Knee Deep: An ACL Journal (Journey)

Six weeks ago, I earned membership in a club I never wanted to join.

To be honest, I can’t think of a club I’ve ever wanted to join. Maybe it’s a side-effect of a lifetime spent participating in team sports. But when a friend mentions joining a “running club” or a “surfing meet-up,” I balk at the idea of participating in activities with a group of people I didn’t in some way curate on my own. Other times, I think of that Groucho Marx line, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” I don’t even have a Costco membership.

Then I lost focus for a split second while riding my dirtbike, crashed and tore my ACL, the anterior cruciate ligament, in my right knee.

I can’t wait to chase my friends up a hill on my dirtbike again.

To be fair, the ACL Club isn’t one anyone asks to join, but once you’re in, you’re a member for life. And as I’ve learned over the past six weeks, as I’ve hobbled around Los Angeles and New York with crutches, and then a knee brace and cane, it has to be one of the largest clubs on earth. Tearing one’s ACL seems to be a right of passage for athletes in just about any sport. I can’t stop to buy paintbrushes at Home Depot without someone stopping me in the parking lot to ask, “ACL?” When I nod in response, the person sighs, slumps and points to his or her own knee. It happens at the grocery store, on the way into restaurants, while walking my dog and at the mall. At this point, I’m expecting each interaction to end with a secret handshake.

Instead, part two of these meet-ups goes something like this:

“Meniscus too?”

Yes.

“Medial?”

Yes.

“Lateral?”

Yes.

“Ooo. Rough. You got a good surgeon?”

Yes.

“Cause if you want a recommendation, I got a guy.”

“I’m good, thank you.”

“Do you want to take my number?”

Each person typically has a lot of advice for me. None of it is solicited, but none of it is unwanted.

Because what I’ve learned in my short time in the club is no matter how much I thought I knew about ACL tears, I knew nothing at all. Well, not nothing. I’ve written several stories about other people’s torn ACLs. I’ve shadowed athletes through physical therapy, covered their groundbreaking surgical procedures and documented their miraculous returns to sport. I’ve written about an athlete’s first knee surgery and their 20th. In 2009, I even scrubbed into an operating room and watched a hamstring ACL reconstruction firsthand, from start to finish, and penned an “Ode to the ACL” for the second installment of the ESPN The Magazine Body Issue.

My first ACL surgery was in 2009, when I scrubbed into the hamstring reconstruction of FMX rider Blake “Bilco” Williams.

But I’m realizing that I knew very little about what it would be like to go through the experience myself. This surgery — likely taking place the second week of October — will be my sixth orthopedic surgery. I’ve had an ankle reconstruction, bone fragments removed from my elbow twice, a spine surgery, a rotator cuff/biceps tendon repair and enough stitches and broken bones to legitimize my role as the senior action sports writer at ESPN. But this injury is different.

How I deal with the prehab, surgery and rehab feels integral to how I will spend not just the next 12 months, but the rest of my life. I never felt that way with any previous injury. I never doubted I would return quickly to doing the things I love doing or be better than I was before the injury. And right now, that means riding anything with two wheels, surfing, running, doing yoga and silks and pushing myself as hard as I want to at the gym. One year from now, I plan to be doing all of the above with two legs that are stronger and more flexible than they were the day before I injured my knee. But that will be no easy road.

So as I go into the next year with optimism, positivity, gratefulness for the experience and curiosity, I plan to document it all here in this blog. I will also write about products I’m trying, exercises that work and don’t work and offer as much advice as I can on how to weed through all the advice you are surely to be given if you unwillingly join this club.

Right now, I’m taking advice my surgeon gave to me to remember that this is my knee and my journey and what worked for one might not work for all (me). I am being thoughtful about what suggestions to take and not stressing over my inability to take them all. I think that’s good advice for anyone going through any major event in life, and I’m grateful for the clarity it has given to me.

I’m going to try to write at least once a week, and if anyone reading this blog has suggestions or questions or products you want me to try out, let me know. Email me at [email protected] I want this to be helpful to all club members, past, present and future.

Heck, maybe I’ll even get that Costco card.