Former Blake, USF standout Mike McFarland fights back after frightening accident

The former Bulls tight end was rendered comatose following a May 13 accident on I-75
Former USF all-conference tight end Mike McFarland, seen here with girlfriend Reina Baluja, suffered numerous significant injuries in a May 13 accident on I-75. [JOEY KNIGHT | Times]
Former USF all-conference tight end Mike McFarland, seen here with girlfriend Reina Baluja, suffered numerous significant injuries in a May 13 accident on I-75. [JOEY KNIGHT | Times]
Published June 20

OCALA ― Some terms are tossed around frivolously in athletics. Words such as scrappiness and perseverance, fight and grit. Abstract concepts suffering from overexposure.

But for some, such attributes are needed to survive, making them more prerequisites than platitudes. Which brings us to Mike McFarland.

Over time, this 27-year-old Blake High alumnus has developed a fierce survival instinct. It served him well during a highly unstable childhood, when he bounced from one residence to another.

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It helped him transition in college, from hyped University of Florida signee to USF walk-on to second-team All-American Athletic Conference tight end. It attracted him to the rigor and raw artistry of mixed martial arts.

And it almost certainly kept him breathing following a freakish sequence of events on Interstate 75 nearly six weeks ago.

“I cry in my rehab, man. I’m talking about, I cryyyyy,” McFarland said, a blanket covering most of his camouflage-colored hospital gown.

“But when they tell me, ‘Are you ready?’ I mark my (expletive) face and I tell 'em, ‘Yeah.’”

Since May 13, McFarland has resided in a private room on the fourth floor of Ocala Regional Medical Center. In that morning’s wee hours, the red Infiniti sedan he was driving was rear-ended by a Ford F-150 on northbound I-75 in Marion County, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report.

From his bed, in a soft voice, McFarland says he remembers getting out of his car and walking to the rear of the vehicle to assess the damage.

His next memory is of waking up in the hospital affixed to a labyrinth of tubes.

Another FHP report, filed by a different trooper from essentially the same location, indicates McFarland stepped from the median of northbound I-75 toward the left traffic lane when he was struck by the driver-side mirror of a Nissan Versa. The front right corner of the Versa then struck the left rear side of a GMC Denali SUV, causing one to overturn and the other to hit a utility pole.

No fatalities were reported, and neither alcohol nor drug use was suspected. McFarland, who finished his USF career with 55 receptions, was cited for leaving a place of safety and entering the path of a vehicle.

He also broke his left tibia and fibula, fractured another bone in his right leg, suffered a lacerated colon and liver, a broken jaw, fractured rib and a broken right ankle. The accident left him in a coma for roughly two weeks.

“We’re planning rehab and we could be planning for a funeral,” said his girlfriend, Reina Baluja, a former Jefferson High softball standout. “So it’s nothing but the grace of God.”

McFarland concurs, saying his survival has reinforced the Christian faith he recently embraced. On a window sill in the hospital room is a photo of McFarland being baptized in a lake, as well as a couple of pictures of his 4-year-old daughter, Nakayla (who resides with her mother).

Five get-well balloons remain tied to a chair in a corner of the room. Nurses wander in and out routinely, doting on their 6-foot-5 patient.

“God, they are in love with him,” Baluja says. “I get nurses asking me on the way to the elevator, ‘Is he really that nice?’ Yeah, he really is. He’s this gentle giant.”

But on this overcast afternoon, as he prepares for ankle surgery, the giant sobs.

The tears arrive when he speaks of childhood pal Eric Patterson, a former Plant High and NFL cornerback shot to death in his Tampa home earlier this month. They come when he recalls a cheer-up visit from a former hospital patient named Ryan, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident.

“That guy came in here and spoke to me, man,” McFarland recalls. “It was probably one of the most electrifying feelings I’ve had in a long time.”

And they form when the conversation turns to ― of all things ― fighting. Just the subject strikes a poignant chord with McFarland, who was earnestly training for a possible MMA career at the time of the accident.

“Like my coach tells me, each time before I spar or roll or whatever, just think of everything you’ve been through,” McFarland says.

"I ran away so many times as a kid, I stayed in different peoples’ houses, ran away from...the Department of Children and Families for years. And I want to be able to fight for something where I can put my daughter in a better situation than I was in.

“To be able to do that in such a pure way, I feel like that’s something you can’t coach. It’s something you’ve got to want to do.”

It’s something he’s bent on doing, even in the wake of this scrape with death. McFarland said he has dropped about 25 pounds ― to 230 ― since the accident, and chewing remains a chore due to his broken jaw. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, he ranks his overall pain a 7.

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But he insists he’ll grimace and grind his way through this odyssey of rehab, regardless of how daunting it becomes. In essence, McFarland fights now so he can fight later.

It’s who he is.

“There are people that get beat and don’t want to fight,” McFarland said. “But then you get people who get knocked out and get back up. I feel like I’ll always be one of those types of people regardless of the situation.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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