knighton was cleared to practice for the first time this past Thursday, the start of fall camp. His mother, Southwest Airlines flight attendant Carole Knighton, told the Miami Herald by phone Sunday that she has been asked endlessly, “How could you let him go back out there?’’
Carole Knighton, who along with Hunter’s father, Jeff, flew from their home in North Coventry Township, Pennsylvania, to stay by his side in the hospital, knew she didn’t have a choice.
“He told me when he got out of the hospital, ‘I came to Miami to be a player, not a patient, and I’m going to play.’ So as a mother, I had to do everything I could to make sure he could.
“Prayer, faith and hope, that’s what has gotten me through from the moment I got the call and got on a plane and prayed that he’d still be alive when I got there, to now.”
Hunter’s mother said his rehabilitation, some of it at the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, “was gut-wrenching.
“When he first got out of the hospital, he couldn’t swallow, couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, couldn’t talk,” she said. “The recovery was excruciating.”
Carole Knighton has become an advocate for the Korey Stringer Institute, recently telling Hunter’s story as a guest speaker at the NFL headquarters. Stringer, a former Minnesota Vikings lineman, died of exertional heatstroke in 2001.
Knighton said he lost 55 pounds during those two weeks but is now in the best shape of his life. “I was doing blood tests for about six months,” he said. “Everything [is] back to normal.”
Several players this past week said Hurricanes coaches have been extremely vigilant about proper nutrition and daily hydration — before, during and after practice. Water breaks occur often.
The night before practices, Knighton swallows pills that allow trainers to use a sensor to reflect his internal temperature while he’s playing. “The only thing they have to do is walk up to me,” he said.
Knighton and his parents don’t blame the UM coaches, who were present that day when he collapsed. As it turned out, Knighton had the flu and didn’t realize the severity.
“There’s not a coach in this country that cares more for his players than Al Golden,” Carole Knighton said. “If it weren’t for Al Golden and [offensive line coach] Art Kehoe, I don’t know if I would have ever gotten through this. Al lived in that hospital day and night.”
Knighton said that the first day he “really remembered everything,” his mom was out of the room and he began to have trouble breathing.
“Coach Golden was there for what felt like hours,” he said, “almost coaching me through breathing. He really helped me.”
Golden called Knighton’s recovery “nothing short of amazing,” and Kehoe said “He’s right in the hunt” for playing time. “God bless him.”
Knighton missed his freshman season after shoulder surgery and is still waiting to get on the field for the first time. He believes that time is near.
“It’s good to see him back going full speed,” said quarterback Brad Kaaya, the player to whom Knighton snaps the ball. “It has always been his dream to play football here. He almost lost that dream.
“He’s not taking any rep for granted. He’s giving it his all.”