When a committed and driven athlete is presented with physical trial, they will push their body to the limit until they have overcome the trial. They ignore pain and push through fatigue to become the best they can be and will not rest until their goals are accomplished. They spend all summer and fall preparing for their time on the court.
Then it's a simple play, a small wrong move, that ends their season and takes everything that they have worked for away.
It isn't the injury itself that's the hardest part, but watching from the sidelines while on the road to recovery is the most painful. It becomes a mental hurdle that not everyone can get over. However, the players that get over that mental hurdle don't just become physically stronger, but they also have a stronger appreciation and understanding of things in life that we usually take for granted.
Michael Thomas of the Dream League's Generals, has torn his ACL twice in his left knee and once in his right knee, ending his college season at the University of Wisconsin-Stout each time. Many players would lose the motivation to keep playing basketball after such traumatic injuries, but Thomas had such a love for the game as well as a deeper meaning to keep driving.
"We had an older brother who passed away from an asthma attack when we were younger, and basketball was his life. So I had the mindset that I'm not going to let this alter me or stop me, so I can proceed to start where my brother left off and keep it going.
I want to keep my love for the game alive, just like I want to keep my brother's love for the game alive too."
Being eager to come back to the game after his first injury, he rushed his rehabilitation and was ready to play next season.
"It goes from being a physical game to a psychological game," says Thomas describing the healing process. His first knee injury happened in 2005 when ACL repair wasn't nearly as advanced as is it now. A knee injury like this at the time was and still is season ending, but also possibly career ending.
After tearing his first ACL, Michael dropped out of school for two years and continued to work and play ball in recreational leagues, but missed the speed and the competition of college basketball.
His twin brother, Mahlon Thomas, who also played for UW-Stout and now plays for the Dream League's Yellow Jackets, convinced him to go back to Stout to play ball again. Thomas went through preseason workouts without any trouble and felt like his old self again. He put in the necessary work to be ready to play and contribute to the team and anticipated a successful season.
Until he tore his left ACL again in the second week of practice.
"When I tore it again I knew it was because I rushed through physical therapy and that I thought it was just another injury I can get through, but I was determined to do rehab right this time," said Thomas.
It's rare for any athlete to endure two knee injuries and still have the determination to return to play. But he fully committed himself to do the rehab and physical therapy, and allowed the athletic trainers to critically assess his movement and strength so he can play basketball again with full confidence is his abilities.
His senior year, the day before the first game of the season, he blew out his right knee and ended his career as a college basketball player. Though his college career ended, he wouldn't let that stop him from playing.
"I just love the game too much to stop playing. I'll never stop playing," said Thomas. He continues his career with the Ultimate Hoops Dream League and also plays for the Minnesota Rangers, a semi-professional team. He also has wise words for younger players who plan on having long basketball careers:
"Your game could end at any moment. The next time you play could be your last time, so don't take plays off. Play your ass off."
Travis Johnson (aka Travy Baby) from the Knights also suffered knee injuries his sophomore year of high school but didn't take any of the physical therapy seriously. His sophomore year of college he broke both of his knee caps in a preseason game and was out for that season. "The worst part was working my ass off all summer, getting better, and then getting injured and feeling like all of that work went to waste. It was heartbreaking," explained Johnson.
The injuries took a large emotional and physical toll on Johnson. He became depressed and nearly bed ridden for six months and had to take online classes to continue his college education. Though he wasn't able to physically do much, he still maintained the drive to make a come back the next season.
"I had two years left of college to play, and I didn't want to be injury prone and be 'that guy' that could have played, but didn't," Immediately once he recovered from the injuries he took spring semester off and joined the Army National Guard as an infantryman with the intention of getting back in shape.
"Be patient and actually do the rehab. If you trust the doctors and actually do what they tell you to do, you're going to get back on the court. If I would have taken rehab seriously in high school, I probably could have prevented my injury in college or made it less severe," said Johnson.
Once Johnson was done with the military he was motivated and determined to make his last years of college basketball his best and enrolled into the following spring semester at Hamline University. Johnson went on to be the second leading scorer, leading in assists and rebounds and brought the team to the first round of the NCAA playoff tournament. He explains that even though injuries are awful experiences, there is always something valuable to learn through it:
"The injuries definitely humbled me and made me realize how short our seasons actually are. I learned the value of hard work and how eventually it does pay off, even if it doesn't seem like it will at the time."
Too often, athletes will get injured and either give up on the game, or they'll become a victim of their own impatience and sabotage their recovery by not doing physical therapy properly. With patience, focus, and determination, athletes can overcome the mental obstacle of getting their sport temporarily taken away, and be back on the court even better and stronger than before.