At first glance it didn’t seem like much more than a collision of two players, something that occurs numerous times over the course of a lacrosse game. But this wasn’t your ordinary lacrosse collision. This was what you could almost call the perfect storm. For Jackson Place, it was one that almost ended his lacrosse career. Instead of ending it though, it set the stage for one heck of a comeback.
When Place and the Archers took the field on September 9, 2019, they couldn’t have had any idea of what was about to unfold. Place, playing in his fifth season as a professional, had become an integral part of the Archers as they headed into the playoffs, hoping to make a run for the initial PLL title. Part way through the game the Archers defender turned to run towards the endline and collided with the Redwoods Eddie Glazener. Immediately Place’s body went limp as he fell to the turf unable to move.
“Just really a freak accident and injury running into Glazener,” Place said. “I just naturally had a very narrow spinal column and that puts me at risk for a spinal concussion after a collision or good whack.”
After playing football and lacrosse his whole life Place hadn’t had any issues. But that hit, on that day against the Redwoods, was the one that was just at the right angle to cause issues. As he fell to the turf, Place remained awake and aware the entire time as former Ohio Machine team doctor, Catherine Logan, got onto the field to aid Place.
“I’m really thankful that Dr. Logan was there and she was with me all the way,” Place said. “She basically diagnosed it right away and walked me through things as we went along.”
“When it first happened I went from just melting into the turf, to being mad at myself because, ultimately, I think it was an avoidable play, to emergency mode of knowing this is really important, Dr. Logan is asking me pertinent questions. Let’s focus on one thing at a time,” Place said.
The PLL medical team, led by Dr. Logan, immediately rushing to Place’s aid, he was transported to the hospital to begin evaluating the situation and determining what the proper treatment and next steps would be.
“Dr. Logan and the team around me did such a good job of keeping me focused that I didn’t have time to really think about things like the worst case scenarios and such,” Place said. “When I start feeling some of my big toe in the ambulance and I start thinking ‘Oh crap I’m going to get sat aren’t I?’ I need to figure this out and try to get back.”
Place had suffered a spinal cord injury due to a condition that caused his spinal cord to be narrower and therefore weaker than normal. Over the next 72 hours, he began to regain feeling and motion in his limbs.
“I was really fortunate that Dr. Logan and her team, the team in Ohio, and the team in New York were all able to put their heads together quickly and get me the right treatment. That quick treatment helped me get the best strategy and outlook going forward, making that as good as it could be,” Place reflected.
Following his injury, the Bucknell graduate spent around a month in a hard collar before the real work began, trying to return to a “normal” life. But normal is all relative.
“I started to walk and run and such but the nerve damage was pretty crappy,” Place said. “I would reach up for a box of cereal and shooting nerve pain would go down my back.”
A look at Place’s updated scans revealed that his spine was continuing to get narrower, making him liable to possibly suffer another spinal injury in a contact situation. After discussing with his team of doctors, it was determined that undergoing a second surgery to widen the spinal column was Place’s best option. In May 2020, he underwent second procedure, doubling the width of his spinal column from nine to 18 millimeters.
“[After getting that surgery] I’m much safer now than I was in seasons past,” Place said. “So getting that surgery, getting that mobility back was big.”
After that second surgery, the dream of possibly returning to a PLL field to suit up with his Archers teammates became a much clearer and attainable goal.
“I knew after the surgery went really well and they were texting me telling me, ‘your spine is much healthier now than before the injury. So you have the ability to play again if you want to,’” remembered Place. “That was all I needed to hear from that point.”
That confirmation from the doctors was exactly what Place needed to hear last summer. His dream to play again began to take shape while watching his Archers teammates compete in the PLL bubble in Utah. Even though he wasn’t able to be on site for the bubble, the defender kept in close touch with his teammates and coaches as the tournament got underway.
“First thing was we wanted to make sure he was staying safe, healthy, and doing what he needed to be doing to get back to a normal life,” Archers Head Coach Chris Bates said. “Jackson’s a great guy and an important part of this team. We wanted to make sure he knew that, even as he was fighting through the recovery process, he was still a part of this team.”
As a part of the team, Place was still watching every game, in every group chat, and analyzing every single step along the way. For someone who was used to being in the thick of things after having spent five years playing professionally, the transition to being off the field for the summer wasn’t the easiest.
“It was different and honestly a lot more frustrating for me,” Place said. “When you’re playing if something goes wrong you chat quickly, make an adjustment, and then you have to move onto the next play. When you’ve got that 10,000 foot view of the game, watching from home, there was a lot more time to watch things. And then re-watch everything. Then wish you were there and able to do something to help.”
While the tournament was taking place in Utah, Place was back in Philly starting to prepare his body for the chance to suit back up with the Archers in 2021.
“That was a new challenge for me. 2020 watching from the sidelines was not as fun. I think we had been on the edge of teetering at a championship caliber team, and a lot of the pieces we brought in have me really excited,” Place said. “The coaches and the team have been able to keep me looped in and keep me going and motivated. From just neck mobility to walking to running to lifting again.”
As he continued to progress towards getting back on a lacrosse field, Place started working with his former high school trainer focusing on explosiveness, form, and getting back into shape. Those workouts not only helped him stay focused on the ultimate goal, but it was a chance to go back to the basics
“That kind of gave me the ability to not just rush into the season. To reconfigure myself as a player and an athlete, and to make sure I was being as efficient and productive as I can at my age,” Place said.
After spending several long months working towards getting fully cleared, Place was given the okay and it was “full tilt from there.” He began working with the who’s who of professional lacrosse to get back into the swing of things and making sure he would be ready for camp. That group included guys like current Archers teammates Tom Schreiber and Grant Ament. Those training sessions continued to give Place the confidence that he could not only still play lacrosse, but play at the highest level. But it wasn’t without his own doubts starting to creep in.
“I was coming back and thinking, wait this feels rusty. I was having trouble feeling where I am on the field,” Place said. “Training wise you’re always nitpicking your form and everything. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how once I got [here] to camp and was able to shake off the rust. Things started to come back like reading the field and anticipating things. I’ve been very fortunate that that has felt like second nature once I’ve gotten back.”
Despite feeling a little rusty, those field sessions with fellow pros ranging from the aforementioned Ament and Schreiber to guys like Tucker Durkin and Ryan Ambler helped Place “take advantage” of the state of the pandemic and work from home culture. He headed into the summer ready to go with more training time and reps than he had ever before. With PLL training camp on the horizon and a doctors blessing in his back pocket, Place was ready to rejoin the Archers.
“He came to me before training camp and told me first thing that he didn’t want to be treated like anything special,” Coach Bates said. “He told me that if he didn’t want to be babied at all. He was ready and wanted to earn his spot.”
“I made sure to tell coach right off the bat that I’m here to compete. Treat me like you would anyone else,” Place said. “We talked about knowing what I bring as a player and that complete game and just doing my thing. It’s been a monkey off my back where I knew that I would be getting a fair shot and not have to worry about doing anything extra to prove I was healthy and safe. But in the end, they always put me as a human first and made sure that I was ok, and I really appreciated that.”
After earning his spot in training camp Place stepped onto the field for the first time in just shy of two years last weekend at Gillette. Being able to return to the lineup for Coach Bates and the Archers meant the world to Place.
“I don’t know if I would have wanted to play for anyone else, and honestly I don’t know if I would have,” Place said. “I’ve known Coach Bates and had a relationship with him for a while. Without him and the support of the Archers’ team and staff, I’m not sure I’d be playing lacrosse again. I’m beyond thankful for them and just excited to be playing again. We’ve got really, really great men leading our team and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
And that respect between the player and coach goes much deeper than the lacrosse field.
“Jackson is a guy that I have a lot of respect for not just as a player, but as a man,” said Bates. “He’s someone that I’m very thankful to have gotten to get to know outside of just lacrosse. I have a lot of admiration for him as a man and someone that I’m really proud to have on this team.”
While it hadn’t fully hit Place in the days before he made it back onto a PLL field he knew that, once the game was over, he’d be able to sit back and think about the journey that had gotten him to that point.
“This whole experience has certainly made me appreciate everything in lacrosse a little more. I’m excited and thankful to be able to suit up with these guys once again and compete for a championship,” Place said. “It was a weird, scary, and rewarding process that really has kept running the course up until now.”
It was quite the journey for the Archer, but in the end he’s back on the field making an impact and healthier than ever. Or as he put it on his Instagram Saturday morning, “630 days, a few neck braces, and a lot of training hours later… it feels pretty great to be back.”
Feature image courtesy of Jackson Place