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August 23, 2007

Dreaded ACL tears no longer career-ending

During his rehabilitation process after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Kansas State forward Bill Walker found inspiration from an athlete in a different sport.

"There were people saying (Baltimore Ravens running back) Willis McGahee might not walk without help, and look at him now," Walker told Rivals.com. "He was a lot worse off than me, so I never worried about myself at all."

McGahee suffered a gruesome injury while playing for the University of Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, tearing three ligaments (including an ACL) in his left knee. After sitting out for more than a full year, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons for the Buffalo Bills in 2004 and 2005.

Walker, who played in just six games before tearing his ACL as a freshman last season, didn't need to search that far to find that kind of success story. The former five-star recruit could have found similar happy endings among his peers.

Rivals.com took a look at six of the top college basketball players who tore ACLs over the last three seasons Cal's Leon Powe, Carl Landry and David Teague of Purdue, Maryland's D.J. Strawberry, Nevada's Marcelus Kemp (the only one still in college) and Villanova's Curtis Sumpter and found that each averaged more points per game in the season after his injury than in the one prior.

Teague and Landry carried the Boilermakers to the 2007 NCAA Tournament after each sat out the previous season with ACL tears.

Their stats were nearly identical to their 2004-05 seasons. Landry averaged 18.9 points and 7.3 rebounds a game, compared to 18.2 and 7.1. Teague averaged 14.3 points and 5.0 rebounds a game, compared to 14.0 and 5.5.

"Once we know it's an ACL tear, we can be fairly confident that in 4-6 months you'll be doing what you want," Purdue trainer Jeff Stein said. "In two years, you'll be doing it just as good, if not better than before. This is not a career-ending injury. It's just a bump in the road."

Powe might be the best example of that. Powe suffered a second ACL tear (his first came in high school) after a freshman season in which he led the Pac-10 in rebounding (9.5 rpg). After sitting out all of 2004-05, he came back to average a double-double, 20.5 ppg and 10.1 rpg.

Cal strength and conditioning coach Mike Blasquez, who worked with Powe during his rehabilitation process, wasn't surprised with the improvement.

"The most important piece is the surgery, and with more and more of these procedures being done the surgeons are getting better and better," Blasquez said. "I think you are only going to see it get better and better."

Maryland trainer J.J. Bush, who is entering his 35th year at the school, agrees. Bush oversaw the recovery of Strawberry, who tore his ACL midway through his sophomore season. Strawberry emerged as one of the ACC's top players as a senior, averaging 14.9 ppg.

"I fully expect (athletes with ACL tears) to come back," Bush said. "Now, I get surprised when they don't.

Bouncing Back
What type of production can we expect from Kansas State's Bill Walker, who is recovering from an ACL tear, in 2007-08? Recent history tells us just as good, if not better, than before his injury. Here's a look at how six top college players over the past couple of years fared in the season before or during their ACL tear, along with how they did in their first season back in action.
Player PPG before PPG After
Leon Powe, Cal 15.1 20.5
D.J. Strawberry, Maryland 7.1 10.3
Marcelus Kemp, Nevada 4.6 15.0
Carl Landry, Purdue 18.2 18.9
David Teague, Purdue 14.0 14.3
Curtis Sumpter, Villanova 15.3 17.4
"I think the main reason is the surgeons have gotten better. Twenty five to 30 years ago we probably missed them because we didn't have the benefit of an MRI to diagnose. Also, practice makes perfect, and doctors are very good with sharing knowledge with one another."

Trainers are also wary of athletes viewing surgery as a complete fix. Dedicating themselves to physical rehabilitation afterward and taking other specific steps to prevent further injuries are critical elements for players to focus on after the procedure.

"You've got to be able to trust your trainer and devote the time," Stein said. "You've got to go to rehab two times a day. David and Carl both worked really hard and continued to do the little things after they got back, like icing down their knees after every practice. They took care of their bodies."

Walker, who underwent surgery in mid-January, spent much of his summer in K-State's training facilities. For the last four months, Walker has done some sort of daily rehab, from riding a stationary bike to sliding on mats to going through range-of-motion exercises.

Walker, who is one of the most explosive players in college basketball, is convinced it all paid off for him.

"I'd say I'm back to 100 percent," Walker said. "My running and jumping is back to normal. (The knee) came back slowly, and I just steadily got my explosiveness and my quickness back."

Walker won't be using on-court production as a barometer of whether he has fully recovered. With K-State bringing in the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class - highlighted by Rivals.com's No. 1 prospect Michael Beasley - he has his sights set on a lofty team goal.

"I'm not a stat guy," Walker said. "That doesn't matter to me. The only thing I want is a national championship. We can be as good as we want to be. The only thing that can hold us back is us."

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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