Today I came across an article (see here) on laxallstars.com written by Alex Jones of the Brown men’s lacrosse team. Alex has suffered a season ending injury (torn achilles), and has written a blog to inform readers about the injury and the effect it has had on his life.
It got me thinking about how major of an issue this is, not just in lacrosse, but in all sports – and it really is not addressed as often as it should be. So, to offer my two cents, I can contribute my thoughts and experiences from a devastating knee injury at the height of my lacrosse career:
When I was a junior in college, we played our first game of the season at home against a highly regarded opponent and fantastic rival. Coming off of a solid freshman and sophomore campaign, I had received some attention and preseason accolades from the local and national press, and with the addition of some new influential players to our team, my teammates and I were as excited and ready as ever to begin what we expected to be a great season.
In the first quarter of that game (presumably), I did something to my knee. I don’t know exactly what, but I know that at the end of the quarter, it started to feel weird. By halftime, I looked down and noticed that my knee had swelled to about the size of a grapefruit. Thinking I had just incurred a minor injury, I had a trainer wrap it and I finished the game (we lost – bummer). Two days later an orthopedist told me that I had definitely torn at least my lateral meniscus and a large percentage of cartilage. Worried about what other damage may have been done, I decided to finish the season (my knee felt for the most part stable enough to play) and have surgery in the summer. So that’s what I did.
In May of 2008 I went in to have arthroscopic surgery to remove most of the cartilage in my left knee and fix my torn meniscus. This surgery has a recovery period of 3-4 weeks. 5 hours later I woke up and was told by my surgeon that in addition to the meniscus and cartilage, I had also torn my ACL and they replaced that as well. 3-4 weeks of recovery just became 6-8 months if I rehab very hard.
Like Alex, I was forced to be on crutches and in a brace for a very long period of time. Because blood does not flow well in the inner knee, and blood flow is necessary for wounds to heal, my surgeon micro-fractured my femur (essentially broke my leg) in order to increase blood flow in the area. This put me on crutches for an extended period of time.
As Alex points out, the most challenging thing to do during this period is maintain your positivity. It is very easy to get bogged down with thoughts of your career being over, never being the same athlete again, and most importantly struggling to define yourself now that the sport that runs your life is no longer in control.
I never struggled with the idea that I wouldn’t come back. I struggled most with two thoughts. One was that my teammates had no idea how much I wanted to be playing with them, and it hurt me that I could not be there (I had never had a serious injury before). The second and most challenging thought was how I now defined myself. Ever since I was a young laxer, lacrosse had been my identity. It had been my love, my drive, and everything that I thought about every day (apologies for the sappiness). Now that it was taken away from me, who am I? For the first time I really was forced to think about what I was going to do with my life when lacrosse was no longer the determining factor.
When you add in the fact that a normal athlete spends just about every day exercising in some form or another, an injury is a form of physical and emotional torture that I was not ready for. I really had nothing to do but sit on my couch and get fat for about 3 months. At first it was okay, because I had an excuse to do nothing. But after a while your body starts to react to the inactivity, driving your mind wild and forcing, for me, greater levels of frustration than I had ever experienced. This is why it was so frustrating not to be around my teammates. The people that you sweat and bleed with every day, that are your confidants and partners, are no longer experiencing what you are, and it is certainly very challenging.
The Rehab –
Rehab was tough for me just because it moved very slowly. You want to just jump back in and do the things that you used to be able to, but you physically can’t. On top of that, you have doctors that are very cautious about the steps you take and will not let you push yourself the way you are accustomed to doing on the field.
To make a long story short here, I spent the first half of my rehab with a doctor, doing exactly what they told me. The second half of rehab I did on my own, and pushed myself as hard as I could go, without a doctor over my shoulder. I would NOT recommend this strategy to anyone, but I just could not waste any more time moving slowly. I wanted to do everything I could to get back for my senior season.
The frustrating part of this is that your teammates (most of them) have no idea how hard you are working to get back. You don’t want to rub it in their face that you are working so hard, but you also feel like nobody appreciates the effort you are putting in (at least in my experience).
What I Learned –
1. You can’t beat yourself up about getting injured. It wasn’t your fault. I was in the best shape of my life when I got hurt. I had put in the work in the weight room and conditioned myself to be season ready. There is no way to control these things and it is just something that happens.
2. The injury may have been my greatest blessing. I really had given no previous thought to what I was going to do after college. My life was completely defined by lacrosse. The injury forced me to think about what I would do. I wish I could say that I figured it out, but that would be a lie. I am still figuring it out, but at least it got me thinking. Thankfully I have recently found a way to keep lacrosse in my life as a writer, and I’m not sure I would have gone down that path had I not hurt my knee.
3. If you are a teammate of an injured player, it goes a long way if you offer your help/show your appreciation. Some teams are better than others at this. Most of my teammates did not pay attention to my injury, and my coach certainly did not. However, a few of my teammates did offer their support in my recovery. Having the camaraderie and brotherhood of a teammate return to your life goes farther than, like Alex says, “that sucks”.
4. Finding the right place to rehab is vital. I found myself in a location suited for 80 year-olds with hip replacements. Needless to say, the pace they wanted to move me along was not conducive with getting back on the field for my senior year. Make sure you spend the time to find the right facility (if your school does not have the capabilities to do it in the training room).
5. It is all worth it. For me, just being able to step on the field again was worth all the pain. It will be for you to. While I was not the same player I was before the injury, I still brought myself back to be able to contribute to the team and leave the game of lacrosse on my own terms.
Ultimately, as I said at the beginning, I don’t think we pay nearly enough attention to major injuries and the effect they have on athletes. Hopefully with my account and Alex’s, I will have helped at least one injured player along in his process of recovery. If so, then this article was worth it.