AMES, IOWA -- The second Gabe Luna woke up on that mid-June morning, he knew something was wrong. He wasn’t sure what, but he knew his body was telling him something, and in hindsight maybe he should have listened.
But Luna was a junior college transfer who had arrived at Iowa State only five months earlier and he didn’t want to disappoint anybody. Playing Division I football had been his lifelong dream and he couldn’t let that go, not now anyway. So Luna continued on to his workout at the Bergstrom Football Complex on that fateful summer morning.
While performing a lift, Luna collapsed to the ground.
“As soon as I tried standing up I felt an excruciating pain run through my body,” Luna said. “I realized that something serious had happened.”
Luna was diagnosed with three herniated discs and two bulging discs in his back. Players didn’t come back from these injuries, he was told. The doctor told him this injury was career ending. Before he ever had a chance to play one single snap at Iowa State, his career appeared to be over.
“I was sad more than anything,” Luna said. “I thought I was forever going to be done playing football. The worst part about it was taking the road through junior college, this is your dream, to get to a Division I school. Not being able to play here, not being able to get a snap in a real game day atmosphere, it hurts.”
By virtue of being an athlete, Luna was told he might have the choice to attempt a comeback. He had a body in good shape, and physical therapy unavailable to most was available to Luna as a student-athlete.
There would be risks, of course. Attempting a comeback could result in permanent nerve damage in both legs. If anything were to go wrong, he could lose feeling in his legs and be paralyzed on the lower half of his body. Yet Luna needed no time to find an answer. He would go through with the rehab.
“I told myself [quitting football is] something I can’t live with,” Luna said. “The doctor told me the repercussions and the risks. I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to realize doctor, I haven’t received one snap yet of Division I, Big 12 football. That’s my dream, that’s something I always desired to do as a young kid.’”
In the months that followed that harrowing injury, Luna began his rehab. Three times each day for an hour and a half, Luna did lumbar spine exercises. The core exercises worked on his abdomen and lower back to ensure his spine and discs were strengthened.
Luna’s workouts have been altered, include all of his lower-body exercises. He no longer goes under a bar, but instead relies on a machine that takes off stress and back pressure while he’s lifting.
In early March, eight months after his injury, Luna put a helmet back on.
“It was the greatest feeling ever,” Luna said. “I felt painless. I didn’t feel anything. I felt normal, if you will. I was very hesitant still because I wasn’t sure how my back would hold up or what movements would irritate my leg and things of that nature. As I went through practice I realized it’s all in my head. If I could just get through that then everything would be fine.”
The redshirt junior began the spring on the two-deep at the right defensive end spot behind Darius White. He has battled rusty technique, but if he can get past his major battle, he figures he can defeat this one.
The 6-foot-1 defensive end from Butler C.C., who tallied 36 tackles in his final junior college season before arriving in Ames, is coming along.
“Each day you can see a little bit more is clicking with him,” defensive ends coach Stan Eggen said. “He still doesn’t have the confidence yet that we’ll look for at the end of spring, but I’m pleased with his direction right now.”
Now Luna stands, in his second year of spring ball, with a new mindset. He doesn’t twitch or pay any attention to his back. In that regard, Luna has come a long way.
He’s listening to his mind, and that tells him all he needs to know.
“I feel pain-free, which is shocking because my doctor said I’d be living with pain for the rest of my life and here I am standing on my feet,” Luna said. “Now I’m standing here and everything is going great and I’m very thankful.”