A YEARLONG BATTLE
“No matter how strong you are, you’re still at risk,” says Dr. Leland Winston, head physician for Rice athletics. “When the ACL tears, your muscles don’t have time to react quickly enough to protect it.”
Student-athletes crumple into a heap on a court or a field, clutching vainly at a knee. Slow-motion replays show the joint contorting, buckling, twisting. Questionable return, the announcers say. Torn ACL, the newspapers read. We’ll see him next season, fans think. Bring in the next player.
Then they turn the page.
But what is an ACL? Why does it matter? Why does it so frequently interject itself into discussions of college athletics? After all, it’s merely one of four major ligaments that stabilize the knee. But it runs vertically through the middle of the joint, serving as its backbone, keeping the femur and tibia in place as players cut, jump and accelerate through practice and competition. Though student-athletes are faster and stronger than they’ve ever been, a study of NCAA injury data revealed that ACL tears rose by 1.3 percent annually over a recent 16-year period.
But advances in surgical and rehab techniques have shifted the odds dramatically in their favor. Orthopedic surgeons note that roughly 90 percent of athletes recover from ACL tears, most of whom reach pre-injury levels of athleticism. The snap of a ligament and gasps of concerned fans are no longer the requiem for an athletics career.
After they’re stitched – sometimes stapled – together, student-athletes will spend many waking hours in forgotten training rooms where torment and tedium collide. As the graft and the screws settle into tunnels burrowed inside bone, they’ll rehabilitate shriveled muscles, performing endless repetitions of exercises that evoke a startling, unfamiliar brand of pain. They’ll watch the teammates they’ve sweated and bled with go to battle without them. They’ll miss classes in the mostly bedridden week that follows surgery. They’ll tackle homework with minds smothered by pain medication.
And when they’re cleared to play again? Most endure a yearlong battle with themselves, learning once again to trust the joint that’s caused so much strife.
“This is harder than anything you’ll do on the court,” says Oklahoma State basketball athletic trainer Jason Miller. “This is the hardest thing to get through. It’s painful. It hurts. It’s time consuming.”
And student-athletes will navigate the other parts of their lives, the parts not devoted to or defined by basketball or soccer or football, on crutches. Tasks once taken for granted – sleeping comfortably, getting off a toilet, opening a door, maneuvering into a car or comically small college desk, getting a meal in a cafeteria, or carrying a textbook-laden backpack across campus – become monumental obstacles. And stairs sap time and energy, evoking dread and sweat. They’re to be avoided. Except, in college, they seem to be unavoidable; Olukemi lives on the third floor.
“Stairs were the hardest part after surgery,” Olukemi says, more than three weeks into rehab. “They still are.”