Rut, Marcus, and Wizard,
Growing up I was a schmuck. I didn’t play sports. I didn’t fit in well. I didn’t get along with others. And this carried on through high school and into college. I was adrift in the flotsam and jetsam of life, looking for something to grab onto. During the end of my freshman year, though, I got a bug up my ass that I was going to play rugby. Mind you, I’d had no prior run-in with the sport, let alone any real athletic experience. Yet, there I was on the practice pitch one Tuesday night with a bunch of the hardest charging, bulldozing, eye gouging group of SOB’s I’d ever seen. Naturally, I nosedived. Straight into the mud.
My initial enthusiasm carried me for a few weeks at practice and eventually right into my first real test, a round-robin tournament. The team I was playing for didn’t know much about me so I was kept in the wings during the important games and then let loose once things were in hand, or out, depending on the opposition. I was on cloud nine those first few moments. But it was when my first start came, though, that I knew it was my time to shine. It was my opportunity to show my teammates that I was all that. And then some.
The scene was idyllic. Sunny day. Packed sideline. Pre-game encouragement from the captain. I was set. The whistle blew for the kickoff and as if fate had already decided well before, the ball sailed straight to me. With the grace of a “seasoned pro” I caught the kick and was ready to make the heads of the on charging opposition spin. But, just as I was about to cut wide, my planted right knee crumbled sideways from a tackle coming off of my blindside. Panicked, I threw the ball in desperation and watched as it landed safely in the hands of my opposite number who then went on the score a try untouched. My first game as a starter and I had blown out my knee and worse, gifted the team an easy score.
I hobbled onto the sideline, offered a meek apology to coach, and sat down to take stock. In the minute or so it took to come off of the field my knee had grown by a factor of three. Huge, ungainly, and swollen, I knew something was wrong.
The diagnosis a few weeks later was a blown ACL. I would need surgery if I ever wanted to be somewhat active again. Begrudgingly my folks okayed the procedure and under the knife I went.
When I came to, I was presented with the reality of the situation: in order to run and cut and play rugby again, I needed to first run in a straight line, and before that, I needed to jog, and before that, walk. I had a mountain to climb, or rather hobble up. My physical therapy was going to take at least eight months, at the earliest. Things couldn’t have been much worse.
It was about this time that the voices started to creep in, telling me to hang up the boots on a very short career. I didn’t belong in that arena. I would amount to nothing and should be happy with it. I had failed and this was my penance. Something though was different. Where in the past I would’ve rushed to quit, I now weighed the two sides in my head. On the one hand, I would have been safe from further harm, and further expectation. On the other, I would have the stinging shame hanging above my head like the executioner’s guillotine. I knew wanted to do. All there was left was to get started.
Rehabing a knee revolved around getting the joint to be able to move back to ninety degrees. This seems like a simple feat until you look at your post-op appendage and see it’s a swollen mess of fluid, pus, and crusty blood. To get it limber again I was instructed to spend an hour or so a day of this device that looked like it belonged in a medieval dungeon, created to flex and stretch the knee until the person cried for mercy.
Progress was painful and slow. So slow that after my last meeting with my physical therapist I took matters into my own hands. I went home and wrote out a list of things that I knew were challenging, like biking to campus, walking up every flight of stairs I came across, and strapping myself into the device as often as I could manage. I took these all on the chin because as much I wanted to avoid the pain, I yearned to be back on the field playing rugby again.
Month after teeth grinding month my slow and sputtering progress soon ramped up and eventually I was hitting milestone after milestone well before I was projected to. Both my doctor and PT were impressed but I wasn’t in it for the glad-handing. I wanted revenge. Revenge for what I saw as a failure, another notch in the belt of things I wasn’t proud of in life. I wanted to step back on the field and have to be fucking carried off of it while still strapped to my shield.
Finally, that moment came. I crossed that white hash line one September afternoon and played like an absolute lunatic. My coach had to take me aside during halftime to ask me to stop gnashing my teeth at the other team.
To make a long winded story short, the thought of giving up rugby after suffering through a blown out knee never crossed my mind. After a long time of searching, I had found something to anchor myself to, like Brad Snyder encourages his young midshipmen to do. Through that painful endeavor, I was able to learn some important lessons, like buckling down on a goal that I had and raising myself up to a challenge, rather than backing down. These lessons carried me on through my college playing days and into a successful run of years where I was fortunate enough to play provincial and representative ball, even making it to the top of the ladder where I was able to ply my trade against the country’s, and even some of the world’s, best.
As odd as it may sound, I am grateful for blowing my knee out that day because without that experience of never quitting I would not be the person I am today.