Trashing Your Knee Sucks, But War Bear Will Be Back

I didn’t have any milk or a spoon, but I felt like a bowl of Rice Krispies all the same. It was the summer of 1996 and I was playing basketball at one of the twice-weekly open gym sessions at my high school. Having been cut from the team the previous year, I was hoping to impress the coaches enough to get another shot as a senior.

I was feeling pretty good about it too, as the loss of a few pounds of pesky subcutaneous fat had given me a quicker first step. And the pain of being passed over for younger, more aggressive players had left me with a chucker’s mentality that would eventually earn me the nickname “Trigger” and draw the ire of a friend or three.

But I never ended up playing high school basketball again. Hog saw to that. Yes, I knew a guy named Hog; he was the team manager. Nice kid, not much of a ballplayer. I drove left when Hog, unable to stay in front of me, sort of hip-checked me as I stepped by. My left foot planted as the rest of my body rotated back and to the left. Back and to the left.

Snap. Crackle. Pop.

I was actually  —  stupidly  —  back on the floor within a couple weeks, confident that a family doctor’s diagnosis of patellar tendinitis and a prescription of 800mg ibuprofen would make things all better. I even played a full season of varsity tennis that fall, agonizing as the unstable joint betrayed me more than once.

It would be another two and a half years before I would undergo ACL reconstruction. My orthopedist diagnosed the real issue without the help of an MRI, just grasped my leg above and below the knee and felt the lack of lateral stability. Nice, huh? At least I didn’t have tens of thousands of fans refreshing their Twitter feed to learn my fate.

I had been trying not to think about it, but the more I saw it the more difficult it became to believe Kyle Schwarber hadn’t suffered something far worse than a sprained ankle. It was the writhing that did it. I’ve seen that pain. I’ve had that pain. Finding out that everyone’s worst fears had been realized had me experiencing psychosomatic discomfort in my own left knee.

War Bear doesn’t quite share my anonymity, but he did suffer the same injury. Well, sort of. He actually tore both the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee in what was described as a football-type injury. Rather than being twisted around, it looked as though his knee had been torqued outward when his ankle was rolled up under Dexter Fowler. Inertia is a nasty SOB.

Speaking of, please allow me to provide your hourly reminder that this whole thing is not to be pinned on either Fowler or on Schwarber’s lack of experience. The latter scorching hot take has already been espoused by several prominent sports voices, which has got me red-assed and itching for a fight. There seems to be this pervasive idea that no veteran has ever been involved in a collision. To quote a friend, “Every human has an innate, ferocious desire to run into other humans full tilt. Only seventeen years of playing in MiLB OFs helps curb that.” Anyway, back to the story.

It’s awful that this injury happened at all, but at least the timing allows for what should be a full recovery in time for next season. The ACL, which is located in the center of the knee and is responsible for rotation and forward motion of the tibia, is the most commonly injured knee ligament. The LCL provides stability to the outer knee and is generally damaged by a blow to that area, hence the classification of Schwarber’s injury as “football-type.”

Knee reconstruction involves replacing the damaged ligament with a piece of healthy tendon, which can come from either the kneecap or hamstring. That tendon graft can come from the injured person (autograft) or from a cadaver (allograft). The graft is then passed through bone tunnels and attached using screws. And Schwarber gets to double down. Fun, huh?

It sounds like pretty raw business and I can tell you from experience that recovery can be more painful than the injury itself. But as long as War Bear keeps up on his painkillers and doesn’t accidentally put weight on the knee two days post-op, he’ll be fine. In some cases, an athlete can return to the field in as little as four months, but that’s a very optimistic timeline and one that probably doesn’t apply in this case.

Even the generally accepted six-month time frame for ACL or LCL recovery would put Schwarber’s return somewhere around early October. And that’s just if it was an either/or situation. Given that we’re talking about two of his four knee ligaments — medial collateral and posterior collateral are the others — and quite a long time away from the game, there’s no hope for a return in 2016. If anyone could make it back early it’s War Bear, but the Cubs aren’t about to risk anything with their young star.

I wrote in an earlier piece that this team is well equipped to handle the loss of Schwarber, inasmuch as you can be when you lose a de facto superhero. And while they can’t completely make up for what he brings to the dish, I can’t help but think that this might help to galvanize the roster even further. Yeah, the whole win-one-for-the-Gipper thing is kinda cheesy, but it’s stuck in my meatball brain just the same.

We can worry about that whole feelsy narrative when we get to the playoffs though. For now, my thoughts go out to War Bear as he takes the first steps on his road to recovery. Well, he won’t actually be taking any steps at all for a while, but you know what I mean. And with the help of some great doctors and a top-notch training staff, he’ll be ready to go when the Cubs begin their title defense in 2017.

Yeah, I said it.

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