As one of the nation’s top college running backs at the University of Wisconsin, Melvin Gordon had always managed to avoid serious injury. Then, with just two games remaining in the 2015 NFL season, the rookie running back for the San Diego Chargers faced off against the Miami Dolphins at home. As the first half of the game came to an end, Gordon lined up in the backfield and prepared for a running play.
The ball snapped, and Gordon dodged a Dolphin, then bounced left toward the open side of the field. A Dolphins defender grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him awkwardly to the ground, while another defender aimed for Gordon’s legs. Gordon hit the turf sandwiched between the two Dolphins and immediately knew something was wrong.
The Chargers’ athletic trainers hurried out onto the field, and Gordon visibly cringed as they bent his left knee. As he walked off the field, his teammates patted him on the back. Two weeks after that game against the Dolphins, Gordon was lying on an operating table undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair damaged cartilage in his knee. In doing so, he joined a big community: According to the Arthroscopy Association of North America, over one million Americans undergo arthroscopic knee surgery every year to treat injuries ranging from meniscus tears to torn ACL and MCL tendons.
For NFL players, such debilitating injuries occur regularly. But almost as frequently, players return from injury and continue to perform at — or even above — their previous level. Sure, these athletes benefit from access to the world’s best medical professionals, as well as a work ethic that initially made them the best in their sport. Yet, amateur athletes and weekend warriors alike can also take lessons and inspiration from the comebacks of players like Melvin Gordon, who’s leading the League with 11 touchdowns nine weeks into the 2016 NFL season. Here’s how he did it, and you can too.
Know your options
In seeking treatment for his knee injury, Gordon spoke with the Chargers’ doctors and athletic trainers, as well as teammates who’d suffered similar injuries. After realizing he’d require arthroscopic surgery, Gordon chose Dr. James Andrews to perform the procedure. A renowned sports orthopedist, Dr. Andrews has operated on hundreds of professional athletes, including modern-day NFL stars like Adrian Peterson and Drew Brees.
Pro Tip: Check your insurance providers to find out who you can see in your network, and then review your options with friends and family. You should also read reviews, although consider the perspective, as they are often driven by either extreme satisfaction or dissatisfaction. And do a background check. Visit your state medical board website to make sure the doctor you’re considering is board certified and doesn’t have a history of malpractice. You should also check out sites that offer a combination of cost estimates and in-network doctor ratings. If you have health insurance through UHC, you can use Rally Connect to find a provider within your insurance network, as well as cost estimates and ratings.
Have an advocate
Gordon’s mom, Carmen, works as a nurse for Alzheimer’s and hospice patients, and is well versed in the medical system. Carmen researched how other athletes had fared following similar cartilage repair procedures, and when Gordon needed assistance understanding and making medical decisions, she was at his side. During Melvin’s surgery, Carmen says Dr. Andrews also removed a small bone fragment (“the size of a fingernail”) that was irritating the inside of Melvin’s knee. “A lot of athletes ignore that type of injury and wait until it gets very bad,” says Carmen.
Pro Tip: A friend, relative, or spouse with medical experience can help you make sense of various medical options and provide valuable feedback.
Be patient during rehab
“The hardest thing about rehabbing is patience,” says Gordon, who couldn’t participate in much of the Chargers’ off-season practices as he recovered from surgery. “You see your teammates doing workouts and other guys cheering them on. They’re competing amongst each other, and you want to be out there, but you’re just not ready and you don’t want to force it. You learn from other people experiences, or you learn from your own past experiences, that you can’t rush anything.”
According to Dr. Robert LaPrade, a complex knee surgeon at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, one of the best ways to keep athletes from trying to progress too rapidly is to “tell them stories of people who did things too soon, and it failed.”
Pro Tip: For pro athletes, returning to their sport too early can mean losing millions of dollars, or the shot at a championship. For the rest of us, consider your long-term health and your desire to remain active and participate in your chosen sport for decades to come.
Trust the pros
“When recovering from knee surgery, it’s critical that patients communicate with physical therapists on a regular basis,” says Dr. LaPrade, who regularly treats professional athletes. “As the patient advances to a new phase of rehab, we try to ensure that there’s no swelling or pain or anything that could indicate there’s a problem with the healing process.”
Gordon relied closely on the Chargers’ athletic trainers to guide his activity level, and you can do the same with your PT.
“Your knee is weak, and you know how strong it was before. Mentally, that can get to you,” he says. “When you’ve been rehabbing for four or five weeks and your knee is still not where you want it to be, you’re like, ‘Gosh, is it going to get better anytime soon?’ That’s frustrating. But you’ve got to mentally push through it, and believe in the treatment. There will be a point where you’ll say, ‘OK, I’ve got to push.’ But you’ll know when you get to that level, because your therapist will tell you. You might feel like you’re where you need to be, but you aren’t.”
Pro Tip: Ask your therapist to explain the purpose of each therapeutic treatment or exercise. Understanding the specific intent of the rehab can make the process more effective.
“You’ve got guys around you that have been in the same position and been successful. Think about their situations,” says Gordon. “Melvin Ingram has been a mentor to me at San Diego. He told me, ‘There’s going to be a mental block. Try to trust yourself on your leg again. You’ve been feeling pain for so many months and months and months. You’re not used to doing what you normally do without feeling pain, but just stick with it. You’ll get to that point where you forget it and can go out there and make the same cuts without thinking about it.’”
Pro Tip: Make a point of reaching out to those who’ve successfully recovered from the same injury you face, even if it’s someone you don’t know well or a distant social media contact. You’ll often find they’re happy to share their personal experiences.