Two artificial legs, one big heart: KU student using his story to inspire others

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He took a deep breath and finally let it out, the words tearing away at his heart, one tiny sliver at a time.

They’re gone, Colby.

Matt Liston is a cop, a cop who does triathlons on weekends, a cop with the kind of backbone that could prop up a strip mall. But this was his son, lying there, half-conscious, with nothing but bandages and linen where two healthy legs had been just a day earlier.

“Where are the casts?” Colby asked.

They’re gone, Colby. The doctors had to amputate them both, just above the knees.

And Colby was quiet.

“What am I going to do?” he finally said. “How am I going to go to class?”

“Well,” Matt replied, “we’re going to have to take some time off from school.”

And Colby was quiet again. He pondered this for a second. Then he said something that was very typical Colby:

“That’s all right. That guy in the Olympics (Oscar Pistorius), he just ran the 400 and he had no legs.”

See, Colby Liston is his father’s son.

“Just focus on what you can do,” Matt says now. “Not on what you can’t.

“We’re just lucky to still have him. Legs, no legs, he could’ve easily been killed in that crash. Obviously, God kept him around for a reason.”

They had it all planned out, to the last detail. Colby would major in petroleum engineering at Kansas and walk on to the track team. On Aug. 25, 2012, he’d even taken a team physical, filled out all the forms.

But when Colby was out later that night in Lawrence with pals, the narrative took a horrifying twist.

The Derby, Kan., native had been trying to get into the back of a friend’s stopped SUV when another car slammed into him from behind. His legs wound up pinned between the two vehicles.

“I don’t remember much at all,” Colby says.

Dad can’t forget. The phone call. The hospital. The waiting. The verdict. The conversation.

“The surgeon was great; he knew that Colby was an athlete, and he knew that this was going to be a devastating thing,” Matt says. “The injury was so severe at the time, we were pretty sure the legs would be amputated at the knees. There was nothing we could do.”

So he told him. And the second thing that popped into Colby’s head was Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner,” the South African who ran the 400 at the 2012 London Olympics on prosthetic legs.

“I was so drugged up on everything, I don’t remember most of those (first) days in the hospital,” Colby says now. “I kind of remember those first words, and my first comments. And when I look back on it, I don’t really know why I said that. But that’s the first thing that came to mind.”

Focus on what you can do. Not on what you can’t.

“Colby was always a big-time overachiever,” says Brandon Clark, Colby’s high school football coach and a family friend. “He was faster than he should’ve been. He was stronger than he probably should’ve been. Whatever he did, he overachieved.”

At 5-foot-9, 135 pounds, Colby Liston willed himself into becoming an all-state defensive back. He excelled in the 400 and the long jump.

When a knee injury ended his senior football season at Derby High prematurely, he switched to a mentoring role, coaching up his replacement, cheering him on from the sidelines. To Clark’s amazement, Colby’s rehab went so quickly, he was able to participate in spring track.

“He has that drive — he’s an athlete, it needs competition in his life,” the coach says. “So this is kind of an outlet for him, to set some goals and push his body to the limit. That’s why his dad still does triathlons. He’s got that ingrained in him.”

Matt’s been a community presence with the Derby police force for years. Family and friends responded to the crisis in kind, launching a “Team Liston” page on Facebook last fall to track Colby’s progress, selling T-shirts and setting up fundraisers to help defray costs.

“People in the town kind of picked it up and ran with it,” the elder Liston says. “It’s unbelievable, the support in our town.”

The driver who struck Colby was charged with second-offense DUI, possession of marijuana, and following a vehicle too closely. But on Monday, a new law went into effect in Kansas that will allow prosecutors to charge drunk drivers with aggravated battery in injury accidents; a jury trial is scheduled for Sept. 4.

“I mean, it’s been 10 months, and it really doesn’t seem like that long,” Colby says. “Time has kind of gone by fast.”

In Colby’s world, time flies. These days, so does he.

Normally, a double amputee takes almost two years to get back out on the track and compete.

The younger Liston did it in nine months, running in the 14th annual Endeavor Games three weeks ago at the University of Central Oklahoma.

“It’s different for everybody; everybody’s recovery is different,” says Colby, one of the star pupils at the Hanger Clinic in Oklahoma City. “I just learned faster than others. I think it just was getting out and doing it.

“I didn’t want to sit in the wheelchair anymore. It was just going and doing it. It was having the motivation to go out and do it.”

Focus on what you can do. Not on what you can’t.

“And he’s doing this for him, but it’s an inspiration for all of us,” his old coach allows. “You look at Colby, and so many people do, and with the hand that he’s been given, he could easily just sit down and feel sorry for himself. But that’s just the total opposite of what he does. He does a lot more with what he has than what most people do with normal limbs.”

In January, Colby was fitted for his first set of carbon-fiber running blades.

In June, he wound up first in his age group in the 200 and 400.

“I tell you,” Clark says, “that is a tough kid.”

Today, the Endeavor Games; tomorrow, the Paralympics. Maybe.

“I mean, I like running, I enjoy running, but I also have other aspirations — to go to college, get a degree and start my career,” Colby says. “I don’t know which one would come first. (The Paralympics) is a long-term goal for me. But I still have a few years for that.”

Kansas basketball coach Bill Self called to wish him well. North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams, Self’s predecessor in Lawrence, wrote a letter of support. The Royals’ Alex Gordon sent over an autographed bat.

Over the past few months, he’s become pen pals with Jim Tressel, the former Ohio State football coach. Colby is a big-time Buckeyes fan, and Tressel used to work with his grandfather on the football staff at the University of Akron.

“He’ll text me every now and then, ask me how I’m doing,” Colby says.

Better. Colby turns 19 in a few weeks, and the new normal is inching ever closer to where the old normal was before things went off the rails.

The first five steps each day are the hardest, Colby says, but the rest is becoming routine. His everyday-set of prosthetics are computer-controlled, designed to react to his movements, anchored by a pair of hydraulic knees painted KU blue and red.

Liston underwent a bilateral boot camp in April, where he was drilled in how to function with prosthetics in a walking world. He can drive a car without a hand control. He’s working 35-40 hours a week at a rec center in Derby. He’ll go to the gym and lift weights, same as before. He’ll hang out with friends on the weekend, same as before.

Colby, who carried a 4.1 GPA in high school, is even re-enrolling at KU in the fall to pick back up where he’d left off.

“We already knew he was going to make his living with his brains, anyway,” Dad says.

Or his heart. A few months back, Colby happened to be working out in Oklahoma City when he got wind of a news report: A local teen named Austin had been in a car accident, one that required amputation below one of his knees.

A mutual contact at Hanger reached out and set up a meeting. Liston went down to OU Medical Center, “to perk him up, to kind of just give him some inside information that the doctors don’t know about.

“My guy from Hanger has been in prosthetics for 30-some years now, and he said, ‘Spend an hour with a bilateral amputee, you will learn more than spending a month with me.’ And it’s completely true.”

So Colby took a deep breath and finally let it out. He told him that it would get better. He told him how to massage the end of your legs to relieve phantom pains. He told him how to cope with the urge to wriggle toes that are no longer there.

Focus on what you can do. Not on what you can’t.

“Just knowing that there’s somebody else out there that’s in the same situation,” Colby says. “They’ll give you some advice. They’ll give you some motivation. It’s just peer support.

“I know how much it helped me when I had someone visit me in the hospital. So I figured I could pass that on and do that for somebody else.”

Sure enough, Austin perked up. After all, God kept Colby Liston around for a reason.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at