Her playing career over after multiple knee injuries, Rachele Burns spent this season as a student assistant for the Black Bears.
By Mike Lowe
ORONO - What if?
Sometimes Rachele Burns allows herself to ask that question.
"I try not to," she said. "But obviously it is something that I've thought about. What if I hadn't got hurt? Where would I be now?"
Burns, now 21, was one of the most dynamic girls' basketball recruits to come out of southern Maine. While playing at Gorham High her freshman and sophomore seasons, she attracted the attention of many college coaches.
Cindy Blodgett, then coaching at the University of Maine, offered Burns a scholarship.
Then, on Jan. 5, 2008, in the seventh game of her junior year at Gorham, everything changed. That's when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee -- for the first time.
It happened again her senior year.
Then again her freshman year at UMaine, in the Blue-White scrimmage.
And then, even more cruelly, she tore the ACL in her left knee her sophomore year.
Her playing career over, Burns spent this season as a student assistant for the Black Bears. She did whatever the coaches asked, including participating in practice drills if needed.
Her college career consisted of 13 games, 118 minutes, 26 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and seven steals.
"There's always what-ifs," said Burns, who wears braces on both knees whenever she steps onto the court. "But you can't change what happened, you can't change the past. Sometimes I wish you could."
Burns was on the team bus that careened across six lanes of highway and crashed into some trees on the way to Boston earlier this month.
She escaped with minor bumps and bruises. She also came out with an appreciation of all things.
"Mentally, we're all wondering how we're here, how grateful we are to be alive," she said. "There are a bunch of questions going through our minds.
"Mentally, this is a lot harder than going through the knee injuries. With them, after six months you get to go play and be happy again. This takes a toll on you. My knee injuries are small compared to what happened on that bus."
Blodgett knew Burns was special the first time she saw her play. Now an assistant at the University of Rhode Island, Blodgett was scouting another player when she noticed Burns, just a freshman at Gorham.
"She was a special kid," said Blodgett. "We were looking for a point guard who could score and run our team. She could do that. She played like a guy, and often that's the best compliment you can give."
Burns, an outstanding soccer and softball player as well, had that rare ability to break down defenders, pulling up for a jump shot or blowing by them for a layup.
"She had no weakness that I could see," said Gorham Coach Laughn Berthiaume. "She was athletic, physically strong, fast and she could jump. She shot at the height of her jump. She was difficult to guard.
"The other thing that set her apart from her peers was an intense desire to succeed. Her will to win was incredible. It's that X factor that you wish more athletes had."
Gorham had a record of 6-1, with Burns averaging 25 points per game, when the Rams played Thornton Academy on Jan. 5, 2008.
Very early on, said Burns, "We ran a back-screen play. The girl threw the ball over the top, I jumped to get it. When I came down, my knee buckled and I went down."
Trainers would test the knee and she was cleared to return. Seconds later, it gave out on her again and her junior season was over.
Surgery followed, and she came back the next fall to play soccer for the Rams, who were the defending state champs. But the knee kept swelling during the season. Then, in the Western Class A quarterfinals, she went up for a header. When she came down, she knew the knee was damaged again.
She convinced everyone to let her play out the rest of the soccer season, as long as she didn't play basketball. She had surgery in December.
Burns called Blodgett, explaining the situation. The Black Bears certainly could have voided the scholarship offer. Blodgett didn't.
"College athletics is a business," said Blodgett. "But there's also a human element to it. We had invested a lot in her. She's a Maine kid whose impact could be greater (than a player from elsewhere). We wanted to take a chance."
For that, Burns said, "I was very fortunate."
Blodgett knew that Burns wouldn't be the explosive player she was in high school after two surgeries. "But I loved the fact that she was such a competitor," said Blodgett.
KNEE INJURIES PILE UP
But Burns' willpower couldn't keep her healthy. In her freshman year at Maine, after another nine months of rehabilitation, her knee gave out again.
She had injured her right hip in a practice and her leg was dragging. Four minutes into the annual Blue-White scrimmage, "I went to do an inside-out move on Brittany Williams," said Burns. "I remember that clearly. My knee went out. I came to the bench and explained to the trainers. They said they would check it out at the half.
"Lo and behold again."
After having the first two surgeries performed by Dr. Doug Brown in Portland, Burns was referred to Dr. Thomas Gill in Boston, the medical director of the New England Patriots and team doctor for the Boston Bruins.
Gill, who has performed knee surgery on such athletes as New England quarterback Tom Brady and former Patriots receiver Wes Welker, as well as soccer star Kristine Lilly, said female athletes are predisposed to suffering multiple ACL tears for several reasons. Among the factors are the physiology of the knee and a lower level of testosterone, which helps build muscle and bone mass. But he had never treated someone for three surgeries on the same knee.
Instead of simply repairing the ACL again, he reconstructed Burns' knee.
"Rachele was fortunate to have an outstanding initial surgeon," he said. "But we had to start from scratch. We talked and decided, rather than make it as good as we can with a third ACL surgery, let's make it as close as we can to a primary surgery."
It was a longer surgery, but it was also better for Burns and her rehabilitation.
"She took it like everything else," said Gill. "She did everything we asked. She was incredibly dedicated to getting better."
Burns' right knee felt great when she returned to Orono for her sophomore season. The Black Bears were down in Florida when her left knee buckled during a practice.
"Same thing," said Burns, matter-of-factly. "Only difference is that that one was the only one that really hurt."
Again she went to Gill for the surgery -- his first question to her when she called was regarding which knee was injured -- and again he was amazed by her attitude.
"With Rachele, it was all just sheer guts and sheer will," he said. "It was, 'Let's fix this, I want to get back.' "
But following the season, Blodgett and Burns had a conversation about whether Burns should continue to play.
"My greatest concern was, will she be able to walk when she's 40?" said Blodgett. "You have to keep things in perspective."
Blodgett talked about Burns becoming a student assistant in her junior year. But Blodgett was relieved of her position after the season.
In came Richard Barron as the new coach, and he gave Burns the chance to play. She got into eight games, scoring nine points.
Her mother, Lisa, was in the stands for the last game her daughter would play, on Feb. 22, 2012, at New Hampshire.
"It's been hard for me, as a parent, to watch her go through this," she said. "But, throughout it all, I'm amazed and proud that she kept such a positive attitude."
After the 2011-12 season, Barron and Burns had the same conversation she had the previous year with Blodgett. This time, she agreed to stop playing. Barron kept her on the roster -- thereby maintaining her scholarship -- and she became a student assistant.
Before home games, she helped set up the video cameras, then kept stats on the bench. On the road, she filmed the game. She then made sure all the coaches had copies of the videos. She helped out in any way she could, sometimes participating in drills.
Still, she said, the transition from player to student assistant was tough.
"Honestly, I miss (playing) every day," she said. "It was such a big part of my life."
Asked why she didn't walk away years earlier, Burns said that was never an option.
"I don't like giving up on anything," she said. "No matter how hard it was, I'm not a quitter. I always wanted to play Division I ball.
"It's funny. Last year we had a gathering at Coach Barron's house where we all shared our stories. Someone asked me why I kept playing. I didn't want to quit. At least I could say I went out and tried."
Everyone, she said, faces adversity. "It's how you get through it, how you cope, that matters," she said.
Ryan Taylor, a trainer at Maine for the last seven years, said he has seen people come back from two knee surgeries, but never three or more. He said many players recovering are often beat up "physically and emotionally."
Burns, he added, wasn't like that.
"She was a go-getter," he said. "She played so hard. She was a tough person. Most people would have been timid in her situation. Not her."
Burns, who will graduate in 2014, hopes to coach basketball some day. Her experience this year will certainly help.
"Do I wish that none of my knee injuries happened? Absolutely," she said. "I would have loved to continue playing and make a difference, if possible. But the opportunity Coach Barron gave me to stay on and work with the team was incredible.
"He knows a ton of people. This is a great staff to work with. I'm glad I had this opportunity."
Still, said those who knew her when she was healthy, it's a shame her career played out as it did.
"When you talk about a kid who deserved better, that's her," said Berthiaume. "She didn't get that good by accident."
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:
Burns plays for Gorham High in a 1-0 win over Bangor for the Class A soccer state title in 2005.
Burns drives to the basket as Gorham plays in the Western Class A tourney in 2007.
In April 2008, Burns was rehabbing from a knee injury suffered in basketball season.