Going into my senior year of high school I had just completed a grueling summer of basketball filled with camps, workouts, lifts, practices and AAU tournaments. While there was an obvious physical strain that came with all of this activity, the addition of the recruiting process, exciting and gratifying as it was, made it very mentally stressful and disappointing at times.
By the time the summer was over I was relieved that all I had to do as far as basketball was focus on my high school season and figure out which college was the best fit for me.
I was elected captain that year and my teammates and I were confident and looking forward to having a successful season. Then came my team's first scrimmage of the year, a day that would change the next 8-9 months of my life.
I can still envision what I saw as the play unfolded. It was a fast break and I was at half court with the ball, I threw a pass to my teammate on the right wing, and as I cut past my man and through a couple of other defenders, I looked up to receive a pass. Just as the ball was about to meet my hands I was bumped and landed awkwardly. I felt my left knee twist. I hit the ground and felt a sharp pain.
The opposing team stole the ball and began a break down the court as I laid there, putting my jersey up over my face to cover my pained expression. Eventually play stopped and a trainer ran out to examine my leg.
He had me straighten my knee out in front of me and that's when I was shocked to notice that my knee cap had subluxed and was an inch or so to the left of where it should sit. The trainer instructed me to flex my quad as hard as I could which would help as he guided my kneecap back into place.
When I felt it pop back I was immediately relieved of most of my pain and was able to walk back to the bench with some assistance. The trainer continued to look at my knee while I sat on the bench before giving me the "all clear" to return to the game.
At this point I felt like the only issue I had experienced was due to my kneecap and that had been resolved.
So after hearing the trainer say it was safe for me to play, and feeling like I could play through the soreness I had, I stepped away from the bench and found some space to test my knee.
I ran, I cut, I shuffled, I jumped and I felt pretty good. I told my coach he could put me back in, but he felt that because it was just a scrimmage it'd be best for me to take it easy and sit out the remainder of the time.
The longer I sat there the more pain returned, and my knee began to feel more and more sore. I remember my dad coming to check on me to ask what had happened and how I was feeling.
"I landed a little weird and twisted my knee, my kneecap popped out but the trainer helped me pop it back in and then I felt good," I said. "I'll be fine, Dad. It's no big deal. I feel like I could play right now but coach just wanted to play it safe."
I felt like I had to stay positive as if it could impact the severity of my injury, so I covered up the feelings I began to have that the injury was serious. Most of all, I tried to ignore my body and convince myself that I was fine because I didn't think I could handle missing any of my senior year, the chance to play basketball with my closest friends one last time.
When I woke up the next morning the swelling and stiffness had gotten worse and I asked my mom to take me to get it checked out. I remember getting the results from the MRI a week later on a Saturday morning as I was driving to practice with my little brother who was also on the team.
My mom called and struggled to break the news, "They said it was your ACL." I froze, immediately heartbroken, and was only able to manage an "OK" before hanging up the phone, telling my brother what the results were, and then calling my dad to let him know.
My dad who had torn his ACL during a similar time in his life reassured me that I would get through it, but at that moment my worst nightmare had come true and all seemed hopeless; I couldn't be optimistic about anything.
My brother and I got to our school and I ran into my coach in the training room before practice where he asked me if I had gotten any news. The room was empty except for me and him and as we sat down on a training table to talk I broke down, barely able to explain that I would be out for the year.
I sat there watching that practice that day with my thoughts beginning to spiral downward. It was devastating to know that I would be missing my whole senior year and I then began to question my future. Would this affect my recruiting? Would coaches abandon me? Would I be 100 percent by next year? Would I ever return to my previous form?
I felt really down for a couple of days, but once I started pre-hab, the physical therapy required to improve mobility and reduce swelling in my knee before surgery, I began to lock in and focus on everything I could do to have a great recovery.
I promised myself that I would attack my rehab and take every step possible to ensure that I would be back quickly but most importantly be back strong and healthy for the long term. I read and watched any and every article or video about ACL rehab, trying to learn everything I could about what I was about to go through and how best to go about it.
I informed the coaches that were recruiting me of the news and thankfully they all were very supportive, assuring me that it did not affect their position and that they were confident I could recover and be the player they had recruited.
Soon after that, I chose my desired school and I felt a huge weight was lifted off of my back. Making my decision gave me a lot of security about my situation and motivation to keep working hard. After knowing where I would be suiting up next year I wanted to make sure I could have the type of season and do the type of things that I could now visualize when I returned.
The nine months after my surgery were brutal. Going to physical therapy or working out on my own; running, agilities, lifting, icing over and over again.
Every day until I was able to play again was a mental and physical challenge. From baby steps like bending my leg inches and inches farther or bigger milestones like learning to run again, this time was filled with victories both small and large.
But it also came with some trying times when it seemed like I was so far away from ever playing basketball again.
Having to go through so much rehab to strengthen my left leg, however, came with a lot of blessings in disguise. It helped improve my work ethic and mental strength, it gave me a newfound appreciation for being healthy and being able to play, and it forced me learn through research and personal trial about how I could keep my body in good shape going forward.
After my surgery I never doubted that I would be back to playing basketball better at a higher personal level. I felt like I needed to remind myself of this even if it didn't seem completely likely every day because this belief is what drove me to put everything I had into rehab, even on days when I knew it would be tough or I didn't really want to.
My continued progress and confidence in my future health also helped me sit and watch every practice and game my team had even though I never was able to get used to being on the sidelines.
Throughout my rehab there were good days and bad days but as you advance through recovery and begin to be able to do more and more, the vision of the ultimate goal of returning to play at 100 percent again becomes inspiring.
Once I was finally was cleared I was nervous to step back on the court. Not for fear of injury but because I had poured so many hours into recovery that I just wanted to get out there and have everything immediately be perfect and back to normal.
When I did step back on the court for the first time my leg didn't feel as great as I'd dreamed. I was able to play and move OK but the brace was awkward and annoying and I could tell I still had a ways to go before I would be where I wanted to be athletically. But this didn't discourage me.
I think if being forced to grind every day for 9 months taught me anything it's that if I continued to do so, I could continue to recover and that every moment I had on the court was a special opportunity to be thankful for.
So while I ran around struggling to score, defend and just get back into the flow of playing, I was playing the sport I had loved my entire life for the first time in 9 months and it was all worth it; I was all smiles.
If I could advise any athlete who is going through or preparing to go through this rehabilitation process I would share the following lessons:
- Positivity - I think a positive mindset is the most important thing that must be maintaine for success throughout this process. Six to nine months is a very long time and your attitude will affect the quality and consistency of your work ethic through rehab. Always remember that the ACL injury is one that people consistently come back from with long-term health and strength, so be positive and stay hungry. Keep this fact in mind because you can and will have the same results.
- The quad - Throughout my rehab I understood that I needed to strengthen my leg in order to be cleared to play again, and that my quad had atrophied quite a bit. Six months post-surgery I went in to meet with my surgeon and expected to be cleared, but he examined my quad and said he wanted me to wait another month or two to make sure my left quad was the same size, and therefore strength, as my right. I think that if I would've known that my clearance would be determined largely on the sheer size of my quad I would've given a little extra attention to that during my rehab. So I would advise you understand that the size of your quad is key.
- Balance - A large part of the security I felt about the health of my knee when I did return to play was due to the large amount of balance work I did while rehabbing. From doing single-leg balancing on the solid floor, to pillows, to BOSU balls and Airex pads I always made sure to do some balance exercises every day. I think the continued effort I put into increasing my lower-body stability gave me more confidence in my knee and was the reason why I didn't think or worry when I started the last phase of making hard cuts and lateral movements again, which can be a mental hurdle for some.
- The little things - It will be easy to minimize the importance of icing, elevating or working on range of motion as you start to progress through the rehab protocol. Your body will feel better and you will be able to do more physical activity, so that might become the sole focus. Although my rehab went very well overall, I had minor swelling in my knee for most of the process, which isn't unusual, but I think it could have been fixed if I would have continued to ice and keep my leg elevated. I had stopped doing these things as consistently as I had once I was able to run and do more sport-specific activity. Additionally, the range of motion and mobility in my leg could have been further along when I did return to play. While it did not hinder me, I think that if I would have done extra stretching and mobility work, my leg would have felt better and less stiff when I was able to play again.
- Personal growth - I think one of the best things I did during my rehabilitation actually had nothing to do with basketball or my knee. The nature of this injury will prevent you from playing your sport for an extended period, which definitely leaves a big chunk of time removed from your life. But it is also an incredible opportunity to focus on other aspects of your life. Basketball had become such a large part of my life over the past few years that in the end I was thankful that this injury gave me time for a lot of self observation and reflection on my life outside of the sport. Use this time to read, observe, learn, develop other interests, and focus on how you are as a person, family member, friend, leader, etc. There are many areas in your life that you should use this time to reflect on and grow from.
- Your Complete Guide to Recovering from an ACL Tear
- Skylar Diggins On Her Grueling ACL Recovery, a Whirlwind Off-Season and Why She's Finally Ready to Dominate
- How to Build a Basketball Body
- The Long Road Back: Carson Palmer's Grueling Recovery From a Torn ACL