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What My Knees Taught Me

Jimmy Fitzgerald | Dartmouth Football

When I say sports are my life, I’m not kidding. As a kid, I was playing sports year-round. Baseball, basketball, football, swimming, golf; you name it, I’ve probably played it. Growing up, my parents were extremely supportive of all of my athletic endeavors, and fostered a competitive household; as the youngest of three, I was always around my siblings sporting events, and I aspired to compete at their level.

But as time wore on, it became very clear that football was my calling. From the time of my first season as a sixth grader, starting as a quarterback and middle linebacker, I fell in love with the sport not just because of the gameplay, but because of the team bonding. There’s just nothing else in the world quite like it. But I learned early on how it can all go away in an instant.

It happened in training camp during my first high school season. As a freshman, I worked my tail off, and by the end of camp, I was starting at free safety. I was ecstatic to start, but even more so, I was receiving a lot of attention from older guys on the team, guys who I admired and looked up to. Their approval made me feel like an integral part of the team, and it boosted my confidence as a young athlete. But in the last week of camp, during a scrimmage, I squared up to make a tackle and hit the ball carrier at an awkward angle, with my right knee bearing the brunt of the collision.

I jogged off the field and passed all of the tests administered by our trainer, but sat out the rest of camp. Going into our first game, I got the starting nod. But during the walkthrough, I felt my right knee buckle. Immediately, I knew something was very wrong; it wasn’t until later that I found out I had torn my right ACL and medial meniscus. I was in shock. Everything seemed to be going my way, and it didn’t make any sense to me that it had to end before it started.

The injury itself hurt, but the most painful part was the season that followed.

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Remember the attention I’d been getting? The praise and validation from coaches, trainers, and most importantly, my teammates? That stopped the moment I made the cut that tore up my knee. I felt isolated, and frankly, I felt lost. A few weeks later, I had my ACL reconstructed using a patellar graft, and as I sat in my hospital bed that day, I made the decision that I was going to come back stronger than ever, even if it meant waking up every day at the crack of dawn for rehab.

The brief taste of starting on varsity was something I thought about every day, and I was willing to give anything in order to get back.

Flash forward a year.

I was nearing full recovery and started all nine games at quarterback for the varsity squad, and, after the season, I received a scholarship offer to play at the University of Illinois. I’ve always had dreams of football glory, but this was a tangible offer to continue my career at an elite level. Knowing I would need to focus all of my energy towards playing in college, I made the decision to focus solely on football. It wasn’t even a hard call; my passion for the game was undeniable, and I knew what I had to do. My desire to play beyond high school was all the motivation I needed to work endlessly at improving my craft, and as a junior, I had the season of a lifetime.

I was being heavily recruited by Michigan, North Carolina, and Notre Dame, and as a rising senior, I was selected as the preseason player of the year. Before the first game, I committed to playing for the University of Illinois. I had a head full of dreams; dreams of representing my school, my state, and playing for a stadium packed to the brim with fans. Needless to say, I threw myself into preparing to be the absolute best that I could possibly be. I worked night and day for my senior season, missing out on playing baseball and basketball in order to maximize my training. During the offseason, I even painted my room with whiteboard paint in order to draw offensive and defensive schemes in order to visualize our entire playbook every night before bed. I left no stone unturned in preparation for my senior season.

Our first game of the 2014 season was an absolute massacre. I carved up the defense for six total touchdowns, and I felt unstoppable. Everything was finally coming together for me.

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That is, until it wasn’t.

It all happened so fast. I dropped back on a passing play. I moved around the pocket, looking for an open man. And then it all came crashing down when a defensive lineman fell into my right knee. Can you guess what happened next?

Yep. Another torn ACL, and another missed season.

All of that time spend training, analyzing film, drawing up plays and schemes on my wall in the dead of night, it all lead to this. The following seven weeks were some of the most difficult times of my life because I had put an immense amount of work and value into my football career.

But the hardest part was coming to terms with the circumstance. My identity was intertwined with my football career, and I constantly thought about what could have been and why this had to happen to me. While my first knee recovery was fueled by my love for the game of football, my second recovery was fueled by the anger of missing my senior season. Throughout the early stages of the rehab on my second ACL reconstruction, a hamstring graft, I contemplated whether I should keep playing football. I loved the game, but I felt slighted by the hand I’d been dealt. It took some thinking, but I decided that I was not going to let my second injury define me, and with that, I matriculated to the University of Illinois.

That first season at Illinois was a whirlwind. The head coach that I had committed to was let go a week before the season, and our athletic director was also fired. Our interim coach was hired during the season by the new athletic director, but when that athletic director was dismissed, so went the new head coach, and in came another one. Needless to say, three coaching changes in twelve months and countless offensive scheme revisions was a lot to process and too much to deal with.

Due to this constant uncertainty, I decided to transfer to Dartmouth College to continue my football and academic career. I chose to go to Dartmouth due to the college’s academic prowess, athletic competitiveness, and strong leadership. When I transferred and began preseason camp for the 2017 season at Dartmouth, I was in the best physical shape of my life. My right knee was equally as strong as my left knee and I was as explosive as I’d ever been. My physical fitness became an obsession. From resistance training to nutrition, mental training to recovery, I was ready to maximize my God-given ability.

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As preseason camp came to an end, our team competed in a scrimmage against another team. On my first play, I pulled a zone read and ran for a touchdown. Finally, I was going to reap the rewards of my years of hard work. Due to an injury to our kicker, we elected to go for two. We called a flood concept that required me to roll out to the right as three receivers attempted to get open at different levels on the right side of the field. As I rolled out, I saw that nothing was open due to the defensive coverage, so I committed to running for the end zone. As I crossed into the end zone, a defensive player dove into my left leg as I simultaneously planted it into the ground. I got up, celebrated with my teammates and ran off the field, but as I got to the sidelines, I knew something wasn’t right in my left knee.

“My left knee feels really hot; will you check it out?”

The trainers looked at me like I was crazy because I had just run off the field after the play. Nobody seemed to think anything of the injury, however, almost as soon as the trainer touched my skin, he called for a cart to take me to the locker room. I ensured the trainer I was fine and asked if we could walk into the locker room for further conversation. When we got inside, the trainers told me they were worried about the structural ligaments in my left knee. I refused to believe that anything was seriously wrong, and prayed that I would be able to play the rest of the season. I just wouldn’t accept that it had happened again; to be frank with you, I just didn’t think I could accept it. But as I sat in the doctor’s office a few days later after an MRI, I had no choice. At the very moment the doctor told me the extent of my injury, I sunk to the lowest place I had ever been.

ACL. MCL. Medial meniscus. Lateral meniscus. Two surgeries.

When the doctor said those words, I sunk to the lowest place I’d ever been. The rest of the fall term at Dartmouth felt like a foggy nightmare; I was seeing a doctor for depression on a bi-weekly basis, and my grades, social life, athletic career and faith were all suffering greatly due to my knee injury. The hardest part about my third injury was trying to understand why it happened. Again, I was confident in how I had prepared and felt that my efforts didn’t match the results. After the season, I went home for Thanksgiving and had a long sit down with my parents about my future with football. And in December 2017, I decided that I was going to stop playing.

As I write this testimony, I am six months out of my fourth knee surgery. I am still heavily involved with the Dartmouth Football program as an undergraduate coach and film analyst. I attend every single workout, meeting and practice and am as committed to the team as I’ve ever been. I am heavily involved with several clubs on campus, performing at a high level academically, and contributing in a new role on the football team. I can honestly say that I am as fulfilled as I’ve ever been. The injuries may have robbed me of my playing career, but they could not rob me of my identity. My four knee surgeries have taught me so much more about life than I realized at the time I was going through them.

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As a 21-year-old, I can honestly say that I have experienced what it feels like to fail. I put my entire heart and soul into preparing and rehabbing in order to be the best player I could be, but it didn’t work out for me. Each time I was injured, I felt as though I was on the brink of success. The injuries taught me that not everything is in your control. I believe that life is more about how you approach and prepare for situations rather than how they end up. There are so many variables that go into every situation, whether it be in sports or life, that are out of our control. And that’s just life.

One thing I’ve learned from my injuries is that it is unreasonable to judge yourself on results. If you control your process of preparation, how you work, and your daily attitude, that is far more valuable long term than the stats in the record book or the score in the newspaper. My injuries have taught me to be grateful for every day I have. I never thought that the two-point conversion last season would be the last play of my career, but it was. You never know when an injury will occur, so go into each play like it’s your last. I know that sounds cliché and is an overused phrase, but when the phrase is your reality, you see things differently.

Even more so, I’ve learned that how you approach a problem says far more about your character than your statistical output. Work your hardest, leave everything on the field and be grateful for the opportunity to compete. It is okay to fail, it is okay to be frustrated; you are not alone. If you need help, ask for it. Throughout my injuries, I battled depression and anxiety; both are very real, and need to be treated as such.

I’m writing this today to share my experience as an athlete who’s been to hell and back with injuries with the hope that I can help anyone else in the same boat as I was. And even if you’re not an athlete, I hope you can still take something from my story.

Adversity is a part of sports, but also a part of life. How you approach adversity in your sport will set the foundation of how you approach adversity as a friend, teammate, parent and member of your community throughout the rest of your life. And most importantly, understand that you are more than your sport. You are your own person; you are unique and special.

No injury can ever take that away from you.

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