Teammates tackle injuries together
After suffering eerily similar torn ACLs, soccer trio Bates, Bird, Lima endure grueling rehab process to play 2012 season
It wasn’t official. It wasn’t a game or a scrimmage or even a practice. Just the guys getting together to play some soccer on a tranquil summer afternoon in 2011 before the team’s grueling preseason began. It was supposed to be fun.
But then sophomore Bryan Lima attempted a seemingly innocuous slide tackle on then-freshman teammate Eric Bird and felt a sharp pain searing through his right knee. Lima found it difficult to put pressure on the leg and needed to be carried off the field, a role that then-junior Will Bates was quick to fill.
The incident would soon come to represent an eerie coincidence for the trio of teammates, ensnaring them in an insidious web of knee injuries.
“When I first realized that [Bird and Bates were involved in my injury], I freaked out a bit,” Lima said.
Lima underwent an MRI that revealed a torn right ACL requiring a season-ending surgery. Lima took a medical redshirt and missed his 2011 campaign.
The year for the rest of the team began inconspicuously, but it would take only a couple of months for the trio’s connection to resurface.
Bird was the next one to fall victim to the team’s bad luck. He was forced to leave a Sept. 23 game against North Carolina after he too felt a sharp pain in his right knee. Almost exactly a month later, the same thing happened to Bates in a contest against Virginia Tech. The unfortunate trifecta was complete.
Their diagnoses were even worse: a torn right ACL and MCL for Bird and a torn ACL and meniscus for Bates. Both joined Lima on the operating table and then on the sidelines for the remainder of the 2011 season.
The three teammates suffered three devastating and remarkably similar knee injuries within a matter of months. It was three seasons torn away from three star athletes without any forewarning or cause for alarm.
Such a situation would certainly be daunting for anybody to face alone. The three teammates, however, didn’t go through the recovery process on their own. The parallel injuries were only the beginning of their shared journey.
United through mutual adversity, the trio forged their rehabilitative paths with one goal in mind: to get healthy in time for the 2012 season.
“We just called ourselves the ACL Crew for the semester and really pushed each other to get better,” Bates said. “We made it a competition in the training room … pushing each other to just do a little more weight than we were comfortable doing, which was big in our rehab process.”
The teammates knew pouting, complaining or lamenting would not heal their wounded knees. They understood that the only thing that would help would be work — arduous, exhausting and often times exceedingly painful work.
“It was just one of those things where you didn’t really have an option,” Bates said. “You just go to work everyday and rehab. When you go to practice you know you just have to get it done … it was what [we] had to do so it’s what [we] did.”
Their therapy was tireless — sessions with the team trainer twice a day for the first months following surgery and then daily two-to-three hour sessions for the five subsequent months. Most days the players were so busy in the training room they never got to see a soccer field.
One rehab exercise, designed to help regain mobility in the leg, required the players to be strapped to a chair. With the cranking of a handle, their knee would then be physically straightened and re-set into its proper place.
“I’d be on there for 15 minutes and it was just one of those things that hurt so much,” Lima said. “But you just had to go through it because you saw the results from it. But it just killed you.”
Improvement was gradual. A couple weeks after their respective surgeries, the players were able to walk again. After about three months they could run. Five months passed and the players were able to retake the field in a limited capacity.
And after six laborious months, they were finally what Bates called “all in.” They returned to the field with newfound enthusiasm for the game they loved.
“It was just overwhelming joy,” Bird said. “You just really appreciate the game and you don’t want to take it for granted again.… every minute on the field you have a new appreciation for.”
In a upset win against then-No. 22 California on Aug. 31, the three teammates finally came full circle.
With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Lima and Bates made their regular-season debuts together to a loud ovation from the home crowd. As they walked onto the pitch they were soon met by Bird, who had been a starter in each of the team’s first two games.
The indomitable trio came back together again, finally on the soccer field instead of a trainer’s table. And if it was fate that united them in misfortune — and allowed them to share a road to redemption and recovery — they wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I think [the whole process] played a major role in my life and definitely changed a few things,” Bates said. “But I can’t imagine being in here by myself and going through all of that without having these guys with me.”