September 1, 2013

A new age in ACL recovery

After Adrian Peterson's astounding comeback from injury, others hope to follow.

By DAVE CAMPBELL The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS - Adrian Peterson turned an ACL tear into an NFL MVP award. Your turn, RG3.

Adrian Peterson
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Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had ACL surgery after the 2011 season, but he was ready for the start of the 2012 season and rushed for more than 2,000 yards.

The Associated Press

Robert Griffin III, Kyle Shanahan
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Robert Griffin III didn’t play for the Redskins during the preseason while recovering from ACL surgery, but he expects to be on the field for the season opener.

The Associated Press

Washington's quick-footed,, strong-armed quarterback, Robert Griffin III, had an exceptional rookie season, but this year he might be the most-watched player in the league. After Peterson's swift recovery for Minnesota redefined the timetable for coming back from this once-career-threatening injury, Griffin is up next.

"I know I set the bar high. I don't say it's unfair to some guys, that people are expecting them to come back the way I did, but I know it'll be hard," Peterson said. "Because I know the work I put in. Not every guy has that mindset to work that hard."

Peterson returned a little more than eight months after the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee was reconstructed, raced past the 2,000-yard mark and was voted the league's most valuable player after leading the Vikings to a surprise spot in the playoffs.

Griffin followed a similarly aggressive rehabilitation program, putting himself in position to play for the Redskins in the season opener, pending doctor and coach approval.

"I'm not Adrian, but when it comes to the pressure of coming back from the injury, it's like the old saying, 'You only feel pressure when you don't know what you're doing or you're not confident in what you're doing,"' Griffin said. "I feel confident in my body and the way it has been responding, so there is no pressure there."

Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis, the three-time All-Pro who tore his left ACL in Game 3 with the New York Jets last year and was traded to the Buccaneers right before the draft, has faced the same scrutiny.

Patience has been the hardest part for Revis, because this is his first major injury. Advice is easy to come by, at least, with so many peers who've endured the process. Revis took all kinds of tips, he said, from janitors to ski bums.

"When you tear your ACL, you become a member of the ACL family," Revis said.

Each family member heals differently, depending a lot on whether damage was done to other ligaments or tendons. But everyone has a mental hurdle to clear.

Peterson said the voices in his head were a bigger hurdle to overcome than the range-of-motion exercises and grueling conditioning drills.

"Just little things that can kind of make you jump off the deep end and think, 'Well, maybe something's wrong with me.' Or, 'Maybe that pain came because it's not healed all the way,'" he said.

Griffin has the advantage, if it can be called that, of experiencing an ACL tear in college. The best lesson he's learned is to take the field again without fear of reinjury. Really, after the surgery, the ligament itself is as strong as ever. The toughest part of the physical recovery is usually strengthening the atrophied muscles around the joint.

"You come back as if you were never hurt, because that is the only way you can play," Griffin said. "You don't play the game afraid to get hurt. You play the game like you are supposed to be invincible, while at the time being smart and sliding and all of that other stuff."

A quarter-century ago, this was a devastating injury. Peterson's coach, Leslie Frazier, saw his career end after tearing an ACL in the Super Bowl with the 1985 champion Chicago Bears. Modern sports medicine has allowed elite athletes to endure a rupture of one of their body's most important ligaments and return as good as new within a year.

But the ACL is far from AWOL in the NFL. There's no prevention, of course, no matter how much strength a player can build in his muscles. The speed of the game is at an all-time high, with some of the damage occurring without contact.

"The more we throw the football, the more collisions," said former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden. "So, 700 passing attempts for some teams, there are going to be 700 more opportunities for big collisions."

With the league hyper vigilant about head injuries, and stiffer punishments being levied to help limit concussions, tacklers have been trying to reteach themselves to hit ball carriers low instead of high. So guess what body part might become even more vulnerable?

Yes, the knee.

The sample size is small, but since training camps began there has been no shortage of ACL injuries.

Eagles wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Benn. Packers left tackle Bryan Bulaga. Chargers wide receiver Danario Alexander. Giants free safety Stevie Brown. Broncos center Dan Koppen. Saints wide receiver Joseph Morgan. Colts defensive tackle Brandon McKinney. Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller. They're the leading men on the list of the latest to go down with season-ending ACL tears -- before the preseason was even over.

"We all have to remember that football," Gruden said, "is live full-speed tackling."

Peterson, Griffin and other members of the "ACL family" know that won't change. The MVP isn't worrying about it.

"I'm too focused on trying to help my team win, doing what I have to do," Peterson said, "but of course you're going to hear in the media about what's going on with these guys. And I wish them all the best."


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