Recovery Road

by | July 18, 2016, 6:30am 0

Neil Gardner -

Full MCL tear.

Partial ACL tear.

Partial meniscus tear.

Six weeks from a broken man to a world champion.

How did I do it and what did learn?

It started with stupidity. A disc floating over the head of an opposing player in a game we already had locked up. Me thinking “DaDaDa DaDaDa”, here comes SportsCenter. I run forward to sky, completely misreading the disc and angle of the opposing player, who, reading the disc correctly, is now going the opposite way. I’m up, he’s down. Legs go over head. “Pop-pop-pop,” my MCL gives a final jingle. Not Top 10 was now my only chance at SportCenter as I crawled around with my woozy head looking for my guardian angel who had recently either gotten lost or quit. If anyone finds her please bring her back, I’ve really missed her.

Back home in Dallas, I wasted $700 on an emergency care place. Do not do this. It was basically a $700 recommendation for a knee doctor. Coincidentally, it turned out to be the same doctor that saw my teammate Brodie Smith: Dr. Chris Miller. Dr. Miller changed my opinion on doctors. With a relaxed demeanor (think cool pool on a hot day) and easy to grasp interactions (think Pixar short films), he made my injury feel important and even understood our sport. I got my first MRI, and the next day he called and said:

“You’re going to need a pen and paper to write this all down.”

This made me laugh, but at the same time, I felt my heart drop. The conversation was like a hearing in court for crime you and everyone else knows you commited.

“For aggravated assault against the Meniscus, we find you guilty. 3 weeks on crutches”

“2nd degree battering of the ACL, guilty. 4 weeks in a brace.”

“Manslaughter of the MCL, 9 weeks of rehab.”

Most importantly, though, Dr. Miller’s final verdict was that I didn’t need surgery. I rarely recommend anyone for anything because if they let you down I feel like I let you down. That being said, I fully recommend that anyone with a sports injury sees Dr. Miller, because he is not only a good doctor, he is a good person and a friend.

For those who don’t know, missing a knee ligament is terrifying. The meniscus tear was a pain I knew well: it prevented me from bending my knee all the way with knife-stabbing pain. The missing MCL was something very different; the feeling of the knee falling out of place happened with the slightest twist and I feared the whole rest of my ligaments were going to fail like the subprime mortgages in The Big Short. The partial ACL tear I could not feel, but it was the worst mentally. For as I was constantly reminded by wiser ultimate players such as Mark Lloyd, pushing it too hard and fully tearing it would be a death sentence.

I felt like someone was playing a videogame with my life and they kept turning up the difficulty. Every championship seemed to get harder in some new way. At first I had to just win one. Then I had to try with a pulled hamstring. How about a fever and a hernia? Let’s break his rib. Alright, now take his knee out. It is perhaps my love for video games that actually kept my disposition so cheery; this game had been set to hard mode, could I beat it?

Four days after the injury, Team USA left for Colombia for Torneo Eterna Primeravera, a preparation tournament for Worlds. Flying is the only benefit where being injured actually helps. In fact, it might be such a big benefit, I would actually suggest ripping a ligament of your choice if you are running late for an international flight. We got through security and customs in record time and I spent my first time ever actually needing a wheelchair and, of course, being at the mercy of Dylan Freechild, who cared more about his hurt dog than me.

Colombia. Learning to love the team was the point of this trip and it turned out to be easy with such an amazing group of guys. Watching the finals against Canada, a double game point experience, I saw that the USA offensive line needed me. Players like to feel needed and I am no exception. If healthy, I could be the underappreciated “release valve”: the person who can get the disc when the O stagnates. It’s a position I have become comfortable with because my prowess and speed usually affords me the easy under. For the record, this role kind of sucks. It’s not glamorous, it doesn’t get stats or girls, but with the talent on the O line, it was all they needed. Don’t tell the Canadians, but them almost beating Team USA gave me a much needed boost of motivation.

With renewed vigor, I returned to the States in search of knowledge. I went back to Dr. Miller and learned everything I could about knees. (Don’t worry, I recorded it, and the video is coming soon). Besides the basics of how my knee worked, the main thing I learned was that my MCL could scar back up and reattach and that my dislocating sensation was not something to fear: my knee would not collapse.

Rehab. I wanted the best. I think I got close. Michael Johnson Performance is a state-of-the-art facility nestled into the middle-of-nowhere North Dallas, with plenty of pro athletes from other sports working out. I’ve always had the mentality that nobody would work harder than me, and being able to outwork such successful athletes appeased the large chip on my shoulder. Besides a great training environment, the staff was top notch. Their main goal was to strengthen everything so that my injured knee relied on muscles and proper form rather than hurt ligaments.

It turns out that a good personal trainer is very helpful. While it’s unrealistic financially for most folks to have a personal trainer for all workouts, I strongly encourage every player to try a good one for knowledge and form critique for at least a couple sessions. It forced me to fix a lot of small things that added up to huge positive paybacks. Every time my body did something incorrectly, they would fix it using words, or if necessary, using hands. Proper form requires humility, for I had to lower my reps and weight to deal with the substantially harder technique.

My trainers showed me that little muscles have big roles. They found what I call my toothpick muscles and worked them like fish out of water, that is to say they floundered and flopped, twitched about gasping for oxygen. They also forced my attention to detail. When one toothpick muscle gets tired, another muscle says “Hey I can help, throw it over here.” You must resist the urge to cheat. “No, toothpick muscles, you get no help. Get stronger.”

Lastly, they forced me to accept the slow grind of proper rehab. Regardless of my constant heckling about how easy their workouts were, they slowly rebuilt me. Every day, I had to do a 30 minute warm up of elliptical running, resistance band work, balancing and single leg foot sliding. With every passing day, I grew to hate that warm up more and more as monotony became my nemesis. The only way I survived was imagining playing in the finals of Worlds in a packed stadium against a worthy opponent. A huck goes up to me with Team USA’s gold medal on the line, trusting me and my knee to make the play.

As I reflect upon Worlds, that finals game against Japan exceeded even my dreams and left me thinking something previously unthinkable: what I thought was the worst thing to ever happen in my ultimate career may actually have been the best.

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