In WKU's season opening win last Saturday against Austin Peay, senior wide receiver Marcus Vasquez didn’t have a particularly amazing stat line: one catch for 25 yards. But the fact Vasquez was on the field at all is a tribute to the power of the human body, spirit—and the miracle of modern medicine.
Marcus flashes a smile when he’s asked about the last play of last year’s game against Indiana State. But it’s the kind of smile you give when you’re about to delve into a painful memory you’d rather forget. The game was a blowout—the Hilltoppers trailed 44-16 at home. On the game’s final play, quarterback Kawuan Jakes threw the ball to Vasquez.
“I caught a pass coming up the middle and turned upfield,” says the senior wideout. “The safety was coming down to hit me. I stuck my foot in the ground to avoid him, and as soon as I planted, my knee buckled and popped. And I was down. End of the game. Over.”
Marcus had just suffered an injury no athlete wants to endure: a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
The term “ACL” is one that has become commonplace with athletes and sports fan. When an athlete suffers a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his or her knee, that individual knows that almost without exception it’s a season-ending injury. In just a split second, an athlete is confronted not only with the pain running through his body, but the possibility of months of intense rehabilitation away from the football field, basketball court, or soccer field.
The ACL runs from the femur—or thigh bone—to the tibia, which is the leg bone below the knee. The ACL helps keep the knee properly centered, as opposed to being loose and wobbly.
When a WKU football player tears an ACL, Danny Cobble is usually the first person to speak to the athlete about the injury.
“I like to put a bit of time between the injury and telling them exactly what the injury is, so that we can kind of get the emotions under control,” says Cobble, who is the head football athletic trainer for WKU. “A lot of them are going to be upset and say ‘man, I’m out for this game.’ And in the back of our minds, we’re thinking they’re out for the season. So we want to manage their emotions so that they understand when we tell them what’s going on, and what we need to do.”
Marcus Vasquez remembers his first thoughts after going down with his knee injury last season. At first, he wanted to believe it was something he could quickly get over.
“I had my hopes, and the hope is it’s nothing serious. But I heard it pop. You always got in the back of your mind, ‘man, it could be my ACL.” Your hopes are up and you’re praying to God that it’s nothing too serious. But it’s there. It’s reality.”
The knee injury suffered by Marcus seemed especially cruel. In 2010, he suffered a broken collarbone that ended his sophomore season prematurely. Now, after rehabbing and coming back from that injury, Vasquez found himself again flat on his back on an athletic training table, being checked for another potential season-ending injury.
“So to hear it--that my season might be done again? It killed my spirits,” admits Vasquez.
WKU football athletic trainer Danny Cobble confirmed the 22-year-old’s worst fears: his ACL was torn and he was once again out for the season. Cobble says following such an injury, he and staff will meet within a day to begin mapping out a plan to get that athlete back on the field by next year’s pre-season practices. Part of that schedule includes the surgery to repair the torn ligament.
Dr. Reid Wilson knows a lot about ACL surgeries. Wilson is an orthopedic surgeon at Owensboro Medical Health Systems. He says one of the cruel things about torn ACLs is that they usually happen when the athlete has made a routine move on the playing field.
“So we’re not talking about a running back running down the sidelines and getting hit,” says Dr. Wilson.
Instead, says Dr. Wilson, an estimated 70% of ACL injuries to athletes occur in non-contact situations, like when a running back or wide receiver tries to suddenly pivot to avoid a would-be tackler.
“Someone’s running down the field, and they land or pivot in an awkward position. Usually their leg is straight, rather than being bent. And then that forceful anterior translation of the leg will tear the ACL.”
Dr. Wilson says it’s a mistake to think that a surgeon is repairing an athlete’s torn ACL. In fact, the surgeon is creating a brand new ligament using bits and pieces from the athlete’s body, including part of another ligament known as the patellar tendon.
“Probably what you’re going to find today is bone-patellar tendon graph, where we take a slice of your patellar tendon, about a little less than half of an inch, and a piece of bone from your tibia, and another piece of bone from your kneecap. Then we reconstruct the ACL from that,” says the Owensboro surgeon.
An athlete recovering from an ACL reconstruction can expect to wait four or five months before they can get medical clearance to even jog. During that time, WKU football athletic trainer Danny Cobble and his staff are working almost daily with the athlete on a regimen of rehabilitation training, including exercises designed to build flexibility, strength, endurance, coordination, and agility.
When asked about what that time is like, WKU wide receiver Marcus Vasquez doesn’t mince words. Life in rehab stinks, he says.
“I hate being in here, because when you’re in here you’re injured. I’d rather be outside the training room. But the training room has helped me get back to where I am today,” says Vasquez.
WKU football athletic trainer Danny Cobble says it’s important for athletes coming back from a knee injury to understand they aren’t just rehabbing the knee. They have to essentially rehab their entire lower body.
“We start with the calf muscles, you have to strengthen those. You have to strengthen the hamstrings, the quads, and the hips. The hips support the thigh bones, so that bone is part of the knee joint. We look at core strength which helps support the muscles in the lower body. It almost turns into a total body rehab process.”
And the rehabilitation isn’t limited to the athlete’s body, says Cobble. It’s just as important—and often much more difficult—to keep the injured athlete’s mental outlook sharp and focused, especially when the rehab takes a setback.
Cobble says athletic trainers are unofficial “team psychologists”, tasked with handling 115 young men with 115 different personalities.
“There are guys that come in here and they’re riding high, they’re ready to hit the rehab and they’re doing good,” says Cobble. “But life happens. Classes get tough. You break up with your girlfriend. Now they’re in the dumps and they’re not motivated. So now we have to find a way to get into the head, get them focused on their goals, and get them to know there are still things we need to do.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by WKU senior wide receiver Marcus Vasquez. He says an athlete rehabbing after a knee surgery has to walk into the training room with the same mental toughness he would if he was entering the field of play. When asked where he currently stands after a year of rehab, Marcus says his knee is about 90% of where it was before he injured it in last season’s third game.
So what will it be like when he takes the field, runs a route, and realizes he’s finally back to 100%?
“It’s gonna be a joy,” he says. “It’s been a long time coming. I’ve had two knee surgeries, and it’s been a year since I actually played on the field. So to get to a 100%? It’s gonna feel great.”
Marcus says when he’s on the football field he doesn’t worry about reinjuring his knee. He says if the doctors and trainers tell him he’s good to go, he believes them.
If he injures the same knee again, Marcus says he’ll just assume it was meant to be.