What Tearing up my Knee Taught Me About Life

I remember sitting in a conference room in a random Best Western hotel somewhere outside of Portland, Oregon. The scratchy, fabric chairs were arranged in rows before a lectern. The team lounged around, listening to coaches review the game plan before heading to our rooms for bed check. Jeff Olson, our head coach, was talking to the whole team in our weekly Friday night meeting before the game.

I was excited to play against Lewis and Clark the next day. I was daydreaming about the game when suddenly, Coach Olson’s words snapped my attention to him:

“I look at Nathan White here, making his first travel squad in his career, after limping around campus for the last year. It has been a long journey for him, but I’m glad to see him here.”

I felt my ears burn with the heat of embarrassment. But they burned with the heat of something else — something more important and more visceral. They burned with the pride of accomplishing something and being recognized for it and I was forced to consider where I was a year ago — crutching around campus, ready to quit college and head home.

Nate Hamilton was a senior All Conference wide receiver. I was a freshman defensive back in my first college contact football practice. Nate was 6’4″ and outweighed me by 30 pounds. As I stepped to the front of the line of DBs waiting for their rep, I vowed to make the most of my first college opportunity. I was not going to puss out in my first college practice rep. If anything, I was going to err on the side of being too aggressive. I was going to hit him harder than he expected me to; harder than I thought I could.

I remember coming downhill aggressively at Nate — in retrospect, too aggressively. As I attacked his chest plate with my hands, I remember a moment of confusion. I must have closed my eyes before impact because I remember a brief moment of clarity when I opened them and saw nothing — no Nate, no number 9 white practice jersey — absolutely nothing.

Right about when I started being confused why there was nothing in my sight picture, I figured out why. Nate had cut me — basically, he saw how hard I was coming up at him and used my aggression against me. He threw his body low across my knees.

Just as my brain figured out my body was being cut, my right knee bent backward. It tore almost all my meniscus cartilage and my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). Nate’s body, throwing a legal block in a live blocking drill, had caught my right knee while my cleats were firmly planted in the ground. My knee had tried to bend backward, exactly the way it ISN’T designed to work.

Since then, I have unfortunately seen several athletes I coach or coach against tear their ACLs. I always know it when I see it. There is a moment of white-hot lightning that goes down the exact middle of the knee that is unbearable. It is the most pain most athletes have ever felt for about five minutes. It is a white-hot, indescribable pain that exemplifies the color white — intense, burning, all-encompassing pain.

After five minutes, this remarkable symptom disappears — all the pain goes away. I remember laying on my back, on the practice field grass behind the visitor bleachers of Raider Stadium, staring at those bleachers to numb the pain, when, suddenly, my knee stopped hurting.

I looked at our trainer. “I think I’m wrong. It feels all better; I think I can play.”

I remember Phil Pifer looking at me and shaking his head. This wasn’t his first torn-up knee and he knew what was ahead of me. As I tried to stand up and my knee wobbled out from under me, I knew.

A few weeks after the injury, after the MRI, after meeting the team doctor, after the surgery, I found out what college football was really about. I was living in a fourth-floor dorm room in Greensprings B with a bunch of other freshman football players. Every day, they went to practice and I went to rehab. They had three practices a day and I had about 45 minutes to an hour of rehab.

“This really sucks,” I can remember muttering to myself many times. I had a ton of dead time when everybody else was at practice. Since I was a freshman, I did not know anybody, much less have any friends on the team.

College classes did not start for another month, so nobody else lived in the dorms. The elevators were turned off. There was no Internet. I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t have a TV or a Playstation. This was the mid-90’s and well before most of the time wasters we are used to in 2020. I was down. I was depressed. I was devastated. I didn’t know how to fill the time in front of me.

Every day, I would crutch down four flights of stairs to catch a ride to the Student Union, where we ate. Then, I would bum a ride to the football facility where the trainer’s room was located. I think I must have blocked a lot of the rehab from my mind for self-preservation. I know it hurt and it made me feel weak. I know it scared me because I didn’t see how I could ever play football again with that destroyed knee.

After rehab, I would crutch back up the hill, up four flights of stairs, and to my dorm room.

Every day, my roommates would come back after lunch and hang around for an hour or so. Then, they would go back to practice.

Every day, I would crutch down four flights of stairs again and up another hill to eat dinner. I would get a ride back to the dorms after, crutch back up four flights of stairs to hang out with my roommates before evening meetings, and then we would go to bed early to do it all over again.

I had at least three more weeks of this schedule. I was a freshman in college who had never been injured and not able to play football. I was in emotional agony. My mind started to scare me, saying “I’m not cut out for this. I should have never come here. I need to go home.” All I wanted was to go home, back to my cocoon of comfort from high school.

I decided to quit and go home. I was never going to overcome this — being hurt, feeling isolated, laying in my dorm room all by myself, writing in journals, and reading whatever magazines I could get my hands on. I wanted to drop out of college before I even started. I remember deciding I was quitting and going home. I got up one morning and said “This is it. I’m packing my stuff and heading home.”

Except I didn’t quit.

I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t. I wish I could remember some awesome pep talk that focused me and set my intentions on success. I can’t.

I know that my coaches, teammates, and athletic trainers were all awesome. Everybody at Southern Oregon was positive and good to work with and helpful during my recovery. I felt supported and encouraged along the way; I just can’t remember any specific talk or reason. It was all generally good.

I know that my mom and dad were supportive and didn’t want me to come home. I know I called a few times and I know they knew I was down. They counseled me to hang in there, even if I can’t remember one specific “don’t quit” talk.

Eventually school started, and then the Fall term was over, and then it was Christmas, and soon, it was Spring Ball and I was cleared to play football again. I know it wasn’t this simple, but looking back, it kind of was. I don’t remember exactly how I got through it. I just ended up somewhere that was better.

I guess I just took it day by day, and soon a week had gone by. And then it was a month. And soon I was six months out of surgery and cleared to run. And the weight room. Always the weight room, following the trainer’s workouts to get my leg stronger. I fell in love with the weight room in high school and college strengthened that relationship. Even today, 25 years later, I still visit the weight room every morning before work. It has been the longest relationship in my life, and it was reinforced that year working through my knee surgery.

A few years ago, my step-daughter broke her arm and needed surgery to put a steel plate and screws in it. Her surgeon said one of the most mind-blowingly, simple statements I have ever heard that reminded me of my journey. Sydney was upset about this surgery and very emotional.

He simply looked at her and stated, “Look. This is a big deal right now. But in a couple of years, you will look back on this and it will just be something that happened. You’ll say ‘Oh yeah, that time I broke my arm and had surgery.’ Right now, it seems like the biggest thing you’ve ever gone through. Later, it won’t.”

“Right now, it seems like the biggest thing you’ve ever gone through. Later, it won’t.”

That’s how it was after I made it through that one tough month in the dorms. The rehab sucked, the crutching up and down the stairs sucked, the loneliness and isolation sucked, and then it didn’t. After a while, my knee was something that just happened. It was a part of my past, not the biggest part of my present. And as I look back on it, it made me who I am in a lot of ways, both professionally and personally. I owe a lot of who I am to that knee injury and the months after. It taught me how to struggle, how to hurt, how to set goals, and how to overcome.

And before I knew it, I was sitting in a hotel conference room, hearing Coach Olson say my name. I knew that I had overcome and persevered through something. I knew that it was something that might have made other people quit. I knew that it was something that happened, that had made me who I am, and had led me to the night before playing in my first college football game.

I knew that I had learned a lesson in grit, in perseverance, in work ethic, and in toughness. I was blessed to tear up my knee my freshman year in college, even though it did not seem like it at the time.

Written by: Nathan White