October 29, 2011. Two days before the scariest day of the year became the scariest day of a career. It was a cold day for October, with a mix of hail and snow causing the turf to be slick and making it difficult to dig in. Just like any other football game, players risked their health for their team and the sport they love. On this day, however, the field caused three players to go down with knee injuries. One of those players showed the heart and character to rebound from one of the most devastating knee injuries an individual can suffer.
Andy Bean, then a junior halfback at Springfield College, went to return a punt against Hartwick when his knee buckled while getting hit. Shaking off the pain, Bean returned for the next play. Getting the ball, Bean was set to cut upfield, when disaster struck.
Unknowingly, Bean had torn his ACL, MCL and meniscus on the previous play. Bean collapsed to the turf. On the sideline, the athletic trainer told him that he had seriously damaged the major ligaments in his knee.
“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘What next? I don’t want my career to end this way. What now?’”
What came next was an inspiring display of the human will and a determination to fight through adversity.
An ACL, MCL and meniscus tear, or the “Terrible Triad,” is one of the most devastating injuries an individual can suffer, with rehab lasting from six months to a year until the individual is back to pre-surgery strength and use. An ACL injury alone can be demoralizing for an athlete. The ACL is one of four major ligaments in the knee that gives the knee stability and helps an athlete change directions at fast paces.
When the ACL tears, it is often a result of the knee being forced too far back, or when it is forced to go too far to the side. In most cases, the ACL is injured without any contact. As an athlete goes to cut, the sudden change in speed and motion causes the ACL to tear. When athletes injure their ACL, they lose stability and often end up injuring the other ligaments in the knee.
In a study conducted by Dr. James Andrews from 2001 to 2006, he found that of the 49 NFL players who had ACL reconstruction surgery, around 63 percent of them returned to game action, with the average recovery time a little north of 10 and a half months following the surgery.
While some athletes are able to play without an ACL, Wayne Rodrigues, a member of the Springfield College Athletic Training staff, estimates around 95 percent of ACL injuries require surgery.
“The majority of individuals who want to resume or continue to be active in their lives usually require ACL reconstructive surgery,” he said.
That surgery is performed one of two ways. The first type of surgery is an autograft, when the surgeon uses tendons from the patient to repair the torn ligament. It is most often done with hamstring tendons or the middle third of the patella tendon.
The second type of surgery is an allograft. Allograft is a cadaveric procedure, meaning that the surgeon uses tissues from a tissue bank. These are dead tissues from another body that are sterilized prior to being used.
Immediately following surgery, the patient begins the difficult road back to the field. Within the first two weeks, the training staff looks for the athlete to have full extension.
“If they don’t get full extension back… it’s going to be impossible to strengthen the quadriceps,” said Rodrigues.
The athlete is rehabbing daily, and as Rodrigues explains, it is very uncomfortable. “You have to push the envelope if you want to get that range of motion back,” he states.
The first six weeks of exercise are designed to increase the range of motion in the knee, and includes riding a stationary bike to increase the mobility of the joint. After the six-week point, trainers will begin to increase the resistance on the knee and by eight to 10 weeks, they will begin light activities that concentrate on balance and mobility.
By the fourth month of rehab the knee can handle running and a jump training program that helps give the ACL strength when it is forced to stop and change directions very quickly. It isn’t until the sixth month that the athlete is back on the field with their teammates, and they are normally just jogging and doing light cuts.
“Usually, that ninth month to a year is what we’re looking at [to return to action],” said Rodrigues.
Although the player may return to the field in nine to 12 months, they aren’t typically back to 100 percent until their second year returning from surgery.
For the “Terrible Triad,” more often than not there isn’t any work done to the MCL. Because the MCL can heal independently, it is often set in place following the surgery on the ACL and is left to heal on its own.
The meniscus, however, will need work done to it. If the surgeon patches up the meniscus, the rehab for the knee will increase, because a meniscus tear requires the patient to be non-weight bearing for six weeks.
Although the triple-ligament tear doesn’t extend the rehab by an extreme amount of time, Rodrigues explains that the “Terrible Triad” is much worse than a simple ACL tear.
“I would much rather have an isolated ACL tear then a meniscal tear, because if you have a meniscal tear, then that also adds to a certain degree of stability and shock-absorbing ability,” he said.
Following a severe injury like this, it’s very rare to see an athlete back on the field before nine months.
No one told Andy Bean.
To reconstruct Bean’s ACL, Dr. Paul D. Fadale of University Orthopedics in Rhode Island — the surgeon in charge of reconstructing the knee — took the patella tendon and re-attached it by drilling holes in his tibia and fibula.
Although the MCL would heal on its own, the 5-foot-10-inch, 185-pound senior from Coventry, R.I. says that the ligament is still crooked. Because there were pieces of the meniscus that were hanging off, Dr. Fadale was forced to shave the ligament down.
Bean’s rehab was extremely in-depth and extensive as he spent five days a week working to get back to the field and forcing him to re-learn many of the things that had come so naturally to him before the injury.
“I had to start all over again, re-learn how to walk, re-learn how to jog on it, (and) how to sprint,” Bean recalled.
Despite the road to his return to the field, Springfield coach Michael DeLong points out that Bean never wavered.
“Andy was a tenacious worker during rehab,” DeLong said. “Probably had to slow down… Extremely hard worker. I would call him very aggressive with his rehab.”
The hard work, never-quit attitude is what propelled Bean back onto the field at such an incredibly fast pace for the injury he had suffered. Because of Bean’s quick healing, he was put on an accelerated rehab plan, much like the plans used by professional athletes.
Behind his determination to return to the field and the help of his intense rehab, Bean was jogging straight by three months, sprinting by four, and by four-and-a-half months, was cutting, well ahead of schedule, surprising even himself.
“Once I started seeing progress with my rehab, I was like ‘Wow, I’m doing a lot better than I thought I’d be doing.’”
Bean was “back to normal” in five months and in six-and a-half-months, was on the football field again, which did not surprise DeLong.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Andy would not come back just knowing the type of kid he [is]. Andy is a very, very hardworking kid,” said DeLong.
Many well-known athletes have suffered the “Terrible Triad,” but very few have had the same results as Bean. Adrian Peterson, a running back for the Minnesota Vikings, suffered an ACL and MCL injury in December of 2011, and was said to be “in the top half of one percent of the human bodies in the world” by Russ Paine — a physical therapist in Houston in an article by Dave Campbell of the Associated Press — after he returned to the field in eight-and-a-half months.
To put it in perspective, Bean was playing football just six and half months following surgery.
Even though rehab was exhausting and taxing both mentally and physically, Bean continued to push on.
“You don’t think about failing…[you] think about progressing. You believe in yourself, you believe you’re going to get back to where you were, at least, if not better.”
Now, midway through his senior season, neither Bean nor DeLong have noticed a decline in production.
“He’s just as good. Andy has, in my mind, not lost a step,” said Delong.
Adds Bean: “I feel great. I can’t complain at all. I feel like I [am] just as good [as] last year. As far as my speed and my cutting ability, I feel like I’m just as good as I was last year, if not better.”
Bean’s recovery was on full display in week two when Springfield traveled to Bangor, Maine to play Husson University. As Bean took a carry to the outside, he dipped inside the blocker before cutting outside again, and sprinted headlong towards the end zone.
As he dove for the pylon a split second before the defender arrived, scoring his first touchdown since he returned from surgery, it was all too clear that Andy Bean was back.