Crisis shows Portland State running back that you cant take life for granted

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland State running back Steven Long will miss the 2013 season after emergency brain surgery Sunday, and he will have a titanium plate inserted to protect his skull.Steven Long may yet run for thousands of yards and score dozens of touchdowns and claim plenty of honors during his football career at Portland State.

Or he might not play another down.

The latter scenario may not be OK in Steven's eyes, but it would be just fine with his parents, Jeff and Angie.

"Football is important to Steven and to us, but it is totally secondary to him being healthy," Jeff says. "He is going to do good things in life, whether he plays football or not."

Long has already proven himself as tough and talented and durable and caring and charismatic and, oh, yes, a survivor.

The latest chapter for the 19-year-old freshman tailback -- the star of Lake Oswego High's run to a Class 6A championship in 2011 -- came through a harrowing weekend that resulted in surgery to remove an infectious lesion from his brain.

On Tuesday, two days after the 2 1/2-hour operation at Oregon Health & Science University, Long is resting comfortably at the Lake Oswego home of his parents -- Jeff, an attorney, and Angie, who operates a permanent cosmetic shop.

Long wears a cap to cover the long scar across his noggin, a grin across his face and an attitude that conveys an optimism that has been the trademark of his young life.

"I learned something important through all of this," he says. "You can't take life for granted. You never know when something like this can happen."

Steven was never supposed to have been a part of the Long family.

Angie had given her word to her husband 17 years ago when she departed Portland for Haiti on a missions trip with her church -- now called Horizon Christian -- to help with construction needs at an orphanage.

The Longs had three children between them and had served several years as foster parents.

"I made her promise, don't bring back any orphans," Jeff says with a smile.

Angie thought she meant it.

Then she locked eyes with a 2-year-old running around the playground.

"He tugged on my skirt and looked up at me and something hit me in the chest," she says. "He was the littlest one, in diapers and barefoot, and he could outrun every kid. Nobody could catch him. I was thinking, 'What if that kid had a chance? He'd probably be an Olympian.' "

Angie noticed during church service that Steven was the one little boy focused on the speakers. She noticed the way he ate. The way he interacted. The way he smiled.

"I couldn't take my eyes off him," she says.

Angie sought out an orphanage administrator and asked one question: "What would I have to do if I ever considered bringing him to America?"

She was told she'd have to consult with her church pastor.

Angie went upstairs. By the time she returned, "everyone in the orphanage was saying, 'Steven is going to America.' "

"People were telling him, 'Go to your mommy,' " she says. "He was reaching for me all the time at that point. He was in my arms the rest of my visit. We just bonded completely. I couldn't leave him."

Eighteen months later, Steven was in Portland, the latest member of the Long family.

At about 1 a.m. last Thursday, Steven went to sleep in the apartment near Portland State he shares with teammate Adam Futter. Long's girlfriend of seven months, Brogan Taylor, had turned in hours earlier.

Long was feeling good about his lot in life. A grayshirt who began school at PSU in January, he had earned a 3.2 GPA during winter term. He was taking 12 hours again spring term and working part time at a Nike outlet store in Woodburn. He had just finished spring football with the Vikings, working his way back to health after surgery to repair a torn right Achilles' tendon the previous May, a month before his high school graduation.

After the injury, Long felt grateful that PSU coach Nigel Burton hadn't lifted his scholarship.

"We decided I would grayshirt, giving me more time to rehab and work out," Long says. "I put on 10 pounds of muscle. (During spring ball), my speed was not back up there yet, but I knew it would come. I felt really confident."

At 4 a.m. that Thursday, Long shot up in bed. He was having a seizure.

Taylor went to another room and beckoned Futter, a freshman tight end from Pendleton, for help.

The first seizure lasted about a minute. Another seizure, two minutes later, lasted twice as long.

Futter, who had experienced a medical emergency with a family member, tended to Long while Taylor called 9-1-1.

"Adam handled everything calmly," Long says. "Without Adam and Brogan, I don't know what would have happened to me."

As the seizures came, Long thought he was dreaming. When he came to after the second seizure, the ambulance and medical help had arrived.

"I was freaking out," he says. "I was like, 'Why is everybody here?' They told me I had a seizure. I'd never had anything like it. No concussions in football, no head injuries. It came out of nowhere."

At the Longs' Lake Oswego condo, a cell phone rang in the dead of night. On the other end of the line with Jeff was Steven, in an ambulance on the way to OHSU. The connection died, and soon Taylor called, filling his father in on the details.

"Jeff threw on some clothes and headed to the hospital," Angie says. "I started calling family members."

Long called Burton from the ambulance, too.

"I was concerned, but not overly," the PSU coach says. "When a kid uses the word 'seizure,' you're never sure what it really is. Our running backs coach (John Ely) was on the way to the hospital. When the real news came out, it was pretty shocking."

A CAT-scan that morning showed an abnormality. Doctors suspected a tumor.

"That's when the panic set in," Angie says.

At 2 p.m., waiting for test results in the OHSU intensive-care unit with his father and Taylor at bedside, Long suffered a third seizure. Medical help was summoned, and he was stabilized. Then came headaches -- "really bad migraines, and I'd never had those," he says.

MRIs on Friday and Saturday revealed the growth on right side of the top of the brain against the skull. He was immediately scheduled for surgery.

Long went through a "why me?" stage.

"I'd never had head trauma," he says. "I was 100 percent healthy. I thought, 'This can't be.'

"One day I'm fine, hanging out with my roommate and girlfriend. The next minute, I'm at OHSU, having seizures and not knowing what the hell is going on."

The ordeal helped Long realize the depth of his support system. He had transferred to Lake Oswego after a junior year in which he had led Sherwood High to the 5A championship. He sought a higher level of competition with the 6A Lakers.

Friends and admirers had been collected along the way.

"Even when he was beginning his career at Sherwood, Steven was signing autographs for little kids who were looking up to him," Angie says. "He started mentoring little boys in football. He was always a hard worker, and other parents have parented him. Everybody falls in love with Steven. Absolutely everybody."

Angie sent a message on Facebook, asking for people to pray for her son. The response, she says, "was overwhelming." Friend Dirk Knudsen started a "Pray for Steven" Facebook page.

"It became a social media frenzy," she says. "It was unbelievable how many people responded. We heard from friends and relatives, and relatives of relatives. We had people coming out of the woodwork like I've never seen."

Long received 83 text messages on Friday, 60 on Saturday. He heard from friends, teachers and counselors out of both of his schools.

"The outpouring was humbling," he says. "It's great to see I had such an impact on some people's lives. You don't think about that when you go through a struggle like this. When people are saying they are praying for you and wishing you the best, it makes you feel people actually care about you, and life is worth living."

During the Sunday morning operation, the surgeon found not a tumor but a benign infectious lesion alongside the brain.

"We were really relieved," Jeff says. "We were trying to stay real positive the whole time, but as a parent, the worst things come to your mind. Steven was always so positive and upbeat, it's hard to be depressed."

"It was a blessing, but I wasn't thinking about that," Steven says. "I was trying to be strong. I was letting people know what was going on through Facebook. That was one of my main concerns. I knew between Sherwood and Lake Oswego, a lot of people cared and had invested their time in me. There are so many wonderful people around."

On Monday, as he recovered from surgery in a room at OHSU, Long got a visit from Sherwood coach Greg Lawrence, with whom Steven says he had a "falling out" over his transfer to Lake Oswego. They spoke for an hour and a half.

"We both needed it," Steven says. "There was unwanted tension. He put some things in perspective, and we cleared the air. It made my day."

The future is both bright and uncertain for Steven Long.

Surgeons told the Longs beforehand that he would have a titanium plate inserted to protect his skull, though they won't learn the details until a meeting at OHSU today.

Steven has been told he can have no contact for six months. He has not been told football is not a part of his future.

"Most likely, I'll redshirt next season," he says. "I should be able to play again. The surgeon said he is going to take some extra precaution with me, which makes sense. You'd rather be 100 percent. The biggest thing they worry about is how my body reacts next time to a hit. That's still the unknown of this injury."

It's all good for Jeff Long, who once played football at Portland State.

"My first concern when this happened was, 'Is my son going to die?' " he says. "After that, it was, 'Will he ever play football again?'

"I love the sport, but the reason that made me sad is I know how much he loves it. He'd be devastated if he could never play again. Frankly, I didn't care. I just wanted him back."

Lake Oswego coach Steve Coury, who visited during the hospital stay, considers the 5-6, 175-pound Long -- who rushed for 2,205 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior -- as good a tailback as he has coached in more than two decades as the Lakers' grid boss.

"But Steven's an even better person," Coury says. "I'm not sure there's a more positive kid. We talked about everything except what he was going through. That's the kind of kid he is. We had a great group (at Lake Oswego) before he arrived, and he just added to that. I wasn't sure anybody could add to it.

"He's as humble as can be. He appreciates life. With his background, he looks at every day as a blessing."

Burton isn't sure whether Long will play football again, "but I don't ever doubt that kid," the PSU coach says. "Never have, never will. Whether he plays next season or four years from now, that'll be entirely up to the doctors and not up to either one of us.

"He is an amazing kid," Burton says. "You look at all he has overcome in his life -- coming from a Haitain orphanage, not being the biggest guy in the world, tearing his Achilles and now this -- he's a warrior, no question about it."

Steven's mother is concerned about Steven playing football again.

"But I've been that way forever," Angie says. "I know he's going to be great at everything he does, but he's up against people who outweigh him by 100 pounds. I am very worried.

"As far as him coming back and playing again, I have no question. As far as me and my heart (about potential danger), it scares the hell out of me."

The silver lining for the Longs through their recent ordeal was a sort of spiritual awakening.

"We went through a traumatic situation and had the best possible outcome we could have prayed and hoped for," Angie says. "We had the biggest support we could have imagined. It overwhelmed us.

"What really hit me, though, was seeing a lot of other hospital rooms where people were saying their good-byes. We had the perfect result and we were still bouncing off walls. I looked at those people who didn't get good results. It makes you think differently about life. It changed my life for good."

Steven Long will soon return to his classes at Portland State. There will be good times with his girlfriend and his friends and, perhaps, a football comeback.

He is 19, going on 20, and thinking about things that cross the mind of a normal teenager.

"We were talking today about his scar," Angie says. "It's about this long and about this wide. He was worried about his bang line. He said, 'Hey, Mom, do you think you could tattoo it?' I said, 'Sure.' "

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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