STILLWATER — Kye Staley carries a deep connection to No. 9.
It's his jersey number at Oklahoma State, yes, yet borrowed in a sense, with permission and blessings from Doug and Nancy Powell. Their son, Kale Powell, wore the number at Guthrie High School, where Kale was a junior quarterback when Staley was a freshman.
“Whenever I put that jersey on,” Staley said, “I touch the 9 and I know what it's for and who it's for.”
It's for Kale, his friend and former teammate, who died in the summer of 2006 from Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a blood cancer.
“My whole town knows why I wear it,” Staley said of the folks back in Guthrie. “A lot of people do. And I think they feel even more pride in my being here and accomplishing so many things.”
The Powells feel the pride.
Every time they see OSU's big No. 9 barreling into and through defenders or even scoring touchdowns, as he did against Baylor, it's special.
“I'm really proud of Kye for doing what he did,” said Doug Powell. “He didn't have to wear No. 9, but he requested that. That's meant a lot to him. And to us.
“We really love seeing Kye in No. 9. And we appreciate it.”
Staley's days of donning No. 9 are winding down, with Saturday's Bedlam clash and a bowl game all that are left for the sixth- year senior. His time at OSU has been long and trying and ultimately rewarding, inspired, too, by Kale Powell's brief but headstrong journey in confronting the disease.
Staley's promising career as a former All-State quarterback and elite recruit nearly ended when he suffered a severe knee injury on a routine practice run in August of 2009, his redshirt freshman season with the Cowboys.
Staley, then a running back, planted his foot to make a move, just like he'd done thousands of times before. Except this time went terribly wrong, with doctors needing a checklist to detail all the tears in his knee and leg: ACL, MCL, cartilage, hamstring, calf. And the complications worsened when significant nerve damage was discovered.
The comebacks — there were actually two, with Staley walking away from the game for a season — tested him to the core.
Through it all, however, there was the inspiration of Kale.
“It was tough coming back from that type of injury,” Staley said. “I was down on myself. It was just bad times, it's hard to talk about it even now. But I'm glad I was able to get through it and have the success I'm having. Without God, nothing's possible.
“And I don't take that for granted. I don't take a day for granted. Having seen Kale go through that, it helps me understand, don't take it for granted. It can be gone. Appreciate the 6 a.m. workouts. Appreciate being sore the next day. Because there's a lot of people out there who would love to be in the situation we're in. A lot of people who would love to pad up for one more down, one snap, just be on the sideline.
“I don't take any of that for granted.”
Even before the injury, which forced him to eventually change positions from running back to fullback, and to change his body for the pounding, Staley was committed to the No. 9 and Kale's memory.
“His personality, he was always smiling,” Staley said. “He was always the center of attention. You rarely saw him down. No matter what he was going through, he was always trying to be the positive person in the room.
“I was like, ‘Wow, after everything that's gone on, he's still happy.'”
Staley had just gotten to know Kale in the fall of 2004, when fate drastically changed both boys' paths.
In a game at Deer Creek, Guthrie senior and starting quarterback Josh Chappell suffered a knee injury on the first play. Kale entered and 12 plays later suffered a broken collarbone, forcing the freshman Staley into action.
It was only then, at the hospital that night, that the cancer was discovered.
X-rays showed the break, but also a mass above Kale's heart.
“The doctors told us he'd have been dead in about three weeks,” Doug said. “It was choking off his wind pipe, so he would have either died in our house, or died in the hallway at the high school, because the Hodgkin's Lymphoma was right above his heart and it was closing his wind pipe off.”
No signs. No symptoms.
And just like that, the Powells' lives were forever altered.
Kale fought the cancer, enduring chemo treatments and participating in cell studies that have since proved to be successful. Still, he died July 6, 2006, at the age of 18.
“When he died, and Guthrie's a small town, we had over 1,300 people at his funeral,” Doug said. “He had touched that many lives around town. He was just such a good-hearted kid.”
Kale clearly touched Staley, who would visit his sick friend at his home, just hanging out and hanging on to whatever time was left.
“It was somewhat of a blessing in disguise,” Staley said of the injury that revealed Kale's cancer. “It expanded his life. He was able to graduate in 2006. He passed away that summer. But having that much longer was a blessing.”
Staley said that one of Kale's passions was the Lance Armstrong “Livestrong” campaign. So when Kale passed, Staley and several others got “Livestrong” tattoos as a nod to their friend.
“Mine is on the back of my arms,” Staley said. “That's for him, because he said basically, no matter what, live strong and be happy. Life's too short. That's really true.”
Despite all that Staley has been through at OSU — the injury and the surgery and the rehab and an appeal granted by the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility — his time in uniform now seems too short.
“I was sitting outside, looking down at the field like, ‘Wow, six years, it feels like it just went by like that,'” Staley said, snapping his fingers.
“Last game, it's against OU. It's for a lot of things — the Big 12 championship, a berth for a BCS (bowl) ...
“Last game to play at Boone Pickens Stadium the rest of my life. I want to go out with a W.”
Last time to wear the No. 9 at home.
“As soon as I got here as a freshman I knew I wanted No. 9,” Staley said. “At first I was 29, but once No. 9 was available, I seized the moment, I had to have it.
“A lot of people ask why I wear it. I say it's because of him. Always.”