Once regarded as the Nebraska football program's strongest-ever player, Keven Lightner earlier this summer felt he was in the best shape physically that he'd been in for at least 20 years.

He says he hadn't taken more than a week off from workouts since he was 18. 

All that work in the gym saved his life. Literally.

Related

Related

"The doctor said if I wouldn't have been as strong as I was, I wouldn't have made it," says the 55-year-old Lightner, who left CHI St. Elizabeth on Aug. 30 following a monthlong stay as he battled an especially severe case of COVID-19

Doctors told him that he won't return to full strength for six months to a year. Think about that for a second. 

A first-team All-Big Eight offensive tackle for Nebraska in 1987, Lightner is a big believer in prayer, perhaps even more so now. 

"I had a lot of people praying for me," he says. "I thank them. I believe that saved me." 

All those years of workouts also worked to his advantage.

"Even as strong as I am, I was right there on the edge," he says.

Right there on the edge. You know the one. 

"I'm very, very lucky to come out of it," he says. 

Lightner didn't have underlying health conditions. Yes, he's a big dude — 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds. But he's always been physically fit.

He admits that before his illness, he didn't take COVID-19 seriously enough. He knows plenty of people who think it's all a government scam. He hopes those people notice his story and maybe put their guards up. 

"I hope this will change some minds, even if it's out of respect for other people," he says. 

At about noon Thursday, Lightner was getting ready for an afternoon workout. Mind you, his workouts nowadays aren't nearly as intense as his hardcore sessions before his illness. Keep in mind, he's a former collegiate lineman who during the months preceding Nebraska's 1987 season was regarded as the program's strongest-ever player, having recorded a 441-pound bench press and squatting 756 pounds.

No one had ever squatted 756 pounds at NU's strength complex, according to then-Husker strength coach Boyd Epley. 

Related

As an offensive line coach and rushing game coordinator in the Japan professional league for the past four seasons, Lightner had plenty of time for intense workouts. He just coached and didn't have to recruit. He certainly had more time for workouts than he did during his two decades of coaching in the college ranks, including a nine-year stint at Ohio under former Nebraska head coach Frank Solich.  

Lightner stays in close contact with Solich. Lightner's head coach at Nebraska, Tom Osborne, kept close tabs on him during his illness, as did current Husker head coach Scott Frost. Come to think of it, Lightner says, he was overwhelmed by all the support he's received from former teammates and even former and current Huskers with whom he's unfamiliar. Husker fans have reached out and prayed for him. He really can't thank everyone enough. 

He chokes up as he talks about the support he's received from his former wife, Erin Lightner, and others in his family. Their son, Kade, takes care of him daily. Dad and son are extremely close. 

Yes, Lightner needs care. After all, he was on a ventilator and in an induced coma for 10 days of his hospital stay. For much of that stay, his family could only see him through a glass wall. 

"I don't remember a whole lot," he says. "I don't really remember anything after I checked myself in, to be honest with you." 

With travel restrictions to Japan recently lifted, Lightner plans to return to work next week. But he won't be close to full speed. 

"I can walk without my crutches, but not real fast," he says. "I kind of keep one with me just in case. But I'm getting better every day. I can walk a little farther. They say the first thing that gets you is your conditioning. You can't go very far. It was really bad when I first got out of the hospital. Just standing up was hard." 

Something that needs to be made clear is that Lightner did not bring the virus to Lincoln from Japan. He arrived in Lincoln on June 18 intending to return to Japan in a couple of weeks. But then Japan banned travel into the country. So he stayed in Lincoln — and acknowledges he let his guard down in July as it pertains to COVID-19. His positive test came July 25.

"I got stuck here and was just kind of going about my business," he says. "I went to a couple gatherings that I shouldn't have, where I don't believe anybody was wearing a mask, including myself. Within three or four days of those gatherings is when I got sick. I don't know where else I would've gotten it."

High-level coaches I've known throughout the years almost always are highly accountable. That's largely what their job's about, right? In that regard, Lightner's frank talk about his general lack of respect for the virus makes sense. 

He obviously respects it now.

Wash your hands, wear your mask and avoid big groups, he says, admitting he wasn't a fan of wearing a mask. 

"None of them really fit my head," the big man says. "But now I'm a believer."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.