COMMENTARY – It’s like a death knell across the field. Players from both sidelines take a knee out of respect for the injured player. It happens several times a game, when players are slow to get up. Most times they get up, having had the wind knocked out of them or maybe twisting an ankle.
But this time is different. This time, the trainer and his assistants are looking at the knee, cradling it, trying to flex it. The trainer feels the tissue around the kneecap. The player is in a lot of pain.
Teammate and opponents alike have that look on their faces – the look of knowing what a serious knee injury means to their fellow gladiator’s season.
On the rare occasion, it is just a knee sprain. Take a week off and things are mostly back to normal. That’s what everyone on both sidelines is hoping for. “Please let it be a tweak, a sprain, a bruise,” most are saying to themselves.
But let’s be realistic: If it’s a knee injury, the kid’s probably done for the year, maybe forever.
A lot has been made in recent years about head shots and neck injuries. And surely we should all be concerned. But those are rare injuries.
In my lifetime of football games,I have never seen a player die directly from a football injury. Nor have I seen a player get permanently paralyzed, although once or twice I have been at a game when a player was temporarily paralyzed.
But I’ve seen hundreds of knee injuries.
They are so common, we all know the medical names for the ligaments around the knee: Anterior cruciate, medial collateral, posterior cruciate and lateral collateral. The shortened acronyms are easily recalled: ACL, MCL, PCL and LCL.
These injuries happen in other sports like basketball and soccer, even in everyday life like when someone steps off a curb wrong or misses a step.
But football is the big villain when it comes to serious knee injuries. The sport we love so much is very unkind to the knee. I once asked a trainer why there were so many knee injuries in football. He looked at me as if I had asked why water is wet. “The human knee was simply not meant to play football,” he said.
Advancements in artificial turfs have helped a lot. The old Astroturf was brutal on knees. But believe it or not, those little rubber pellets on today’s modern turf fields really do help.
Major developments in rehabilitation knowledge and technology have also helped with the recovery from knee injuries.
But the fact remains, a serious knee injury means a lot of pain, both physically and psychologically. No matter how hard a young person works to come back from the injury, sometimes the speed and quickness never fully returns. And even if that player is back physically, sometimes his mind won’t let him take the risks he used to take before the injury.
About 10 years ago there was a young man that played basketball for a local college. A speedy point guard, he was as fearless and gutsy a player as I have ever seen. He tore his knee ligaments in a game, trying to make one of those fearless and gutsy plays.
He rehabbed hard, restoring his knee to 100 percent. In fact, one trainer told me it was stronger than before. But the edge was gone. Subconsciously, this kid had lost the grit and fearlessness that had made him so good before.
It wasn’t his fault. He wanted to be what he was before. But it was gone. And so was his basketball career.
There is a local football player who is also recovering from a serious knee injury. I will leave his name out of it, except to say he plays in Region 9.
He is back physically. But he told me recently that the mental part of coming back has been the biggest challenge. He’s a senior, so if he hurts it again, he is done. He also plays other sports, so another injury would wipe out athletics for him for good.
I think about him a lot.
When I was a little boy I got attacked by a large dog. From that day forward, I have had a somewhat irrational fear of large dogs. I know the odds of a dog doing any real damage to a person my size are very slim. But when I hear that first bark or see that large canine flash it’s teeth at me, my heart races.
I imagine the feeling must be the same for this young player, or any player who has suffered a bad knee injury.
I know this, I wouldn’t blame anyone if they decided to hang up their cleats after that. We praise players for playing through the pain and we cheer guys who have returned from bad injuries and overcome their fears.
But let’s not forget those who, for whatever reason, just don’t make it back.