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Hank Stern: One Sportswriter’s Painful Realization

Saturday, June 13, 2015

 

I haven’t written a column in a couple weeks because I have been laid up recovering from a broken ankle.

Not to worry, I won’t belabor the details of my injury other than to note that it happened while chasing a fly ball in the outfield at baseball practice with a “grace” befitting Willie Mays’ stumbles in his final days with the New York Mets.

Instead, my first broken bone at age 50 has made me fully realize for the first time how often we, as sports fans, underestimate the amazing recoveries that the athletes we root for are able to make—and how too often we sit back and casually question their toughness.

Nobody here is using the too-frequent comparison of sports to combat with athletes likening themselves to “soldiers” “going to war.” If he were alive, Pat Tillman would tell you that talk is ridiculous.

And yes, these are mostly all young athletic millionaires with access to the best doctors and rehab facilities. But all those advantages in their rehabs from broken bones and torn ligaments only mean that these human beings must expose themselves to re-injury over and over if and when they make their recoveries to work at their jobs.

It seems especially fitting to consider these injuries -- and the recoveries ahead -- this time of year as the too-long NBA and NHL seasons grind to a halt with each league’s finals.

While NBA analysts debate whether Kevin Love’s dislocated shoulder makes him more or less likely to return next season to Cleveland, and the immediate impact on the Cavaliers of Kyrie Irving’s fractured kneecap, how about a little consideration for the painful road back that each of those player faces.

No guarantee exists for them or any players that they return the same from any injury. Just ask Brandon Roy or Bill Walton. 

Same goes for a more recent Trail Blazer, Wesley Matthews. Undoubtedly, nobody in the NBA tops Matthews’ toughness and work ethic. But before we worry about whether the Blazers can re-sign Matthews or discuss the obvious impact his loss had on Portland's quick first-round playoff exit, let’s acknowledge we are talking about a human being striving to become a top athlete again after tearing his Achilles. Let’s just hope he can come back.

Injuries pose even more mysterious questions in the Stanley Cup as teams adhere to hockey traditions of releasing close to no information about players’ injuries other than “upper body” and “lower body.”

Who knows why Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya had to leave the ice in the second period of Game 3, yet somehow managed to return in the third period. Or why Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop couldn’t finish Game 2, but returned for Game 3. They simply came back and won’t talk about it.

And then there’s the NFL. I happened to stumble, while channel-surfing during my recovery, on a NFL Network showing of “Top 10 Gutsiest Performances.” (Side note: these hourlong “Top 10” rankings of everything from “End Zone Celebrations”  to “Football Voices”  are complete video crack.)

This particular “Top 10” segment of “Gutsiest Performances” includes San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers playing with a torn ACL; Los Angeles Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood playing with a broken leg; Dallas running back Emmitt Smith playing with a separated shoulder and San Francisco safety Ronnie Lott deciding to have a pinky finger amputated so he could keep playing.

All are storied NFL examples of toughness beyond compare. But these celebrated – though grisly – tales of grit and recovery should never mislead us as fans to question any other player who is perceived to not be coming back from injury quickly enough or who is not the player he was before the injury.

We are not the ones stepping on to the field, or the rink or the court. They are. And while they are richly compensated to do so, it should never cause us to take for granted their recoveries or question their toughness.

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.

 

Related Slideshow: Oregon’s Most Devastating Sports Injuries

Here is GoLocalPDX's list of Oregon's most devastating injuries that have occured within the past 10 years.

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Greg Oden

Sept. 2007 — Micro fracture surgery on right knee

Dec. 2009 — Fractured left patella 

Nov. 2010 — Micro fracture surgery on left knee

Dec. 2011 — Arthroscopic surgery on right knee

Unfortunately, Trail Blazer fans everywhere already know how drafting Greg Oden over Kevin Durant worked out for their team. After being be the #1 selection in the 2007 NBA Draft, Oden was never able to play a full season due to ongoing knee injuries. The team eventually waived him in March of 2012.

Photo via Wikipedia (image cropped)
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Dennis Dixon

Nov. 2007 — Torn left ACL

During the 2007 season Dixon had the Oregon Ducks as the #2 team in the country. That was until he suffered a torn ACL against Arizona State and attempted to play on it the following week against Arizona. After Dixon went down for the season the Ducks lost their remaining two regular season games. Fortunately, they were able to end their season on a high note with a victory over South Florida in the 2007 Sun Bowl.

Photo via Wikipedia (image cropped)
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Brandon Roy

Sept. 2008 — Cartilage removed from left knee

April 2010 — Meniscus tear in right knee

Jan. 2011 — Arthroscopic surgery on both knees

Brandon Roy is perhaps one of the most beloved Trail Blazers in the history of the franchise. After being drafted in 2006, and leading the team out of the "Jail-Blazer" era, he had to make the tough decision to retire at the young age of 28. His degenerative knees prevented Rip City from seeing their superstar ever play to his full potential.

Photo via Wikipedia (image cropped)
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Jacquizz Rodgers

Nov. 2008 — Grade II separation of the acromioclavicular joint

During the second to last game in 2008 Jacquizz Rodgers suffered a separated shoulder that ended his season. Unfortunately, this meant that he wasn't able to play in the Civil War, which was perhaps the biggest game of the year for the Beavers. If the Beavers had been able to defeat the Ducks they would've been able to book their tickets to play in the Rose Bowl. Instead, they went to the Sun Bowl where they defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Photo via Wikipedia (image cropped)
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James Rodgers

Oct. 2009 — Torn left ACL

After participating in only 4 games during the 2009 season Rodgers went down with a torn ACL while playing against #9 Arizona. This couldn't have come at a worse time for Rodgers considering he was expected to have a breakout season. Rodgers, who was a senior at the time, was able to end his career at Oregon State as the career leader in all-purpose yards.

Photo via Wikipedia (image cropped)
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Joel Pryzbilla

Dec. 2009 — Ruptured right patella tendon and dislocated patella

In December of 2009 the Trail Blazers' backup center, Joel Pryzbilla, was lost for the season with a ruptured and dislocated patella. This was a huge blow to the Trailblazers' frontcourt because they had already lost Oden for the season a few weeks before. Pryzbilla was also the team's defensive anchor who provided an inside presence. "The Vanilla Gorilla" was sorely missed for the rest of the year.

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LaMichael James

Oct. 2011 — Dislocated right elbow

The 2011 season couldn't have started any better for LaMichael James. After the first game James became Oregon's career rushing leader, surpassing Derek Loville. During the second game he rushed for over 200 yards against Missouri State. Unfortunately, James' year was slowed by a dislocated elbow suffered against Cal. Luckily for Duck fans he was able to return to end the season.

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Nate Costa

Nov. 2010 —Torn Right ACL

After suffering a multitude of knee injuries throughout his career at Oregon Costa was forced to officially retire from football after tearing his ACL for the third time in agame against Washington. Although Costa's career was hobbled by injuries many of his teammates looked to him as their leader. Oregon's coaching staff referred to Costa as the "heart and soul" of the 2010 team that won the Rose Bowl.

Photo via Addictedtoquack (image cropped)
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Sean Mannion

Oct. 2012 — Torn Left Meniscus

During the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, Sean Mannion was enjoying one of his best as a Beaver. Unfortunately, he tore his left meniscus against Washington State that resulted in him missing around half the season. With Mannion leading the way the Beavers had the Pac-12's fourth rated offense, averaging 459.5 yeards per game. With Mannion sidelined Cody Vaz became the starting quarterback

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Marcus Mariota

Oct. 2013 — Partial MCL Tear

Marcus Mariota is widely regarded as one of the greatest Oregon Duck quarterbacks to ever play at Autzen. Unfortunately a knee injury hobbled his sophomore season. After Mariota suffered a partial MCL tear against UCLA he conintued to play the remainder of the season. With Mariota's knee not allowing him to be as mobile as he was accustomed to teams were able to take advantage. In the weeks following the injury the Ducks suffered losses to Stanford and Arizona. Duck fans everywhere would like to know what that season woud've loked like if Mariota had stayed healthy.

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CJ McCollum

Oct. 2013 — Broken fifth Metatarsal In Left Foot

After being taken 10th overall during the 2013 NBA Draft the shooting guard out of Lehigh wasn't able to start his career the way many had hoped. After breaking the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot the rookie wasn't able to take the court until January of 2014. Before the injury McCollum was in consideration for playing time behind Lillard. 

Photo via Wikipedia (image cropped)
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Alex Morgan

Oct. 2013 — Stress reaction in talus bone

During the 2013 season Morgan suffered an injury that doctors misdiagnosed as a mildly sprained ankle. After a few additional tests were performed it turned out that Morgan had suffered a far more serious injury. She actually suffered a stress reaction in the talus bone that put her immediate future with Team USA in question. After rehabbing for 7 months Morgan was able to make a full recovery.

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Bralon Addison

April 2014 — Torn left ACL

After exceeding expectations as a freshman and sophomore at the University of Oregon Addison was expecting big things from his junior year. Unfortunately, Addison suffered a torn ACL during last year's spring practice that kept him sidelined the entire year. Without Addison in the lineup the receiving core never lived up to their full potential. If he had been able to play this season the National Championship may have wielded a different outcome.

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Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Dec. 2014 — Torn ACL

In preparation for the first ever college football playoffs Ekpre-Olomu ended up tearing his ACL during a routine practice. This was a huge blow to the Ducks considering Ekpre-Olomu was one of the team's better defenders. He was also one of the best corners in the country who many analysists expected to be selected as high as the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Photo via Wikipedia (image cropped)
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Wesley Matthews

March 2015 — Torn left achilles

Just 2 months before Matthews suffered a torn achilles he had become the Trailblazers' all-time leader in 3-point field goals made. It looked as though the Trailblazers were poised to make a deep playoff run. Things took a drastic turn when Matthews was lost for the season. With the team in a 0-2 hole against the Memphis Grizzlies it doesn't look as though they will be making it to the second round of the playoffs this year.

Photo via Wikipedia (image cropped)
 
 

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