Walk Before You Run

I watched the Robert Griffin III documentary Will to Win last night. The film details his recovery from off-season knee surgery and documents the arduous task he faces to return to the field for opening week of the NFL season. RGIII is candid, introspective, and dedicated. He is a player that all fans can root for and hope to see succeed.

Watching scenes of his rehab conjured memories of the frustration-filled, lonely hours of endless exercises I experienced in high school. Listening to the way his trainer spoke about the process reminded me of conversations I had with my dad during my own recovery. Words and comments such as perfection, training the body to work the right way once more, and endurance made me feel like a 16-year old learning lessons about sacrifice and work ethic all over again.

The story to follow is an excerpt from To Dad: From Kelly. It occurred in late August 1999, six weeks after the first of my high school knee reconstructions. Although my dad’s teaching style veered from the traditional playbook, he still taught some damn fine lessons.

Enjoy.

Walk Before You Run

“Mother…fucking.. asshole,” I mumbled loud enough for Dad to hear but not loud enough for him to feel threatened by it.

“Slow down and get the damn crutches the right way. Now.” Dad’s don’t cross me boy stare buried me below the rubber padding floor in my high school’s weight room. His cocked, half grin infuriated me.

“Yes,” I relented and hobbled to my starting point. From there, I took real steps for the first time in six weeks.

***

In July 1999, I had surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament, partially torn medial collateral ligament, and torn medial and lateral meniscus inside the right knee I shredded while playing in a June basketball tournament with my high school team. I spent the rest of that summer on crutches letting my refurbished knee heal.

“Use the crutches until you feel comfortable walking. It might take two or three days to get rid of them,” my orthopedic surgeon told me six weeks after he sliced and diced my leg in a five-hour procedure.

Walking again after this hiatus sounded simple. I figured I would ease into over a few days. My junior year started in less than a week, and that seemed to be a decent goal for walking again without aid.

It turned out that my dad had a much different timetable, as I soon learned.

Several hours after the doctor gave me the green light to ditch my crutches once I felt comfortable, Dad and I ventured to my high school’s weight room for a rehabilitation workout. Earlier that summer, Dad had his right shoulder replaced. While I completed my knee exercises, he forced his shoulder through scar tissue to regain the range of motion it lost when a botched surgery first froze it in the mid-1980’s. I lost count of the hours we spent together, two beaten bodies grimacing to return to something…anything.

“I thought the doctor told you to start walking?” Dad asked as I stepped down from a four-foot tall rusted, v-shaped piece of welded metal that doubled as a triceps exercise machine and hopped on my healthy leg to my wooden crutches resting on the ground a few feet to my right.

“He did. See.”

I took two measured steps using the crutches to support most of my body weight. My right leg barely touched the floor. During recovery, the crutches became my security blanket. This was my first surgery, and the mere thought of repeat destruction terrified me. What if I collapsed? What if my knee erupted again? Would that mean another round of anesthesia-induced vomiting in the hospital after a second surgery? Would I suffer more days lying in a dark room with a cold cloth draped over my pale forehead, nauseous from the migraine that accompanied my pain medication? If I walked and something went wrong, would I lose more seasons of my high school sports career? The worrying arrived in unrelenting waves during the six weeks I spent on crutches. Now, it reached its apex as I searched Dad’s observing face for approval.

“What the hell was that?” He asked and walked about five yards to where I balanced on only my good leg. “What are those for?” He nodded his head at the wooden crutches jammed into my armpits.

“Huh?” I tried to play dumb. I knew where the old man wanted to go with this line of questioning.

“Those,” for some reason he pointed at me and not the crutches when he spoke.

“I haven’t walked in six weeks. I need them,” I countered, emphasizing the word need as I spoke.

“Got it,” Dad said without letting his look of inquisition falter. I knew from the scrutiny in his eyes, pressing of his lips, and slow, deliberate shake of his head that he had formed a plan. I wasn’t getting out of this so easy.

Dad stared at my right leg a handful of seconds longer. His presence trapped me. I wanted to run but couldn’t. I wanted to flee but he trapped me. Like a mouse backed into a corner by a much larger cat with swat-happy paws, I feared whatever scheme Dad had devised.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Give me those,” he flicked his head at the crutches. Why so flippant, I wondered.

I relinquished my grip on the sticks of wood and watched in astonishment as he heaved them to the opposite side of the weight room. My crutches cleared a wasteland of Nautilus machines as easily as a plane flies from New York to Los Angeles without consideration for the places in between. They clanged against an archaic hip flexor exercise machine that lived unused in the corner of the weight room near the door, too big to move and too handy as a coat repository to replace.

“Now, go get them!” Dad pointed his crooked right index finger in the direction of the tossed crutches. It actually directed me closer to the water fountain, but I knew now wasn’t the time to discuss such specifics.

“What?” I asked.

“You heard me.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You’re crazy. I can’t walk over there!”

“Go…Get…Them. And if you limp once, you start over. I’m watching every step.”

I wanted to murder the maniac standing next to me. Who was he to think that after not walking for six weeks I could meet his cold-hearted request? What an asshole, I thought, and tried to incinerate him with fire from my eyes. In return, he taunted me with a half grin and chuckle. God, what a glorious bastard he could be.

The accumulated scar tissue inside my right knee meant I could only flex it a few degrees, and it didn’t fully straighten, either. Still my leg didn’t collapse when I pushed off my right toes and stepped ahead with my left leg. The first solo step gave me confidence. I moved towards the crutches, a little faster with each step. My healthy leg led the charge, dragging its damaged partner behind it. I looked like Tiny Tim without his cane and hat, but I was walking.

“Stop!” Dad barked after I covered only a few yards.

“Why?”

“Because you’re walking like shit, that’s why.” Dad smirked, having fun at my expense. “Start over. I don’t care how long it takes, you have to walk perfect.”

“Perfectly,” I sneered. You know you aren’t in a position of power when grammar corrections become the only weapon in your depleted arsenal.

“Enough,” he said.

“Mother…fucking.. asshole,” I mumbled loud enough for Dad to hear but not loud enough for him to feel threatened by it.

“Slow down and go get the damn crutches the right way. Now.” Dad’s don’t cross me boy stare buried me below the rubber padding floor in my high school’s weight room. His cocked, half grin infuriated me.

“Yes,” I relented and hobbled to my starting point. From there, I took real steps for the first time in six weeks.

This time, I stepped much slower, chopping my steps into tiny fragments of a usual stride. I imitated an actual walk as much as the stiffness in my right leg would allow. Anger–at Dad, the injury, and the damn life-saving crutches still too far in the distance–fueled me.

I wanted to swing at my father with all the force my sweat-soaked, 150-pound body could muster. He deserved a whooping. Somebody needed to put this despotic dictator commanding my steps into his place. Except, I did nothing. As the steps passed, I realized it didn’t matter what I did. I knew that Dad would have only laughed at me had I said anything loud enough for him to hear.

I spent the rest of the walk swearing at him under my breath.

We stood in silence for a minute after I reached the crutches. Dad eventually broke the ice. “Look, I’ve been there,” he started. “Too many times. Rehab sucks. It’s miserable. It’s lonely. It’s hard work, but you have to do things the right way every day. Like walking without any hitch in your step. You can’t limp or baby it. You have to learn to walk without thinking, like before. Make it natural. If you want to play sports again, like you said you did, then trust me. Do the work the right way or else you’ll end up favoring your leg and just injure yourself again.

“I got it,” I said.

My sixteen-year old brain wanted to argue everything, but I understood that I needed to agree with Dad on these points. He knew sports and he knew sports rehab. A method existed somewhere behind his madness, even if the way he delivered it frustrated me. Dad remembered that while sitting up in my hospital bed the day after reconstructive surgery, I vowed I would endure any rehab necessary to recover and play sports as I did before the injury. I wanted the chance to compete in college. Unfortunately, days like this one were the necessary steps to make that dream happen.

As I’ve grown older, I find myself returning to this moment. When stress mounts, or when goals seem too daunting, I know that two routes exist: fold my cards and retreat or put in the effort necessary to improve. One choice is easy, like limping to a set of crutches because you wonder if you can still walk. The other requires self-sacrifice, patience, and enough endurance to slow down and accomplish things the right way. Although I learned this lesson during an unexpected walk in a near empty high school weight room, I’m grateful to have learned it.

And, most importantly, I’m thankful for the man who taught me it.

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4 comments

  1. Well done…I tore my ACL not long ago and was lucky (in hindsight) to have someone push me a little through recovery…and what a difference it made!

    1. Thanks for the note! Hope the surgery and rehab all went well. Not a fun process at all, but one of those things that many people go through. Always nice to have someone nudging you along with encouragement! Thanks, again for commenting!

  2. This is excellent and very well written. I’m one of the Price girls who went to school with your parents that lived in the house next to Bud’ s. For some unknown reason, Robbie popped in my mind yesterday so I Googled him and came across your blog. The last entry, which is the first one I saw, was dated Oct 10, 2013 , which also happened to be my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary and from which I had just been in Fremont to celebrate. (I live in Nashville now). I had cocktails yesterday evening with a Brazilian friend if mine and I brought up this story of my morning thought about Robbie and then finding your blog. As it happened, she had just watched the Frontline story, and it became our “over drinks” discussion. I am not sure what this all means, yet, but I believe things happen for a reason and there are no coincidences. I will continue to follow your blog and I wish you all well. Give my love to Tracey.

    1. Hi Pamela, Thank you for your note and for reading. That Frontline documentary certainly brought many issues to light that people were not aware of and has helped increase awareness around the subject. There remains much to learn and understand, but the work being accomplished on head injuries is sports is remarkable. I will pass along your well wishes to Mom and I hope that you are doing well also.

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