There were just a few minutes before the start of RCC's season-opener against San Bernardino Valley and Wil Goff had other things on his mind.
When the rest of the RCC players ran through the gantlet formed by the cheerleaders, Wil was a lone figure walking slowly to the nearest sideline. He then paced up and down the sidelines, not saying a word to anyone. Even if someone had spoken to him, Wil probably wouldn't have heard it.
For a year, Wil waited for this game, and for a year he couldn't shake the fear of playing it.
"I was probably more nervous before that game than any game I've ever played in," Wil said. "Everything that happened over the last year was running through my mind. I had every emotion in the world pent up inside. It was like a pressure cooker in my head. I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack right there on the sidelines. I didn't know if I wanted to laugh or cry. So much had happened since the last time I played."
Wil hadn't played at Wheelock Field since last Sept. 16th, and three days later he was in a hospital fighting for his life after contacting the rare and very deadly "flesh-eating bacteria."
When Wil took his helmet off waiting for the band to play the national anthem, he noticed how quiet the crowd had become.
"For those few seconds everything was so quiet. I had time to sort out what I was feeling. I still had a big question mark in my mind," he said. "I couldn't shake the thought that football almost killed me so maybe I shouldn't play. So many people were telling me not to play, but I didn't want to go through life scared.
"I was so anxious to get past that first play so I could erase the doubts in my mind. I had waited long enough. It felt like the national anthem lasted four hours."
After the opening kickoff, RCC's defense ran onto the field. And just as Wil had hoped, the first play was run right at him and Wil tackled the SBVC runner for a loss.
"Everything I'd been through and everything I had to do to play again was all worth it," Wil said. "I wouldn't trade that feeling for the world. I was really back."
Wil is back and better than ever. He says he's playing better than he ever has and colleges like USC, Arizona State, Indiana, Oregon and Washington are recruiting him.
That reminds Wil of a phone conversation he had with former teammate Nick
Tavaglione shortly after his surgery. Nick's words have always stayed with him.
"Nick told me that everything happens for a reason, but I didn't believe him. I said, 'Yeah, that's what I've heard, but I'll be damned if I know the reason why all this happened to me?," Wil said. "Now I look back and I realize Nick was right. Maybe there is something to this, 'Everything happens for a reason,' stuff and that things do work out for the best. A year ago, you never would have heard me say that, but a lot has happened since then."
* * *
After starting every varsity game for three years at Redlands High and earning All-Citrus Belt League honors, Wil started every game as a freshman at RCC. Even though he weighed only 235 pounds and had to play out of position at defensive tackle, Wil had 25 tackles, including six quarterback sacks.
Wil knew things would be different his sophomore year. He'd be moving back to defensive end -- the position he'd be playing at a four-year college -- and with Tavaglione usually being double-teamed, Wil could be piling up the sacks.
So the day after the season ended, Wil was right back in the weightroom and running the stairs at Wheelock Field. He ran the stairs so often he could probably tell you how many stairs are in the aging stadium. He also spent a small fortune on protein supplements.
The work paid off. He put on 20 pounds of muscle, improved his bench press to 335 pounds and cut down his 40 time to 4.8. Arizona State, Iowa and UNLV were already calling, and every day he was getting letters from Washington State, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, San Diego State, Oregon State and just about every college this side of the Rocky Mountains.
"That was the season I spent my whole life getting ready for," Wil said. "It was all or nothing for me. Either I got a scholarship or I was done with football forever. It was the biggest three months of my life coming up."
Wil had no idea how prophetic those words would become, or that it'd have nothing to do with football.
Early in the season-opener against Orange Coast, Wil hit his elbow on the helmet or facemask of an OCC offensive lineman that opened up a small but deep quarter-inch cut. He was taken out of the game just long enough to have the cut taped up and went right back out and played the rest of the game. Not giving the injury a second thought, Wil practiced all the following week and played the entire game against Palomar.
It wasn't until the following Monday that Wil noticed his right arm felt stiff, but he figured it wasn't anything two Tylenol couldn't remedy. The next morning he woke up with a severe headache and stomach cramps.
Now thinking he had the flu, Wil went to see the doctor, and just happened to mention the cut on his elbow as he was leaving the office. Wil was in a hurry to get to practice, but let the doctor take a culture from the cut and agreed to come back the next day strictly as a precaution.
The next day, he was vomiting so much he could barely sit up and coughing so badly that he couldn't talk and his elbow was now swollen. As soon as the doctor read the lab results, he hooked Wil up to an IV right there in his office and said he was admitting Wil to the hospital right away. Wil could barely walk and had to be pushed in a wheelchair to his father's car for the ride to the hospital.
"I just begged my dad to take me home. I had never been to a hospital and I wasn't ready to go now. I was really scared," Wil recalled. "I guess I'm lucky he didn't give in to me."
By the time Wil got to Redlands Community Hospital, his temperature was 104 and his liver and kidneys were functioning at only 50 percent. After undergoing a battery of tests, Wil was immediately admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and had doctors coming in and out of his room all afternoon. Even when his sister, Amy, who was supposed to be in San Jose, came to the hospital, Wil still wasn't too worried.
"Most of my family tends to overreact about things so I didn't think anything about it. I was telling them to calm down," Wil said. "I just turned 20 and that's the 'I'm invincible stage.' Having a disease that the doctors can't figure out was the kind of stuff that happens to other people. That happens on TV shows. It doesn't happen to Wil Goff."
Well, whether Wil wanted to believe it or not, something had happened to him, but the doctors knew what it was. They just didn't tell him.
Somehow Wil had contacted Necrotizing Fasciitis, which was the medical term for the very rare and very dangerous "flesh-eating bacteria."
"Later, they said I had a better chance of winning the lottery than getting this," Wil said.
His was the first reported case ever at Redlands Community.
Not too familiar with the virus, the doctors tried everything. He was given a steady dose of morphine, and antibiotics were being pumped into his system 20 times faster than the average patient. His upper body became so swollen they had to put the IV's in his feet, and his temperature continued to climb so they packed his entire 6-6 frame in ice.
Nothing seemed to be working.
Finally, Dr. Yasser Salem told Wil that the infection had gotten into his blood stream and they had no other choice but to operate the next morning. By the end of that first night in ICU, Wil couldn't wait to have the operation.
"That had to be the worse night of my life. . . .and the longest. I'd wake up thinking it was morning and look at the clock only to find out I'd been asleep for just a few minutes. Minutes felt like hours," Wil recalled. "The ICU was a scary place. All day there were people in and out of my room, but at night you could hear all the crying and some patients yelling at the nurses because their pain was so bad.
"I couldn't block out the sounds, no matter how hard I tried. That plays with your mind. You feel like you're in a mental institution. I finally gave up trying to sleep and just stared out the window waiting for the sun to come up."
Before he was wheeled into surgery, one by one his family members leaned over the guardrails of the gurney and hugged him, trying to hold back the tears long enough to tell Wil that things would be okay.
"They were trying to downplay it, but I saw the truth in their faces," Wil said. "That's when I started to get scared and knew it was serious. I've never had that many people worry about me."
But he still had no idea how serious.
The doctors only told Wil that they were going to drain the infection out of his arm.
"I was too afraid to ask what was really going on," Wil recalled. "Maybe it sounds like they treated me like a little kid, but I had so much going through my mind already that if they told me everything I don't know how I would have handled it."
After the three-hour surgery, Wil woke up in the recovery room and instinctively ripped the oxygen tube out of his nose, and when his father put it back in place, Wil kept trying to take it out. With all the strength he could muster, Wil slowly lifted his head off the pillow to look at his right arm. All he saw from the shoulder down was white gauze and tape, not the small bandage he was expecting to see. That was nothing compared to the surprise he was about to hear.
Once he was taken back to his room in ICU, Dr. Salem came in to tell him about the surgery.
"It was like a bad dream. It all seemed so hazy. As I listened, I felt like he was talking in slow motion, every word just seemed to echo in my mind. I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Wil said. "He told me I should feel pretty lucky. He said, 'That was pretty scary in there (the operating room.) It got so bad we almost had to amputate your arm. It might have come down to your arm or your life. You could have died.' He said I was lucky because I probably would have died if I had waited any longer to get to the hospital.
"That's when everything hit me. I couldn't believe a cut on my arm during football could have cost me my arm . . . .or my life. Or yesterday could have been the last time I saw my family."
Yet, it wasn't until that night, with his room quiet for the first time all day, that Wil realized what had almost happened.
"I tried to be in a good mood when I was around people, but when I was alone it
was real hard. It's just you and your thoughts. That's when it all sank in," He said. "My first thought was that my whole season was gone and maybe my football career was over. I had everything going for me and it just got ripped away from me. There were people playing this Saturday and I'm not. How in the hell could that doctor say I was lucky? I sure didn't feel very lucky.
"Then I realized I was being selfish and feeling sorry for myself. There were really important things I could have lost. I'd never see my family again, or have a family of my own someday. I wanted to graduate from college. I always wanted to be remembered for helping people so that's why I wanted to be a fireman ever since I was a little kid. There's so much I still wanted to do and almost had that taken away from me, but it wasn't. Maybe I was lucky."
The doctors told Wil they had made three incisions -- one four-inch cut above his elbow and two six-inch incisions on the inside and outside of his forearm -- but didn't stitch them up because they needed to be cleaned out with pure bleach three times a day. And no amount of morphine could ease that pain.
The first time they took the bandages off, Will insisted on looking at his arm, but soon wish he hadn't.
"It was grotesque. It looked like half my arm was missing; like some animal had taken three big bites out of my arm. One hole was so deep I could actually see my tricep muscle," he said.
When the doctors were totally convinced that all of the bacteria was gone, they finally closed up the incisions, but since the cuts were so deep Wil had to go back into surgery and it took over 300 stitches both inside and outside his arm. Wil never left the ICU until he was discharged from the hospital after 10 days. It took him another two weeks to build up the energy -- and the courage -- to go to one of RCC's practices. Wil, who was always tanned, was now very pale and had lost 30 pounds.
"I didn't want to go, but my dad talked me into it," Wil said. "When I got there I felt like a stranger. I was so worried about how they'd look at me. I felt like a freak because you could see all the stitches."
When the players first spotted Wil, practice just about came to a halt. The trainers came up and hugged him and the first player to reach Wil was running back Aaron Karmann.
"Aaron was real cool about it. He just said he was glad I was back and hoped I was feeling better. He didn't ask what happened so that put my mind at ease -- for a few seconds anyway," Wil explained. "But most of the players kept asking what happened or how many stitches I had. A few just stared at me, afraid to come near me. I guess they didn't know what to say to me. I think that's why only Nick (Tavaglione) and Cory (Kipp) called me at the hospital. What do you say to somebody who almost dies?"
After only 20 minutes Wil was ready to go home.
"It bothered me to watch them practice because it reminded me of what I was missing. I was sure I would have gotten a scholarship, but that was gone. Why did that have to happen to me?" Wil said. "I guess I was going through the 'Why me?' stage. That messed up my mind for a long, long time. I was pretty bitter. You start worring that if things go too well, something bad is going to happen. It's like you're almost afraid of success."
Wil did go to all the remaining games because, "while it would have been easier to stay away, that wouldn't have been the right thing," but he stayed away from the practices. And when the doctors finally gave him clearance to start working out in early December, Wil shied away from the RCC weightroom, instead working out at his local gym. Starting out, Wil struggled to bench 235 pounds, compared to 335 pounds before the injury.
"I was so embarrassed. I didn't want to come back here until I looked like a football player again," said Wil. "I didn't want them to remember me as the person who came to that practice. I wanted to be Wil the football player, not Wil the hospital patient."
When Wil did make it back to the RCC weightroom just before the start of spring practice, his weight was back up to 260 pounds. He was now bench pressing his lifetime best 385 pounds and could squat well over 450 pounds.
But even though it had been more than seven months since his ordeal, his worse fears were realized.
"They'd try not so show it, but people stared at me when I came back. I don't know why I was so surprised because wherever I went in public I got stares because my arm looked so bad. I had this Frankenstein thing going on," Wil said. "I got the jokes like, 'Oh don't touch Wil, he might be contagious.' I just figured they were joking, but it wouldn't have surprised me if there were some who didn't come near me because they thought what I had was catching.
"I'm always going to be the guy who almost died. I think they're going to look at me like that for a long time. It's just that almost dying isn't something you want to talk about every time you shake somebody's hand."
Wil knew the RCC coaches would have doubts of their own.
"I didn't know if the coaches were really counting on me coming back or just saying it to be nice, trying to cheer me up," Wil said. "But I wasn't going to take any chances."
Wil knew it was going to take more than lifting weights. He had to show on the football field that he was still the same aggressive player he was before the injury.
"I think I've always been an aggressive type of player, but now I had this constant battle going on in my mind between the part of me that's still scared it could happen again and the part of me that says I have to stay aggressive," Wil said. "I think I hide it pretty well on the football field, and even though the doctors told me I couldn't get it again, deep down inside when I'm off the field I couldn't stop worrying that if a freak thing like that can happen once, why not a second time?"
In spring ball, Wil twice butted helmets with other players that opened cuts above his right eye, each requiring four stitches. But that only took care of the physical wounds. The emotional scars were much deeper.
"I panicked. I kept saying to myself, 'It's no big deal. It's no big deal,' but it scared the hell out of me," he said.
He's being recruited more than ever before. Indiana was calling before the season even started, and they've been followed by Arizona State, USC, Oregon, Washington, Oregon State, Colorado State and even schools as far away as Cincinnati and Tulsa.
Ordinarily, Wil would be looking forward to taking his recruiting trips, and part of him is very excited. But part of him is also a little worried. You see, on the questionnaires that recruits have to fill out, where it asks for football-related injuries, Wil just leaves it blank.
"I don't want to scare them away before they even see me play," Wil admitted. "I've heard horror stories about guys who don't get recruited just because they've had arthoscoptic surgery on their knees. They're expecting to read about muscle pulls, not flesh-eating bacteria. And even though the doctors told me there's no chance of me every getting it again, most coaches dont'even know anything about it, and just those two words 'flesh eating' might be enough to chase some away. That's why I sometimes still feel a scholarship is still out of reach. Maybe I should take my doctor on the recruiting trips."
If you don't detect the same urgency as Wil had last fall about getting a football scholarship, that's because there isn't any.
Wil isn't the same person he was a year ago.
"Every day I just look at my right arm and try to visualize it not being there and that reminds me to not take anything for granted," Wil explained. "You think you're invincible and then find out you're not. That can be pretty scary. You never know when it could end, and you don't really think about that until it almost does end.
"Now I see you need to have fun when you're on the field. When you have fun amazing things can happen. Like if somebody does something nice to you then say thank you. Or if I hurt somebody's feelings, I'll always say I'm sorry because I may never get the chance to talk to them again. Those little things that you don't really think about became big things to me."
So whenever Wil drives by Redlands Community Hospital he can't help but stop and remember what happened last September, only now he remembers it differently.
"I don't look at the hospital and think, 'Oh my God, that's where I almost died.' To me, that's where somebody saved my life," Wil explained. "I'm not going to let the flesh-eating virus that almost ended my life to ruin my life. I think it hurt me for a time, but I really think it helped me out forever."
The Story of Riverside's Wil Goff
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