Sports comeback after leg amputation: Young Latter-day Saint enabled by ‘hundreds of little blessings’

Any parent witnessing their son or daughter score 26 points in a high school basketball game is surely going to feel a jolt of pride.

But after Matt Haley watched his 17-year-old son, Drew, hit that lofty bucket total in a recent game for Nebraska’s Layten High, he avoided even making eye contact with his wife, Alison.

Simply trading glances with Drew’s mom, he knew, would trigger cascades of tears.

Drew’s unforgettable game was about far more than stats sheets and a victory over visiting Hay Springs High.

Take a look at the the game photos attached to this story of Drew playing basketball. You will immediately spot something’s different. A metal prosthetic leg is secured just below the young Latter-day Saint’s right knee. 

The story of Drew Haley — a priest in the Sidney Ward, Cheyenne Wyoming East Stake — and his prosthetic leg doesn’t actually begin with a basketball game but rather during a game of 8-man high school football.

Drew Haley boots the opening kick of the 2018 Leyton High School football game. Haley was injured in the game, resulting in the loss of part of his right leg.
Drew Haley boots the opening kick of the 2018 Leyton High School football game. Haley was injured in the game, resulting in the loss of part of his right leg. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Haley Family

The final Thursday of August 2018 signaled a magical moment in pigskin-loving rural Nebraska: the Leyton High Warriors’ season opener.

Standing a sturdy 6-foot-4-inches tall, Drew makes for an ideal high school tight end: strong enough to block rushing linemen and speedy enough to separate from linebackers and catch passes. 

During the game’s opening quarter, Leyton quarterback Josh Kruse scrambled out of the pocket before zipping a pass to his tight end. Drew caught the ball and planted his right foot just as a defender hit him from behind.

Drew’s right knee buckled and he collapsed to the turf in awful pain.

Drew Haley boards a plane that would fly him to a Colorado hospital following a severe football injury in August 2018.
Drew Haley boards a plane that would fly him to a Colorado hospital following a severe football injury in August 2018. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Haley Family

The Haleys are a football family. Both of Drew’s grandfathers played college football. One was a coach. Growing up around the game, Matt Haley had seen enough football injuries to conclude his son had torn the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in his knee.

The first doctor that later examined Drew’s knee agreed with his assessment. 

A high school football game in rural western Nebraska is a community event. So several men from Drew’s ward were attending that evening. They circled together and gave their young friend what would be the first of many priesthood blessings.

An ACL tear is a season-ending injury. It’s heartbreaking for an athlete, but it is commonly treated — and the prognosis is generally positive. The Haleys were resigned to ACL repair surgery and months of rehab, but all were optimistic Drew’s leg would heal.

Brayden Haley assists his brother, Drew, following Drew's 2018 football injury that resulted in the loss of part of his right leg.
Brayden Haley assists his brother, Drew, following Drew’s 2018 football injury that resulted in the loss of part of his right leg. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Haley Family

A day passed, and the swelling in Drew’s knee did not diminish. Meanwhile, the pain was increasing, and Drew’s toes began to tingle.

A hurried CAT scan at a local hospital revealed a grim discovery. The popliteal artery — located in the knee and back of the leg — was severed, cutting off blood flow to his lower leg. Drew was immediately shuttled to a waiting plane and flown to a Denver hospital, where a team of vascular specialists was waiting.

Surgeons hoped to restore the blood flow and stabilize Drew’s knee. But following an initial, six-hour operation, doctors verbalized a word that the Haleys had never considered: amputation.

“I remember feeling sad,” said Drew, “but not really mad at anyone.” 

Still, his mind began processing the possibility of never wearing a Warriors uniform again. “And, of course, I wondered how much this would change the rest of my life.”

The growing likelihood of Drew losing his leg staggered the Haleys. But strength at that awful moment was also found in family, faith and fasting.

First, the family made contact with Drew’s older brother, Morley, who was serving a mission in Santa Fe, Argentina. The two brothers spoke on the phone, even teasing one another about who possessed superior athletic skills. 

Then Elder Haley asked his damaged little brother to turn with him to 1 Nephi 7:12:

 “Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him.”

Elder Morley Haley, center, and fellow missionaries from the Argentina Santa Fe Mission share encouragement for Haley's younger brother, Drew Haley.
Elder Morley Haley, center, and fellow missionaries from the Argentina Santa Fe Mission share encouragement for Haley’s younger brother, Drew Haley. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Haley Family

Friends and fellow Latter-day Saints from across the stake soon began fasting for Drew. Elder Haley and his companion joined the fast from South America. Word trickled in from all corners of the globe that people had learned about Drew and were praying for him.

On the first Sunday following the injury, more than 50 people from the Sidney Ward, the local school and across the community drove three-plus hours to visit Drew. Matter-of-factly, he told his visitors that part of his leg would soon be amputated. He assured them that all would be well.

Six days after Leyton High’s promise-filled football season opener, doctors removed part of Drew’s right leg.

“We had a family prayer pleading for the doctor’s eyes and minds to be opened,” said Matt Haley in a church talk he shared following the surgery. “Drew [then] received one more priesthood blessing of comfort and understanding.”

‘Hundreds of little blessings’

Miracles, the Haleys discovered, can be defined in inches. 

“We have seen hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of little blessings that have occurred because of one smelly foot,” said Matt Haley, revealing the humor that has helped sustain the family. “Having the perspective that we have in the gospel instantly helps.”

Prior to the amputation surgery, doctors acknowledged that they may have to remove Drew’s leg above the knee. But ultimately, they were able to perform a below-the-knee amputation a few inches from the joint.

While awaiting an operation to remove part of his right leg, Drew Haley reads a Book of Mormon scripture that was suggested by his missionary brother.
While awaiting an operation to remove part of his right leg, Drew Haley reads a Book of Mormon scripture that was suggested by his missionary brother. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Haley Family

For an athlete such as Drew, that was a game-changing development. His knee was saved, allowing him to be fitted with a prosthesis that would allow him the mobility required to compete at a high school basketball level.

Drew would spend the 2018-2019 season cheering the Warriors from the team bench and helping the Layten coaching staff that includes his father, Matt. 

But he determined to return to the court.

Drew endured eight total operations, and infection was an ongoing concern for several months. He initially used a wheelchair or walker to move around and had to remain seated to shower. Meanwhile, doctors remained cautious of his prognosis. But once again, small miracles were witnessed as Drew’s injury continued to heal.

Prior to the extremely rare injury, the 16-year-old likely expected to enjoy a carefree high school experience — playing sports with his friends, dancing at proms and making a few dollars in the summer for college. Now Drew was facing a new, very grown-up reality.

“But I never got too discouraged,” he said. “I tried to think of each new challenge as something to be overcome. I wanted to compete and get better. I was competing against myself.”

Drew Haley works out to strengthen his core muscles following a 2018 football injury that resulted in the loss of part of his right leg.
Drew Haley works out to strengthen his core muscles following a 2018 football injury that resulted in the loss of part of his right leg. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Haley Family

He also found comfort worshipping alongside the same Latter-day Saints who had fasted and prayed for him.

“Being able to go to Church gave me another anchor,” he said. “It helped me from going into dark places where my thoughts would overcome me. The Church kept me in a good place.”

Drew’s mother, Alison Haley, said prayer was her constant companion during the initial hours of her son’s treatment — and during the long months of uncertainty and recovery that followed.

“I prayed for a miracle that his leg would be saved, but that was not the miracle that was given to Drew. But so many other prayers were answered,” she said.

A game to remember

With each passing month, Drew’s proficiency with his high-tech, flexible carbon-based prosthetic has improved. The artificial limb allows him to run and cut. It’s also spring-operated, so he can push off as if he was using the calf in his leg.

“Everything feels pretty normal except when I try to pivot on my right leg,” he said. “That’s hard to do because I don’t have an ankle anymore that can change directions without my knee changing.”

A basketball season sitting on the bench also honed his understanding of the sport. Drew said he’s not as impulsive during games anymore. He’s more patient and makes better decisions. His adjustments have upped his basketball IQ.

Drew Haley scores two of his 26 points during a recent game at Layten High School in Nebraska.
Drew Haley scores two of his 26 points during a recent game at Layten High School in Nebraska. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Haley Family

“And he’s much more of a team player,” said Matt Haley.

Leyton High head coach Chris Morgan calls it a privilege to coach a young man such as Drew, who demonstrates his grit each day in practice and in games.

“He’s an inspiration to all the players,” said Coach Morgan.

As a senior playing his final year of high school ball, Drew also calls it a blessing to be able to play alongside his sophomore brother, Brayden. 

The elder Haley brother made it a goal to play in every game and help the Warriors win. “But I’m not going to base our team’s success on wins and losses.”

But Drew’s still a “gamer” — so he admits his recent 26-point outing in Leyton’s winning effort was a lot of fun.

“It felt good knowing I was helping my team out. During my sophomore year, I was a [primary] point scorer. So being able to do that again helped me feel a little like my old self,” he said. 

Matt and Alison Haley never left their son’s side during the grueling post-injury days and weeks when a game like basketball was of little concern. They simply wanted Drew to be happy and healthy.

Drew Haley, far left, attends a session of general conference with his family, from left, Brayden, Ella, Alison and Matt Haley.
Drew Haley, far left, attends a session of general conference with his family, from left, Brayden, Ella, Alison and Matt Haley. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Haley Family

“But watching that 26-point game,” admitted Alison, “left me in a puddle of tears.”

Drew’s scoring outbreak, added Matt, “was an awesome thing to witness. And it was extra special because I’m so happy to be known as Drew’s father.”