NORMAN — Jacob Lacey was in the bathroom getting dressed to go to a friend’s graduation party when he coughed.
There was a bit of blood.
He’d been coughing earlier in the day on his flight to Indiana, where he had friends graduating from Notre Dame, and there’d been a bit of blood then, too. He didn’t think much of it. Figured he was just coming down with a nasty cold.
Then, he coughed again.
There was lots of blood.
“Let’s go to the hospital,” Lacey thought to himself.
That decision might’ve saved not only the OU defensive lineman’s career but also his life.
“I didn’t really feel that bad,” when I talked to him after Monday’s practice. “I just thought I was a little sick.”
What he learned when he went to the emergency room instead of the graduation party was that he had pulmonary embolisms — blockages in the arteries that send blood to his lungs. That diagnosis last May started a months-long journey to get healthy and back on the football field.
That he had one of the biggest plays in the OU-Texas game is nothing short of a miracle. His sack of Quinn Ewers with less than two minutes remaining in the game slowed the Longhorns’ drive and ultimately helped to force them to kick a field goal.
“Really big moment for him,” Sooner coach Brent Venables said of Lacey, “and certainly if you go back and reflect on it now, who would have thought?
“I’ll be honest: when he got the first initial diagnosis … our mindset was, ‘Alright, we’ve really got to move on without him and plan on him not being able to make it back to play.’ We certainly didn’t relay that to him. But that’s just part of our responsibility.”
Lacey knew how dire his situation was, too.
“Doc said I shouldn’t be alive,” Lacey said. “He looked at me straight up and said, ‘I don’t know how you’re breathing.’
“He said I’d probably never play football again.”
Unbeknownst to Lacey, he’d been inching toward a potentially fatal situation for weeks.
After the Sooners wrapped up spring ball, the transfer from Notre Dame started working out on his own. He began having some pain in his leg, but he didn’t think much of it. Maybe a strain. Perhaps a pull. It’d probably heal on its own.
The discomfort continued as he did a micro-internship with Chick-Fil-A. Still, it wasn’t a big concern.
“Everything was fine,” Lacey said. “I just had a little pain in my leg.”
But on the flight to graduation weekend at Notre Dame, he started feeling short of breath. Then the coughing began. And the blood.
Doctors determined the pain in Lacey’s leg had been a blood clot. Part of it had broken off during his flight and traveled into his lungs. He had a large pulmonary embolism in his right lung and several smaller ones in his left.
“I was one decision away from either going to a graduation party or going to the hospital,” Lacey said, “and I decided to go to the hospital.
“Thank God, I did.”
Lacey could’ve eventually gone into cardiac arrest.
Instead, doctors started him on blood thinners, which he would continue to take for three months. Once he returned to Norman — he had to drive because flying was off limits — he wasn’t allowed to workout with the team. No weightlifting. No conditioning.
He was able to be in the weight room and on the field, encouraging teammates and staying plugged in, but it was too risky for him to participate.
Teammates were confused at first when they saw him watching, not running or lifting.
“Lace,” they’d say, “whatcha doing?”
He’d tell them the story.
“I looked normal,” he told Sellout Crowd.
Even though Lacey went to the gym at his apartment as often as he could, it wasn’t the same. He worried about all the time he was losing. Would he be able to catch up once preseason camp started?
“And then camp came around and I also couldn’t do camp,” he said. “That was hard. Seeing the guys out there balling and I just physically couldn’t whether I wanted to or not … that was rough.”
Finally, the Tuesday before OU’s season opener, doctors cleared Lacey.
Four days later, he played 15 snaps against Arkansas State. The next week, he made his first start as a Sooner, and a little over a month after he was cleared to play, he had that game-changing sack against Texas.
“To his credit, he stayed active in all the right ways,” Venables said. “On his own. Did what he could … and he was at every walkthrough and practice and things of that nature to be around his teammates. So I think all those things helped him from a transition standpoint, getting back into the flow of things where it didn’t take him as long as it potentially could have.”
Lacey says he was never fearful about getting back on the field. He trusted the doctors, first in the hospital in South Bend, then back on campus at OU.
“They monitored me like crazy,” he said. “They were very cautious of anything.
“By the time I was playing, I was like a regular person again.”
No more meds. No more concerns.
But Lacey admits the experience changed him.
“I think college football players sometimes might take for granted what they get, with all the glitz and the glam and things like that,” he said. “But just having the game almost taken away from you … it makes you appreciate the hard practices, the hard lifts and the days when you’re here for 12 hours.”
Every game, Lacey stops, even for just a moment, to appreciate where he is. What if he’d gone to the graduation party instead of the hospital? What if he’d decided he was 23 years old and nothing serious was wrong and he was just overreacting?
He realizes it’s impossible to know exactly what would’ve happened, but now, he sees his journey as a blessing, his perspective as a game changer.
“It allowed me to know I can go as hard as I possibly can each play,” he said, “because at the end of the day, that really could be your last play.”