by Tyler Collison
The day’s focus was plyometrics—jump training. For roughly twenty minutes at the end of every volleyball practice, we would systematically hop around like frogs and one-legged kangaroos. In the matches prior to the discussed day, though, we hadn’t been “doing somethings amazing,” as our Romanian coach, Radu, would so adamantly and cryptically preach, so we had about an hour of the shit. Childish as it sounds, I loved jumping; I didn’t mind.
But this wasn’t anything like the other days, and it wasn’t like other jumping. As seems to be the case with any coach that hits a wall, Radu (with that deceptive Eastern European smile) wanted to try out somethings innovative as a means of breaking through. We were met with a course of thirty-inch-high standing hurdles, full-court spike approaches, and, for good measure, Ab Rollers.
We were roughly halfway through my freshman season, and I’d been consistently plugged into a starting role to that point. Chalk it up to being eager to impress (as was the case with the day’s “Jumpstacle Course”) or loving to jump, but I always pushed. If you were my competition, I had to be better than you. If you were my teammate, I wanted you to recognize how hard I worked, and that it paid off.
So that day, I came out hot on the full-court spike approaches—too hot, probably, because the net raked my face a couple times. We ran about fifteen times—five for each hitting position—then it was on to the next one. And for a jumping man like myself, the hurdles are hardly worth mentioning.
Last in the cycle was the what-the-fuck-is-the-point-of-these-things Ab Rollers. They were makeshift workout gear that seemed a supersized version of a two-part K’nex assembly kit: a one-foot leftover wooden rod, stuck through the center of a wide training wheel. We joked about it, and then we soldiered on.
Soon it was back to the spike approaches, where I jumped once, and then never played competitive volleyball again for the remainder of my four-year stay.
Injuries are a part of being an athlete. No matter what sport you’re playing, if you have any competitive cells in your body, you’re guaranteed to push your body to its limits and take the bumps and bruises. As a volleyball player, you learn to live with skinned knees, elbows, and wrists if it means you made a better play in the process. For these boo-boos, you take your mom’s advice, put a bag of frozen peas or a Band-Aid on it, and move on.
It gets more serious than floor burns, of course. I myself dealt with tendinitis in my right knee and shoulder, repeated lumbar strains in my lower back, numerous badly sprained ankles, and strange-looking fingers that might’ve been broken but healed themselves. These injuries, you take the doctor’s advice, keep it wrapped up using heat and ice, take a break for a week or two, and move on.
But then there’s The Big One—the one you don’t wait to get home or to the doctor’s office to address. The Big One makes you cower and call for the trainer from the very point where it laid you out. For me, the scapegoat for The Big One will forever be those fucking Ab Rollers.
It’s not the temporary immobility and the dark, dark cloud that stabilizes overhead that makes The Big One an athlete’s Bogeyman, though. And it’s not the countless chiropractor appointments (why would it be? That’s just an enhanced massage), nor is it the biweekly rehab and its exceptionally painful stretches.
There’s no shaking it off or walking it out, no short trip to the trainer’s office to regain your play-through-itiveness. What makes The Big One something terrifying is that it renders you incapable as you lie there and accept that things have just changed. For varying amounts of time for the near or distant future, it forces you to hate the very sport (or Ab Roller) that caused it.
And this is all before you see the faces of your teammates, family members, and supporters. The Big One might take you out of the game, but those faces and their consoling voices, they bring the pain.
Expectedly, the later it hits, the more crippling its effect. In basketball players I’ve admired, I’ve noticed this the most, for no real reason other than their continued presence in the media.
Jay Williams, for example, was a top-level High School All-American who continued his career at the prestigious Duke University. In his three-year career as their starting point guard, he’d garner such accolades as Freshman of the Year and National Player of the Year, win a national championship, and tattoo his name in the school’s record books. He also played for the United States in the 2000 Summer Olympics.
When the time for the Chicago Bulls to use their No. 2 pick in the 2002 NBA draft, they couldn’t get it there fast enough. Jay exuded professionalism, leadership, and talent, if for nothing else but his million-dollar smile. For most of the following season following, Jay showed flashes of brilliance, chief among which was a rare rookie triple-double.
But that June (2003), Williams crashed his motorcycle into a streetlight in Chicago. He suffered nerve damage and tore ligaments in his left leg, while also fracturing his pelvis. The Bulls drafted Jay’s replacement (Kirk Hinrich) a week later and dumped his contract before the subsequent season, which they were able to do because Jay was violating team rules by riding a motorcycle.
I’d say that qualifies as The Big One. The Bulls knew it, at least. After years of rehab, Jay tried to mount his comeback in 2006, but he was soon released by two teams, one after the other.
Another example of a highly-touted baller who’s met a depressing demise is Greg Oden. At seven-feet tall and two-hundred-fifty pounds (with the face of a weather-worn 40-year-old), Greg was a marvel the minute he stepped on the court for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Much like Jay Williams, Oden exhibited statistical dominance from the get-go; he was named a First-Team All-American in his freshman year.
All throughout his freshman year, the NBA was calling for a big man with the quintessential around-the-rim skill set. Oh, and he was big—you can’t teach that. All these things considered, Oden was expectedly taken by the Portland Trail Blazers as the top overall pick in 2007.
Unfortunately for Greg, The Big One had been lurking in his knees for years. He would go under the knife to repair a microfracture in his right knee in the September following the draft. As a result, Oden missed his entire first season.
After a couple years of sporadic playing time and hints at the potential for which he was drafted, Oden was forced to undergo surgery to a fractured left patella in December of 2009. Since then, the only time Oden has come up in the news is to announce another knee surgery. And another. And another. The Blazers eventually gave up hope.
But the real story with Greg Oden is the untold effects all of this had on him—that’s where the wheels fall off.
In a May interview with Grantland’s Mark Titus, Oden discussed how his basketball inactivity was a catalyst for an escalated drinking habit, how he had worked himself into the best shape of his life prior to the 2009 injury only to be wiped out for years, and the oddly melancholy naked photos that made it to the Internet following the injury.
But the effect of The Big One at the later points in life—when our egos and neuroses are so much further developed—is enveloped in Oden’s response when Titus asks him why he doesn’t like when people ask for his autograph.
“Because I don’t understand why they are so excited to see me… I guess I didn’t really mind it when I was at Ohio State and even right after I was drafted, but it just seems to fake now. Like, why are you bothering me at dinner for a picture when I’m nothing now?”
Of course, you try to come back after any type of injury. Especially when you’re as far along as Greg Oden and Jay Williams, what else can you do but that to which you’ve devoted your entire life? The problem is, after The Big One, you’re stuck. You try to play as effectively as you’ve ever been able to, only to discover—sometimes repeatedly—that that can’t happen anymore. As if your body’s development to prime athletic condition froze: Sorry, these parts are broken; I don’t even think they make them for that model anymore.
Despite his numerous knee surgeries, Greg Oden is still marketing himself, still going for it, still trying to tell his body that it hasn’t experienced what it knows it has.
Jay Williams, meanwhile, has gone on to a career as a basketball analyst. He’s good at it, yeah, but his air of regret for That Day is palpable as he discusses the sport’s future stars, and for good reason.
Like these guys, I love my sport. But when I returned to campus in for my sophomore year after all that rehab and time wasted in chiropractors’ waiting rooms, I just… I couldn’t do it. Maybe it was the cautionary statements (“At this point, your back may be too used to going into a spasm for you to play.”) that drove me away, but ultimately, I lacked the confidence to push myself in practices. Consequently, I knew I couldn’t get better, so I quit the team.
I didn’t attend or watch more than four volleyball matches in my remaining college years; it cut me too much to watch others doing what I could’ve been doing better, had it not been for The Big One.
But as Greg Oden said, “There’s more to life than basketball, and at some point it’s going to end anyway. I’m going to do what I can to get back on the court, but if it doesn’t work out, I’ll find something else to do and have a normal life.”
Truer words were never spoken, Greg. Let me know when things get normal for you; until then, I have this itch that won’t go away.Tags: essay, expectations, injury, knees, prose, sports, training, tyler collison