Luton comes full circle
Oregon State's visit to Pullman to face Washington State at 6 p.m. Saturday is the biggest game for the OSU program in six years.
A victory would secure bowl eligibility for the first time since 2013 for the Beavers (5-5 overall, 4-3 in Pac-12 play) and guarantee them at least a tie for second place in the Pac-12 North.
But there's a very personal significance, too, to the trip.
Jake Luton will return to the scene of the "crime." Martin Stadium was the site where, on Sept. 16, 2017, the OSU quarterback suffered a thoracic spine fracture and a concussion when hit by WSU safety Jalen Thompson — now a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals — after a 9-yard scramble.
If there is emotional hangover from the experience, Luton isn't letting on.
"My girlfriend (Paige Holland) asked me about it yesterday," the 6-7, 225-pound senior from Marysville, Washington, said. "I haven't put too much thought into it. The little bit I have, it's more excitement at the chance to come full circle.
"It's been a long journey coming back from that, but it's been a great journey. Being in this position — to get to go back to that spot and play in a big-time game — I'm really excited."
It's typical reflection from a mature young man.
"Jake is a very even-keeled person," said his mother, Heather Luton. "He never gets too up or down. He has always had a very good attitude about things. He's never been negative. If something bad happens, he moves on."
Luton was just starting to emerge as the quarterback he and his coaches envisioned in the third quarter of Oregon State's fourth game of 2017, a 52-23 loss at Martin Stadium. He was 23 for 35 passing for 179 yards and had rushed six times for 39 yards. His on-field awareness and comfort in the OSU offense seemed to be gaining momentum.
Then came the slide and the jarring hit from Thompson.
Luton lay motionless for several minutes as medics attended to him.
Onto the field came Heather and her husband, Judd, a paramedic who works with the Everett Fire Department. They had made the nearly six-hour drive from Marysville to attend the game.
Jake had been knocked unconscious. He came to after a minute or two, aware that he had suffered an injury of some consequence. The initial shock of the blow had paralyzed his extremities, but then he began to be able to wiggle his fingers and toes and move his arms and legs.
His father, experienced in trauma training, was apprehensive as he saw his son go down, and stay down.
"My first thought (after the tackle) was, 'He's going to hop up,' and he didn't," Judd said. "Then, after I ran down on the field, and he was still laying there and wasn't moving, all sorts of things went rushing through your mind.
"But none of them were as bad as when I got there and asked Jake a few questions and didn't get the answers I was looking for. It was scary."
The senior Luton was pleased to see the emergency medical crew's work as it carted Jake off the field and took him by ambulance to a nearby hospital.
"The first department did a great job," Judd said. "I was happy with the job everybody did that day in Pullman."
Jake was released from the hospital and was able to fly that night on the team charter from Pullman to Portland. The team then bussed to Corvallis. He stayed the night with a member of the OSU athletic staff, then returned the next day to the duplex he was renting with Holland.
Paige had been at the game in Pullman, too, and was emotionally and physically sick with worry after the injury. She had asked to fly back on the team plane but could not get clearance. So she got up early the next day, drove to Marysville and then to Corvallis with some Luton family members.
The best news was that surgery would not be necessary. The injury was to the middle of the back, in the area connected to the rib cage. If there were a good spot to have a spinal fracture, this was it.
"I didn't need to use any type of back brace, either," Luton said. "I just needed time to heal up."
Almost immediately, Luton made an important decision about his future.
"Initially, when I was unable to move while lying on the field, I was thinking, 'This isn't good. I'm probably not going to throw a football again,'" Luton said. "But after I got out of the hospital and saw the doctors the next week and they told me I'd make a full recovery, it was game on from there. I had no hesitancy that I wasn't going to come back from that point forward. I was determined to get back out on the football field."
That surprised no one in Luton's inner circle.
"Jake's injury was devastating to me," his mother said. "To this day, every time I see anyone get hit, it's scary. But Jake was determined. Not once has he not said he was going to be back on that field."
Holland wouldn't have minded if Luton had decided the risks of returning to football were too great and quit the sport so they could move on to the next chapter of their lives.
"I had alluded to it a couple of times, but I knew it wasn't going to happen," she said. "There was no way he was going to stop there, which was kind of a scary thought for me.
"There are moments where I still imagine the worst happening. It's really hard to get over the PTSD of that moment. But I never thought he wouldn't play football again. This is what he's always wanted to do. The entire family agreed we would back him no matter his answer. We've stayed completely true to that."
Jake's father was buoyed by the extent of medical care and guidance he was getting in Corvallis.
"I work a lot with traumatic brain injury," Judd said. "I know the score there. I knew the doctors at the university were good doctors and he was in good hands. That helped a lot.
"But what really helped all of us was Jake himself, and how he kept his spirits up. He seemed so determined and had a great mental approach to it. The family was in a lot better place because of how positive he is."
The ensuing days and weeks after the injury weren't easy, though. Luton was in pain and needed plenty of care.
"I had to do everything there for a little while," Holland said. "I had to help Jake get in and out of bed. He was in a neck brace and had to be helped to walk. He had so much nerve damage, when I went to help him sit up, my hair touching on his shoulders hurt him. He was pretty slow to regain his strength."
In late October, more than a month after the injury, Jake and Paige took a weekend trip to Bend to celebrate the second anniversary of being together.
"It was the first time we did anything since the Wazzu game," she said. "He wasn't cleared to drive because of the concussion, and this was the first time he felt comfortable enough to sit in a car for a prolonged period."
Luton's academic situation that term "was a mess," he said.
"They held me out of classes for a long time," he said. "I came back in week eight or nine and did minimal stuff at first. My advisors and my professors were so great. They worked with me a lot and helped me pass my classes. It was really tough. I was able to pass enough classes to remain eligible."
Luton returned for spring ball under a new coaching staff. Jonathan Smith, with Brian Lindgren as offensive coordinator, had replaced the Gary Andersen/Cory Hall regime.
"I did OK that spring," Luton said, "but I was not anywhere near 100 percent."
His father could sense that.
"One of the first indicators that he was having a slow recovery was a conversation we had that spring," Judd said. "He told me that prior to the injury, he could throw the ball around the stadium pretty good. That spring, he felt he couldn't.
"It's unlike Jake to say that. He kept pretty quiet about it. When he communicated to me that he was having trouble throwing the ball around, that was concerning. But his mental state was great. It didn't daunt him at all. He didn't slow down a bit. He knew what he wanted to do, and he did it."
Lindgren had seen video of Luton's injury and wondered about the quarterback's mental state moving forward.
"After you take a hit like that, our concern was, 'Is he going to want to stay back there (in the pocket),'" Lindgren said. "As a quarterback, you have to do that and keep your eyes downfield and take some licks. We made the quarterbacks live (to be tackled in scrimmages) that first spring. That was something we wanted to test and see where he was at. It took him a little while."
Luton believes he was never gun-shy about getting hit, though.
"It was good they had me go live to get used to it again," he said. "But I've played football since I was 5. I don't think there was too much hesitancy."
Luton finally began to feel like his old self the summer of 2018.
"It was a long time recovering," he said. "To truly get to where I felt 100 percent was at least eight or nine months. It was a constant state of trying to rehab. The training and support staff were so great to help me get back to that point."
Luton won the starting job for the 2018 opener at Ohio State. He lasted three plays before sustaining a concussion.
"Got knocked out," he said. "I couldn't believe it."
Luton was cleared for duty the following week and came on in reserve for starter Conor Blount in the second half of a 48-25 win over Southern Utah. At Nevada the next week, Luton entered in the second quarter and, with the Beavers trailing 30-7, completed 23 of 35 passes for 284 yards and a touchdown to engineer a comeback. Late in the game, he suffered a high ankle sprain that held him out of action for the next four games.
"I was really frustrated after that," he said. "Honestly, that and the concussion were tougher to take than the back injury. But I was determined to keep battling and do what I could to get back and hope I'd be able to catch a break at some point."
His coaches weren't sure, either.
"We wondered if he was ever going to be able to bounce back from it," Lindgren said.
Luton, though, has strong constitution. Six weeks later, he came off the bench at Colorado. All he did was go 28 for 39 passing for 310 yards and three touchdowns in a come-from-behind 41-34 overtime win, earning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Luton started OSU's final five games, finishing his senior season with 1,660 yards passing with 10 TDs and four interceptions. But it wasn't to be his senior season after all.
In 2018, the NCAA changed its rules to allow a player to play up to four games without losing a season of eligibility. Luton had gotten hurt in his fourth game of the 2017 season. He applied for a medical hardship season. In January, he was granted the extra year.
"I was really excited," he said. "That rule change — man, what a blessing. It's been the best thing that's ever happened to me."
That, and the support of Holland — his girlfriend, not the country.
"Paige has been so great," Luton said. "I can't say enough good things about her."
They met in 2015 when they were students at Idaho. She followed him when he transferred for a year to Ventura (California) College, then came to Corvallis when he transferred to OSU in January 2017.
"She was with me when I went through my struggles at Idaho, and then when we went to Ventura," he said. "I had no money. I was just playing football at a community college, and she was there by my side every step of the way. And she has been with me here through all the injuries and the ups and downs. She keeps me balanced and gets me up when I'm feeling down."
Well, that's what a good woman does.
"Jake has come so far since that moment in Pullman," Holland said. "I'm so happy he could get granted this sixth year and get the opportunity to show what he can do."
Luton has certainly done that this season. Smith wouldn't trade him for many quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Luton has completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 2,306 yards and was Pac-12 Player of the Week after leading Oregon State to a 48-31 win at UCLA.
But his most important statistic is this: 23 touchdowns to two interceptions. It's the nation's second-best ratio, behind only Ohio State's Justin Fields (31-1).
"That is a really good number for Jake," Lindgren said. "He's making good decisions. If (a completion) is not there, he's throwing it away. He's been efficient with the football."
Luton has earned Lindgren's respect.
"I've enjoyed watching him develop and mature in the two years we've been together," Lindgren said. "When we first got here, I didn't know how tough he was going to be, what kind of drive he had to be a great.
"At the end of last year, you could see him making progress, getting more comfortable and back into the groove. Then he got fully healthy through the offseason and was able to really study what we were trying to do offensively. And he just took off.
"I've been really pleased with his toughness and his ability to handle himself in the pocket this year.
He's done an outstanding job. He's been a big reason we're where we're at and having a chance for postseason play."
Luton knows how far he has come as a quarterback.
"I've made big strides," he said. "I played in a predominantly running offense in high school. I never trained with big-time quarterback trainers. I was pretty raw in high school and at Idaho. I stepped into it at Ventura, and these last two years with Coach Lindgren and Smith, they've just helped me so much.
"Coach Smith is always in my ear. He's helpful more from a psychological standpoint, reminding me to step up in the big-time moments, that I'm a good player and the coaches trust in me. Coach Lindgren is a great offensive mind. He does a great job every week putting a game plan together and then calling plays."
It's easy to forget that Luton wasn't named the starter until the week before the season opener against Oklahoma State. He was in competition with sophomore Tristan Gebbia, a transfer from Nebraska.
"It was down to the wire," Lindgren said. "Each guy had his days. Ultimately, we felt like Jake had the better handle on what we're doing. Tristan pushed him the whole way. There were some days when we felt Tristan could be the guy. But Jake kept battling and ended up winning it.
"Jake came in with the right attitude. Never complained. Never backed down from the challenge. Showed up every day to work. You could see a change in his attitude and work ethic from the offseason to spring ball all the way through the summer. He bought into what we're doing, improved his leadership — the guys have really responded to him — and that showed a lot about his true character."
Luton has earned the admiration of two of Oregon State's greatest quarterbacks with his play this season.
"I'm impressed with Jake," said Terry Baker, the 1962 Heisman Trophy winner. "He is not very mobile, but if you give him time, he is accurate. A lot of his completions are slipped into a very narrow window. Isaiah Hodgkins makes tough catches and Jake delivers it on the money a lot of times. He has got a very strong arm."
Steve Preece is an Oregon State radio analyst who often attends practice.
"Jake has had a marvelous season," said Preece, quarterback of the "Giant Killers" team of 1967. "He has been the biggest change-maker on the team this year. He knows when to throw it away. He knows how to go through his progressions. He's doing just about everything right.
"And he's starting to lead more with his voice. In practice, he's helping guys with routes, talking to running backs and orchestrating the whole thing really well. It's pretty amazing he has come around like he has in his second year in Jonathan's system. It's too bad he doesn't have one more year of eligibility."
Luton has been in college a long time, though. At 23, with dual undergrad degrees in sociology and innovation management, he's ready to move on to the next challenge. He is thankful for his three years in Corvallis.
"It's been so great — just a blessing for me, for my family, for Paige," he said. "The whole community and the fans have been great to us. Paige and I are getting ready to move and prepare for what's next in our lives, and the little we've talked about it, it's sad. But it will always be a place I'll come back to and consider home."
During his six years in college, Luton has played under four head coaches and four O-coordinators.
"You're constantly learning a new system, getting re-acclimated to a new situation," he said. "To have a chance to have a second year under Coach Lindgren — I knew it would pay off, but I didn't realize just how much it would help me as a quarterback."
Those around him have enjoyed it almost as much as he has.
"Oh, my gosh, I've been waiting for this," Heather Luton said. "I've always known what Jake can do. This season, he has stayed healthy and been able to show it. It's been amazing to watch."
"It's been a long road for Jake," said Judd Luton. "But this season ... it's hard not to get emotional about it. It's good to see him finally get some nods of affirmation for how much work he has put in."
The entire season, Holland said, "has been hard to keep up with. It's been overwhelming, and I've tried to take it one week at a time Senior Week (and a 35-34 win over Arizona State) was so emotional. He was so animated and excited. I haven't seen him seen him light up like that in a long time."
Luton has NFL aspirations.
"That's the plan," he said. "It's been my dream as long as I can remember. I'm going to keep trying to play football as long as I can."
Lindgren believes it's possible.
"He's a big guy who can make all the throws," the OSU O-coordinator said. "He has put together a good year. The injury piece will be a concern. But with his body of work from this season and the end of last year, he's going to get an opportunity."
Luton has been selected to participate in the Hula Bowl all-star game in Honolulu in January. That will be a chance to show what he can do to NFL scouts. He's excited about the opportunity.
But he'd like even more to lead the Beavers into their first postseason game since 2013.
On Saturday, as he comes full circle with a low point in his life, he'll try to create a much happier experience than his previous prance to the Palouse.
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