NORMAN — Dylan Dismuke was spending time in California, vacationing with his girlfriend and resting the severely injured knee that just wouldn't get better.
Dismuke’s phone rang about halfway through the trip. When he picked up, the voice on the other end of the line delivered crushing news Dismuke had quietly begun accepting as a possibility.
Co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel asked Dismuke to accept a medical exemption, which essentially ends his Sooner football career after one season of redshirting.
“He just went through and explained I couldn’t do all the workouts I needed to do so I could be the player I needed to be,” Dismuke said in a telephone interview with The Oklahoman.
Dismuke, a 6-foot-7, 299-pound offensive lineman, was full of potential when he joined the Sooners following his standout career at Duncan High School But Dismuke was met with a staggering and humbling change of pace after arriving in Norman; he was redshirted, seeing no game action as a freshman.
“It was probably the hardest year I’ve ever had,” he said. “Just going from high school, where everything was really easy, to here, where I was at the bottom of the pole and just fighting to reach everybody else.”
In December 2011, during a non-contact drill in the Sooners’ first practice for the Insight Bowl, Dismuke “extended my knee all the way out,” causing his kneecap, he said, to “pop out,” along with cartilage.
Dismuke, who said he’s never had knee problems before, didn’t tear any ligaments, and was initially told he’d probably be sidelined from workouts for about a month.
But even when he returned to the weight room, his leg wouldn’t get any stronger.
“I never did get any of my leg strength back,” he said. “Every time I would lift, it would just make my knee swell up again and I wouldn’t gain any muscle.”
He tried to work through spring football, and even played in the spring game. But Dismuke’s knee wouldn’t allow him to participate in drills required to enhance the skills he needed to develop to earn playing time.
Dismuke had knee surgery after the spring game; it was after that when he started thinking his playing days might be over.
“The surgery went well, but they were telling me it was something that was never going to heal up,” said Dismuke, who added that he was never really given an exact diagnosis for his injury.
“They told me they’d have to keep having surgeries on it, and eventually replace my knee.”
Then during the summer, OU doctors concluded the risk posed was too substantial for Dismuke to keep playing.
But because of the medical exemption, allowed under NCAA bylaws, OU will provide Dismuke the same financial aid over the next four years he would have received as a player, even though he’ll never suit up again.
The money for medical exemptions is drawn from the athletic department budget, but exemptions do not count against the Sooners’ 85-man scholarship limit provided the injury occurs before the start of the season. If a career-ending injury occurs during a season, the player does continue to count until the next offseason.
“There’s no obligation (to grant the exemption),” said Jason Leonard, OU’s executive director of athletic compliance.
“Scholarships are always only good for one year, but I don’t think it would be good practice for us to not take care of our players.”
Dismuke’s medical exemption is the second OU has provided this year. The other case, that of incoming freshman tight end Laith Harlow, is even rarer because Harlow’s career-ending injury happened before he signed a letter of intent.
The Tallahassee, Fla., native hurt his back as a senior in high school, but after he’d already committed to Oklahoma.
“If our doctors come to the conclusion that somebody we have made a commitment to puts themselves at substantial risk by playing, we’re going to honor our commitment,” Leonard said, “even if that individual is still in high school.”
As for Dismuke, he said he isn’t sure how involved he’ll actually be with the football program for the next four years.
The full weight of never playing football again hasn’t quite set in yet — “I don’t think anybody would miss the workouts,” he quipped — but he knows it will be tough when September rolls around.
“I know it’s really going to set in when the first game starts,” he said. “That’s going to make this worse.”