If Marcus Dupree was “The Best that Never Was,” then Mike Gaddis was “The Best that Was for Just a Little While.”
Gaddis died on Monday at the age of 50 after years of battling kidney ailments. Cause of death is unknown, but he received a kidney transplant from his brother Brent in 2005 and continued fighting various complications, sources said.
Gaddis is remembered by coaches, teammates and friends as an almost unmatched talent at running back at the University of Oklahoma.
“I think he would have won the Heisman had he not blew out his knee against Texas,” former OU coach Barry Switzer told The Franchise.
“When you got around him or saw him play or just watched him work,” said former OU fullback J.D. Runnels, “you just felt greatness.”
“Mike Gaddis could have been one of the very, very best,” OU assistant coach and former Gaddis teammate Cale Gundy said Monday night after practice. “If he stayed healthy, there’s no telling what could have happened.”
But for all his football talent — he rushed for 2,726 yards in just 2 ½ seasons at OU — Gaddis is remembered even more by those who knew him for his kind, friendly disposition.
“The thing I remember about Mike, he was an exceptional player,” Switzer said, “but he had a great personality. He was very mature for his age, good-looking, handsome, movie-star looks, had the Jheri curl smile and all that.”
“Mike was just one of the nicest guys,” Gundy said. “Always had a smile on his face.”
Runnels never played with Gaddis — he’s 15 years younger — but followed him at both Carl Albert High School in Midwest City and at OU. The impact Gaddis had on Runnels and countless others in the Carl Albert community and beyond can never be measured.
“He just had this effect,” Runnels said. “The guys that were making it out of there, Mike had a way of putting his hand on your shoulder, making sure he knew you, making sure if you ever needed anything that he was there for you, that he was gonna come to your games, that he was gonna shake your hand or send you a text and say, ‘Hey man, you’re pretty good ballplayer, keep it up. Keep it going.’ ”
Runnels said he knew at an early age that he would never come close to reaching the kind of legacy that Gaddis left.
“Kids who came up in Carl Albert, you just knew you were never gonna be the best,” Runnels said. “You knew you could turn around and go D1, which we had so many guys do. You could go to OU, which me and Jay Hunt got to do. You knew could be a draft pick, which I got to do. And people still would come up and tell me to my face, ‘Yeah, you’re good, but Gaddis, that’s the guy.’ You knew growing up there that you were never gonna steal his legacy.”
That never stopped Runnels from striving. He told The Franchise of the day he first met Gaddis, when Runnels was about 14 years old, some five years after Gaddis’ NFL dream had been crushed by yet another knee injury.
“When I met him, he was rehabbing — just personally,” Runnels said. “The dude was doing jump rope in the back yard. For like an hour. I didn’t know what it was. I thought someone was weed-eating. I was like, ‘Damn, the weed eater can’t be going on that long.’ I went back and looked outside and here was just this muscled-up, Jheri-curled, huge muscles, the biggest shoulders I’ve ever seen, just ripped up biceps but just so smooth on jump rope — footwork like crazy — and you just felt, when you got around him or saw him play or just watched him work, you just felt greatness.
“That was probably 1997 or ‘98, I said right then and there that I was gonna chase his legacy. I was gonna be a Titan. I was gonna try to get to OU. I mean, I wanted to be Mike Gaddis. And I don’t have shame saying that. Michael Jordan was in Chicago; Mike Gaddis was in our neighborhood. I mean, you knew every event he ran in track — he ran the hurdles — you knew that he was so talented that he didn’t have to play basketball. He didn’t like it. You knew every story about him. You knew where he lived. We used to drive by his house when we played little league ball in the streets. Kids would tear our shirts and write with marker ‘32’ and ‘Gaddis’ on the back. We literally wanted to be Mike. It’s hard to explain.”
Switzer said there wasn’t much drama around Gaddis’ recruitment, although former OU aide Bobby Proctor told the Norman Transcript a decidedly different tale that features moments of high anxiety over coaches from USC attending one of Gaddis’ basketball games the night before National Signing Day).
“I went to see him play the Noble Bears, and he had 290 yards in the first half,” Switzer said. “First time he touched it he went about 75 yards for a touchdown. He was too much for them. And of course he started for me as a freshman.
“He visited Southern Cal. He was recruited by everybody,” Switzer said. “Great running back. I felt all along we’d get him, but we were fortunate to have him in.”
As a freshman in Switzer’s final season at OU in 1988, Gaddis rushed for 553 yards and three touchdowns in a wishbone backfield that featured quarterback Charles Thompson, fullback Leon Perry, halfback Anthony Stafford, fullback Rotnei Anderson and QB-turned-RB Eric Mitchel. Gaddis was third on the team in rushing.
His efforts included an unforgettable Bedlam showdown with Oklahoma State Heisman winner Barry Sanders. Sanders rushed for 215 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries, but Gaddis had 213 and two scores on just 18.
“(Broke a long run) the first time he touched it, he took it about (50) yards on their ass … ,” Switzer said. “He had a great night too, as a freshman. He was special.”
After Switzer was fired in the spring of 1989, OU under Gary Gibbs transitioned to the I-formation and Gaddis’ talents really took off. Despite NCAA probation and a season-ending knee injury at midseason, Gaddis rushed for a team-leading 829 yards and 10 touchdowns and averaged 7.5 yards per carry as a sophomore, including games of 172 yards and three TDs against Kansas, 274 yards and three scores against Oklahoma State, and 130 yards and a touchdown in 2 ½ quarters against Texas before his fateful knee injury.
“He would have won the Heisman had he not blew out his knee against Texas,” Switzer said. “I remember that Texas game, he had already run (62) yards for one. He’d already broken in the open field early in the first half. He was fixing to go take another one the distance on them and he blew out his knee. Cut back in the open field and his damn knee went out.”
The injury required total knee reconstruction. Gaddis sat out the final five games of 1989 and the entire 1990 season, then returned in 1991 and rushed for 1,344 yards and 17 TDs. His yardage total that year remains the 10th-best in school history. The Sooners were throwing the ball now, and Gaddis’ quarterback was a young hotshot from Midwest City.
“The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mike as a player is smooth,” Gundy said. “Here’s a guy that’s 6-foot-2, 225 pounds that could run a 4.4. He had great hands. He had unbelievable talent. As much talent as we’ve had around this place — the great running backs and the history we’ve had here — his talent matched anybody’s.”
After college, Gaddis was a sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1992, but he suffered another knee injury in training camp and never played again.
“The sky was the limit for him, a guy that could very easily have won the Heisman and been the best player in the country,” Gundy said. “To come back in ’91 and have a great season, it was pretty neat.”
“He was a great player,” Switzer said. “Best running back I’d seen in Oklahoma. Pure runner.”
“He was my first call outside of my family when I signed with OU and when I got drafted,” Runnels said. “And then you look at, he graduates, and then Carl Albert just starts rattling off state championships and OU players. You know? He set that tone, man. We’re gonna miss him.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.