MANHATTAN — There are times while Mike McCoy is hanging around Kansas State's practice field that he flashes back to a little over a year ago, when it was him out there in a helmet and shoulder pads mixing it up with his teammates.
In a perfect world, he would still be the one taking handoffs from quarterback Skylar Thompson, hitting the hole and bouncing off an interior lineman before leveling some unsuspecting defensive back. But this is not a perfect world.
"Sometimes I do get mad," said McCoy, a senior from Topeka who would have been a redshirt junior this season for the Wildcats. "Like I'll be in practice and see a defensive player make a big hit and (think), 'He wouldn't hit me like that.'
"I just think like, 'Aah, I miss the pads.' But as far as feeling sorry for myself or anything, I just want to figure out what God's plan is for me and just roll with it."
The plan for now, it seems, is for McCoy to finish his degree while also serving as a student assistant on the field and in the recruiting office. When he was diagnosed with a spinal condition last summer, derailing a promising career as a running back, K-State honored his scholarship and gave him a chance to remain with the team.
"I plan to be a coach someday, because I didn't expect this — not to be playing and my career to be over so fast — so to be able to stick around football and make a living off of it would be great," McCoy said. "So that's what I'm shooting for."
McCoy came into last season with high hopes. After a standout career at Topeka High School — nearly 1,500 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns — he redshirted in 2016, then appeared in three games as a redshirt freshman, rushing for 55 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries.
But at some point during fall camp, a condition surfaced that would effectively end his career.
"Basically it was just something I was born with," McCoy said. "It's a narrowing of the spine, and it just takes a few instances for me not being able to walk any more.
"It's basically like cutting off your nerves from your neck down. Too many times of that and it's not a recovery you can make."
McCoy, a big, physical back who was listed on the K-State roster at 6-foot-2, 236 pounds, did not accept the diagnosis at first, even though he never made it onto the field in 2018.
"I tried everything I could," he said, somewhat wistfully. "Because if it's only a certain way I can get hit to where it will happen, I could try to play in a way to not get hit.
"But in football you can't really control that because people are trying to blow you up every play, and I'm actually a rough person myself, so I could mess around and hurt myself trying to hit them or something."
So last February, after the season was over, McCoy decided it was time to give up on one dream and pursue another.
"I want to thank God, my family, my teammates and fans for all the support throughout my sports career," he said in a statement released by the K-State sports information office on Feb. 12. "I love my teammates and all the people I met throughout my journey."
He also thanked new head coach Chris Klieman, who found a place for him to remain involved with the team while also exploring a possible coaching career.
"He'll be a student coach for us and he'll help Coach (Taylor) Braet in the recruiting department," Klieman said of McCoy's new role. "He'll go out on the field and try to help the young guys, as well.
"It's a new system, so Mike doesn't know it either, but he's just trying to help some of these young guys. Sometimes it's not even with the playbook, but just psychologically. Camp's hard for a true freshman when you're away from home for the first time, and Mike can be a big brother to those guys."
That's exactly how McCoy sees himself.
"I was right on the verge of being able to play right before the injury," he said. "So I'm kind of really just showing the freshmen how things go and their rotations and the way they're going to get in on scout teams and things like that."
Though he works primarily with the running backs — the Wildcats brought in four freshmen at that position after losing their three leading backs from a year ago — McCoy isn't limiting himself.
"I do a little bit of everything," he said. "I go into everyone's meeting room and just try to figure out a lot of different coaching styles."
He's also around the recruiting office.
"That's mainly what I work on, helping Taylor Braet recruiting and showing players around the facilities and stuff like that — let them know how great a place Manhattan is," McCoy said. "Just being there for everybody. Somebody they can call on if they need any help or advice."
The way Klieman sees it, by the time McCoy graduates in May, he should have a pretty good idea of whether coaching is for him.
"He has a great opportunity to jump in with both feet and learn," Klieman said. "And learn from Coach Braet and learn from coach (Brian) Anderson (running backs coach) and see if this is the path that he would want to take.
"It's hard. It's so early. But if he has a passion for wanting to do it, that will come out and he'll find out on his own if this is what he really wants to do."
In the meantime, McCoy is doing his best not to look back too much and wonder what might have been.
"I kind of came to the realization that, even if I did make it to the NFL, it would just bother me into my NFL career and I would end up being done," he said. "So it's better that it happened in college where I'm around people who love me and the staff. I love the whole staff and I'm still around the players I came in with, so it's lovely, really.
"(The only regret is) that I didn't get to sow everything that I could have, but … I wish that I could have played in a few more games. But anything is better than being unable to walk."