hi-res-133457140_crop_exactIn 2012, University of South Carolina running back Marcus Latimore was on pace to become the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, before being derailed by an (anterior cruciate ligament) “ACL” tear in his knee. In 2013, University of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was on the same path as Latimore, before also going down with an ACL. Both players were potential first round, ten million dollar NFL draft picks. Both were picked in the 5th round – Latimore by the 49ers, Murray by the Chiefs. The prognosis going forward is not quite as good for Latimore (he has torn his ACL twice) as it is for Murray, but both saw their NFL rookie paydays drastically reduced by the same injury.

In the grand scheme of it all, we probably are not going to feel too bad for two (still likely) millionaires who are missing out on (what would have been) tens of millions of dollars. Latimore and Murray are interesting though for a few other reasons. One, they both have had tremendous attitudes during their recovery periods. Second, and most interesting, both of them are just among the latest casualties in a growing epidemic.

The New York Daily News recently reported on the growing number of ACL injuries among teens and college students. They attribute the drastic increase to the following:

A major factor in the rising injury rate among youngsters is the current emphasis on playing one sport all year long, which leaves no time for muscles and joints to recover from the microtrauma that occurs during practice and play. In addition, there has been a growing focus by coaches, parents and kids on more intense, repetitive and specialized training.

Much has been written in these pages recently about individual identities in our culture being defined by what they are, rather than whose they are. To make it big now in professional sports, young athletes (unless they’re a 1 in 10 million talent) need to specialize in one sport, and they don’t dare take a week off, lest someone younger start gaining on them. Their entire personhood becomes inextricably tied to what they are – a fast runner, a strong-armed quarterback, a power hitter. When the injury bug strikes – as it has been with ever increasing frequency, the athlete is left with the daunting prospects of having to redefine his/herself.  Latimore and Murray are blessed with strong families and support systems. They have a life away from their sport. Most who dream of professional glory don’t. They don’t believe they can afford to.

fernandez_jose_g_mp_576The ligament epidemic isn’t unique to knees. In Major League Baseball, 19 pitchers had Tommy John surgery last year. This surgery, named after the first pitcher (from the 70’s) who successfully came back from it, reconstructs the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow. In the first 6 weeks of this 2014 season, 18 more MLB pitchers have already had or been scheduled for Tommy John surgery. This week, the game’s best pitcher, Miami Marlin Jose Fernandez, was diagnosed with the UCL tear and will be shut down for 12-14 months after surgery. Again, doctors are pointing to “oversuse and no time off during the formative teen years” as reasons for the alarming number of Tommy John surgeries. Those who have seen Fernandez pitch know – the guy has electric, unhittable stuff. He’s a guy you’d pay to see to pitch. He’s now however facing an uncertain future in the Major Leagues, just a few days after cementing himself as the game’s new star pitcher. About 70% of Tommy John patients come back to pitch, but very few get their arm strength back at 100%.

Bum wheels and broken wings – we’ve all had these afflictions from time to time, but few of us have lost a paycheck, or our sense of self because of them. We can dismiss the hardships of professional athletes as light afflictions when compared to the plight of  everyday folks. We can label them as spoiled and entitled. Truth be told though, they get clipped by life just like the rest of us, and it’s not quite as fun to push through it all when the ups and downs of a comeback play out for all to see. We all long for “One Fine Day”.

This broken wing will fly again
One fine day
This blackbird’s mute gonna sing again
One fine day

So all you sinners come out
And all you drunkards crawl out
Come into the light of one fine day

And all you liars come out
And all you thieves you walk out
Come into the light of one fine day

These crippled legs will walk again
One fine day
This broken heart will love again
One fine day