CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Somewhere between the moment his organs started shutting down on the practice field at the University of Miami and the day he woke up connected to a ventilator, Hunter Knighton dreamed he was in a car accident. When he opened his eyes and saw his parents with Hurricanes coach Al Golden, he figured something had happened the night before — he wasn’t sure exactly what — and within minutes asked the doctors how long he might be out of football

“I thought I’d miss a week of spring ball or something like that,” he said.

That was before Knighton knew he had been in a coma for 12 days, before he understood the ramifications of his body temperature reaching 109 degrees, triggering liver and kidney failure. That was before the 6-foot-6 offensive lineman realized he had lost 55 pounds and was lucky to have even survived; before the hallucinations and the therapy to regain cognitive function; before the surgical procedure to fix his paralyzed vocal chords and the treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder; before the months of hopelessness and then the salvation of doctors in Connecticut, who put him on a track to get back on the football field.

All told, Knight’s return for Miami qualifies as nothing short of a medical miracle. Just 19 months after surviving a severe heat stroke, he will be on the field Saturday against Nebraska playing on special teams and getting snaps as a backup center.

“As far as I’m aware, it’s probably one of the more extreme heatstroke cases someone has returned to full activity participation,” said Dr. Douglas Casa, CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute, named for the Minnesota Vikings player who died of heat stroke in 2001. “He faced a real uphill battle.”

Nobody at Miami can forget the morning of Feb. 24, 2014. Knighton, who sat out the previous year as a redshirt, participated in the supervised offseason workout despite not feeling well, trying to make a strong impression on the coaching staff. What he didn’t know is he had the flu, which triggered the heat stroke as his body temperature rose above 105 degrees. Knighton remembers completing three drills, but it wasn’t until about 40 minutes later — a period of time he has no recollection of — that he collapsed on the field.

“He deteriorated pretty rapidly,” said Vinny Scavo, the head athletic trainer for Miami football. “It wasn’t good. As a trainer, you hope you never have to be in that situation but we were prepared and had to make some decisions quickly.”

Doctors at University of Miami hospital told Knighton’s parents to come right away. His mother Carole Knighton, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, wasn’t sure if her son would ever wake up.

“As we’re going to the airport, the doctor told me he was unresponsive and his temperature was 109,” she said. “Korey Stringer died at 108. Marquese Meadow (a Morgan State player who died of heat stroke last August) was 107. It’s a miracle he survived it.”

The next two weeks were tense as Knighton was put into a medically-induced coma so his condition could stabilize. Golden and Scavo were at the hospital day and night, even sleeping there at times, until Knighton woke up. And though he could barely walk by the time he was released on March 10, the idea of playing football again was still at the forefront of his mind.

“A lot of people, people who don’t really know me that well but heard the story or friends of my parents that don’t really get it and they’re like, why would you want to do that? You almost died once,” Knighton said. “I love football and I wouldn’t be complete if I wasn’t playing.”

But the roadblocks to actually playing football again were almost endless as he and his mother moved into an extended-stay hotel near Miami.

Damage to his vocal cords had left Knighton unable to swallow or keep down food, necessitating a surgery. The Propofol, which he had been given to induce the coma, was causing him nightmares and hallucinations of talking bed sheets and hospital patients telling him he was going to die. He tried to go back to school, but his mind couldn’t focus or retain information. He was withdrawn and angry, at times scaring his three siblings when they would come to visit.

“What we went through as a family was devastating. There were definitely times I wasn’t sure if he might harm himself or me or somebody,” Carole Knighton said. “He couldn’t even be around people, but football became the motivating thing. I knew for Hunter if he didn’t get out there and play, he was dead. Even if he had survived, it would have killed him. That’s what it meant to him.”

By July 2014, however, Knighton didn’t seem to be making much progress. At that point, they weren’t even sure what progress looked like. He ended up going home to Pennsylvania, unsure what to do or how to take the next step. Though treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder at the University of Pennsylvania helped him overcome the psychological issues, the physical side was still a mystery.

Was his body too damaged to play football again? Would he be able to get back in shape? Would he be in danger of another heat stroke?

“We were spinning our wheels, not sure what the right path was,” Hunter Knighton said. “My brain had really taken a hit.”

Said Carole Knighton: “He wanted to come back and play but there is no book, there’s no manual. With ACL tears, they know exactly the procedures to follow and where they should be at certain points. But nobody had a clue what his recovery was going to be like, nobody had a real definite plan for what it was going to be like, and unfortunately I wasn’t prepared for all the things that would happen in that recovery. I had no idea what a heat stroke really was. It’s like microwaving your brain. I was so unprepared for any of that.”

But when Miami officials recommended the Korey Stringer Institute, hope returned. Housed at the University of Connecticut, they administered baseline testing last Oct. 31 to determine how his body temperature responded to physical activity and rule out any permanent issues or genetic predisposition to heat stroke. They then established a plan that allowed Knighton to get his fitness level back and become heat acclimatized so that he could regulate his body temperature.

Much like a concussion, each person’s physical response to a heat stroke is different, meaning everyone’s ability to recover is different.

“It’s completely individualized,” said Casa, whose institute works with 12-16 heat stroke victims per year from the sports, military and labor sectors. “That’s where we help people, their families and the medical staff that has to supervise Hunter because we have so much experience. If someone is lucky enough to survive a heat stroke, they have to take this journey to figure out how their recovery is going to take place.”

In May, after he had built up his tolerance to physical activity and been tested on a weekly basis to monitor his liver function, Knighton cleared the final medical hurdle to play football again. He worked to gain back his strength, re-enrolled in school and regained his comfort in social situations. Given the devastating effect on his body a little more than a year earlier, it was almost unnerving how complete the recovery seemed.

“I sat by his bedside for 10 days. I didn’t go home,” Scavo said. “You sit there and pray and let the doctors do their job. Then you watch him in the spring and summer and then it’s like, ‘My God, he’s in camp,’ and just thinking about how determined he was, it’s such a great thing because this could have went the other way.”

Knighton now plays with no restrictions or fear of something catastrophic happening again. During training camp, he took a sensor-equipped pill every da that allowed Miami to scan his body temperature instantly, every 10 minutes. Still, he and his mother are constantly questioned about the wisdom of putting his body through the rigors of football.

“People think, are you crazy?” Carole Knighton said. “Other mothers are horrified. I could bubble wrap him and put him on my couch and look at him every day, but that’s not living. He loves football. If he never got the chance, he wouldn’t be complete. He wouldn’t be truly healed. Seeing him back on that field healed all of us.”

And the fact he has been on the field is both a joy for those who watched the recovery and a reason to educate about the dangers of heat stroke. Casa said the numbers of victims in football are increasing, especially at the high school level where there is often intense training without proper supervision. The NCAA established a rule in 2003 that preseason practices had to begin with a five-day acclimatization period, but in Knighton’s case, heat wasn’t really a factor.

“It’s an ever-present threat,” Casa said. “Thankfully, we’re able to treat it when it’s (handled) correctly.”

Though Knighton’s ailment rocked the Miami football program last year, his return now serves as an inspiration. He chose the Hurricanes because he wanted to bring them back to prominence. Now he finally gets his chance.

“Considering where we were 18 months ago, things are fantastic and really football is the dessert,” Carole Knighton said. “Having him survive, that was the win, but seeing him able to fulfill his dream of playing college football, that’s the frosting on the cake. It made it complete. It’s a miracle.”

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