Football: After brutal knee injury, Stephen Buckley perseveres as team leader


Daily file photo by Brian Lee

Stephen Buckley carries the ball during a game in 2013, before his knee injury. Buckley eventually switched to wide receiver and now plays mostly on special teams.

Alex Putterman, Web Editor


For one week in November 2013, Stephen Buckley looked like a budding star. The then-redshirt freshman had rushed for 58 yards against Minnesota and 99 against Iowa and, with injuries afflicting the Wildcats’ backfield, seemed primed to emerge as Northwestern’s feature back.

But in the first quarter of the following game, against Nebraska in Lincoln, Buckley took a hard hit to his left knee following a 17-yard reception and immediately collapsed to the ground.

“My body was in shock when I first got hit — I got tingly and I couldn’t really feel anything below my chest for the first 15-20 seconds,” Buckley recalled last week. “After that I was just screaming, ‘Oh Lord, Jesus.’”

The diagnosis could not have been much worse. Buckley had dislocated his knee, torn both menisci, torn his posterior cruciate ligament, damaged his posterolateral corner and torn his lateral collateral ligament, he says. Just like that, his football career was permanently derailed.

Buckley then suffered a setback in spring practice, and early in the 2014 season, Northwestern’s coaches asked him to move to wide receiver to protect his knee, which he did without complaint. By midway through that season, when he had a total of two receptions for 23 yards, it was clear his pre-injury potential would go unfulfilled. This year, Buckley has played regularly on special teams but only occasionally on offense. But despite only one reception for five yards on the season, Buckley’s teammates and coaches can’t stop praising him.

“He’s one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever met,” said senior receiver Christian Jones, who gushes about how hard Buckley works even knowing game reps will be limited and raves about the influence Buckley has on the team’s younger receivers. “If I could make him captain I would. He deserves it.”

Receivers coach Dennis Springer is similarly effusive, noting the immense effort required of Buckley just to return to the field and the team-first ethos he brings to his adopted position.

“He’s an unbelievable young man,” Springer said. “His character is impeccable. His leadership is as good as anybody in the room. I love that kid, and we’ll miss him at this program.”

Buckley, a member of NU’s player-elected Leadership Council, retains one year of eligibility but will hang up his cleats after the season because he’s unsure his knee can handle another year of football. While some of his fellow seniors leave legacies of first downs and touchdowns, Buckley will settle for having contributed away from the TV cameras.

“I’m playing a different role now, and at first I wasn’t happy about it, honestly,” Buckley said. “But I’ve learned to embrace it, and I’m going to play my hardest every play that I get in. If I don’t get in one play, I’m going to be screaming my lungs out on the sideline making sure everyone knows what they’re doing.”

Buckley says his persistence comes from religious faith. Raised Christian in Forney, Texas, he wears a large gold cross around his neck and posts frequently about God on social media (after Saturday’s win over Wisconsin: “Literally, ALL glory to God”). Buckley’s father, John Buckley, says he and his wife Cynthia taught Stephen to value “faith and family” and that he has particularly bought in to Christianity since arriving at NU.

Without religion and a belief that everything happens for a reason, Stephen Buckley might not have gotten through rehab. Throughout his saga, he says, he considered his knee injury a message from God, a reminder that “regardless how good I am on the football field or how good I think I am on the football field, I can be taken down.”

Asked what has kept him committed as his playing time has faded, Buckley doesn’t hesitate.

“Completely Jesus Christ,” he said. “If it wasn’t for him, I would’ve quit, gave up a long time ago.”

STEPHEN BUCKLEYDaily file photo by Brian Lee


In an alternate universe, Buckley is currently playing out his junior season as an integral part of NU’s rushing offense. In that world, his greatest accomplishments involve scoring touchdowns, not inspiring other players to do so, and coach Pat Fitzgerald commends him for his play on the field, not just for being a “terrific teammate.”

Instead, Buckley prepares for post-football life with both wistfulness about what could have been and acceptance of what actually was. He’ll graduate in June with a degree in learning and organizational change and says he hopes to one day run a non-profit geared toward helping either at-risk children or convicts re-entering society. He has already worked, interned or volunteered at a variety of local organizations serving children, including Spark, AMPED, Family Focus and the Youth Impact Program.

John Buckley says he has “no doubt” his son will be successful after graduation, in part because of the mettle Stephen Buckley showed when hit with tremendous adversity.

“We’re incredibly proud parents of what he’s accomplished after being injured,” John Buckley said. “Because most kids would have just packed it in and said it’s not worth it, but he stayed at it even though he knew he wasn’t going to play a lot this year.”

During an interview largely about lost potential and stolen opportunity, Stephen Buckley finds ample occasion to unleash his wide, disarming smile. He chuckles at the memory of himself writhing in pain on the Nebraska turf and playfully rolls his eyes when asked about finishing one yard short of 100 yards rushing in his final pre-injury game. Asked what he’ll remember from his time at NU, he shakes his head and grins, though there’s nothing funny about his answer.

“I’ll remember how God made me humble myself,” he said. “I would just look back at all the adversity I went through and be thankful God made me stronger through all that.”

That knee injury two years ago stole Buckley’s football career, but it certainly didn’t steal his spirit.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @AlexPutterman