About a year ago, Jon Toth was on the phone with his mom, grumbling about the difficulties of carrying a full course load in mechanical engineering and balancing it with football.
Being the calculating, measured sort, Kentucky’s starting center should’ve known better than to complain to her.
“Jonathon, really?” she said with an inflection and tone that only mothers master.
“I’m an engineer, too,” Stacy Reifeis said. “Don’t complain to me. It’s not that hard. The fact that you have to think hard about a couple classes is good for you.”
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In hindsight, Toth should’ve known that just about anyone whining to Reifeis about his struggles is fighting a losing battle.
Toth’s mother is something of nursery rhyme and a fairy-tale ending all rolled into one.
“I was basically Humpty Dumpty, and they put me back together,” she said.
It’s something she can joke about now, 10 years after an accident that had at least one set of doctors saying she might never walk again.
When those doctors told Reifeis that her crushed and mangled legs were beyond repair, that her new normal might involve a wheelchair or worse, the mother of three boys was defiant.
“They told me there’s a strong possibility that I might not walk again,” Reifeis said. “That was preposterous and ridiculous, and I just don’t accept that as an answer.”
‘She’s about to die’
Stacy Reifeis is not a cookie-baking, hair bow-wearing type of girl.
Having grown up with brothers and having three active boys of her own, Reifeis is a bit of a daredevil. She was a slalom skier. She rides all-terrain vehicles. She goes tubing and water skiing.
So she was excited to travel with her brother and older sons Erich and Jon from their home in Indianapolis to London, Ky., where there was a motocross track.
On a beautiful day on a beautiful course, something went terribly wrong.
Reifeis missed a turn, went through a fence and cartwheeled along with her bike 25 feet down an embankment.
It’s almost easier for her to name the bones that didn’t get broken that day.
“I did not break my back; I did not break my hip; I did not break my neck,” she said, although her helmet was crushed.
Reifeis suffered compound fractures (in which the bone punctures the skin) in three bones in her left leg and in her left wrist. She broke all of the bones in her right leg.
She broke her knees, ribs, jaw, nose. Cuts covered her body.
When Erich and Jon saw her lying motionless at the bottom of the hill, they went tearing down after her. She was barely conscious and in shock.
“Me and my brother were in shock ourselves,” Jon said. “Our mom is out of it; she’s about to die. Those kind of thoughts run through your head. This really important person in your life is on the ground and might die.”
Reifeis, then 43, was flown of all places to UK Chandler Hospital, just a few blocks away from where Toth has played football for the past three seasons.
She was in a medically induced coma for three days, one of which was her youngest son Matthew’s birthday.
When she woke up, she found herself “strung up with monkey bars” keeping both legs and her left arm stabilized. In a painkiller-induced haze, Reifeis called her boss and told him she’d be back to work in a week but she’d need some room at her desk to put her legs up.
It took a bit longer than that.
Eventually, Reifeis was transported home to Indianapolis, where she met with a doctor team that helps put race-car drivers back together after horrific accidents.
“Can I walk again?” she asked them.
When they replied yes, she said simply: “You’re hired.”
In all, Reifeis had 15 surgeries and spent six weeks in the hospital and then another six weeks in a rehab center. She took her first excruciating but hopeful step on Nov. 20, four months after the wreck.
There are 12-inch plates on her femurs, another holds together her wrist along with “more screws and pins than you can imagine on both sides,” she said.
It took nearly three years, but Reifeis finally felt normal again.
“I live a very happy and productive life,” she said. “I walk just fine. I don’t run, because I can’t articulate my ankles beyond 90 degrees.”
But she still gets her thrills with rides on all-terrain vehicles with her boys and trips on snowmobiles and skiing. She water skis, hunts and more.
“We try to approach it very safely, and when Jonathon goes with us, we don’t always tell his coaches because they would probably wig out if they saw Jonathon on some of this equipment we go on,” she laughed.
They would wig indeed. This summer, UK offensive line coach John Schlarman asked his center what his plans were.
He said they involved ATV riding with his family.
“I kind of paused for a second and said, ‘So now I’ve got to worry about that over the weekend?’” Schlarman smiled. “Some of those things, I say to take it easy. But on that particular one, he might have been going with his mom, so how can you say no to that?”
Even though he was only 12 at the time, Toth remembers watching his mom struggle and persevere. The senior carries that with him, mostly in his DNA.
“The biggest thing I took from all of that is that you can overcome anything, and if you set your mind to something and you work hard, you can achieve what you want,” he said.
Thus the scoffing from his mom when he grumbled about his heavy course load and demanding football schedule last year.
“I did feel for him, but I wasn’t going to let him know that,” she confided later.
Reifeis hopes that even though her children saw her at her worst moments, they use it as motivation going forward.
“Rehab was really difficult, a very painful thing,” she said. “But I was undeterred to be able to overcome, I guess. I never thought there was anything to do but that.
“That’s just my way. I never let the boys behave any differently growing up. I was like ‘suck it up.’ Life throws you curveballs.”
So it’s no wonder that Toth is at the practice facility at 5:45 a.m. stretching before his 8 a.m. meetings or that he spends as much time there watching film as his coaches.
“His work ethic and his habits, what he does is unbelievable,” UK offensive lineman Nick Haynes said of his good friend, who has started 35 straight games and is considered one of the nation’s top centers. “We’re all trying to raise ourselves up and be like him, and if we can all be like him, we’ll be a pretty good offensive line.”
Ask offensive coordinator Eddie Gran about his most consistent player and he says Toth without hesitation.
“Toth for sure. He hasn’t missed a snap, hasn’t missed anything,” Gran said. “A couple of our guys have had cramps, gone out, and he’s the workhorse. He’s that guy.”
And some of that, he surely gets from his mom.
Scouting the Cats: Offensive line
This is the fifth of nine stories looking at the 2016 Kentucky football team position by position.
Kentucky’s offensive line
The main man: With 35 career starts and his name on many national watch lists, it has to be center Jon Toth. The senior is a star on the field and off, majoring in mechanical engineering. “He’s a special person,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “He’s an incredible guy. Very quiet, but he does his work. He’s really amazing. He’s a guy who’s an engineering major, but he’s constantly around our building. He makes it look easy.”
The supporting cast: Toth isn’t the only veteran on the Kentucky offensive line, with four of the five starters returning with a total of 83 starts among them, including 46 from 2015. Junior Kyle Meadows started the final nine games last season and returns at right tackle. Cole Mosier, who has played at nearly every spot on the line in his time at UK, claimed the left tackle spot in the spring and has held on. The interior of the line around Toth is experienced as well with juniors Nick Haynes and Ramsey Meyers both back. There are plenty of younger players vying for playing time as well in George Asafo-Adjei, Mason Wolfe, Logan Stenberg and former Lafayette star Landon Young, a true freshman.
Outlook: The interior of Kentucky’s line looks secure behind Toth, Haynes and Meyers with solid backups behind each of them, but coaches are still looking for depth at the offensive tackle spots, trying to find a third guy that can rotate in. They’re hopeful that Young and junior-college transfer Tate Leavitt will be able to fill those roles and help a group that looks like a team strength truly become an elite unit.