By: Clayton Dobry
His teammates love him, his coaches adore him, but his insurance company despises him. Zachary Shaeffer is an extraordinary athlete and soccer player, who proudly wears the number 32 jersey for Christopher Newport University’s men’s soccer team, was born with a curse; he was born with a glass knee. Injuries have prevented him from playing for a majority of his collegiate career at Christopher Newport University but this season marks the end of his athletic career. He’s reached the end of his soccer career not only because he is a graduating senior, but mostly because he’s torn his ACL for the third time since high school. What’s even more remarkable than the fact that he has torn his ACL numerous times is that this is just one injury among a plethora of others spread out over his high school and collegiate career which include: numerous ankle sprains, a hip displacement, a broken leg, multiple cases of tendentious, two torn meniscus’s, three torn ACL’s, a partially torn PCL and LCL, and a bone bruise. Recovering from severe injuries such as these is no easy task.
With each sports injury comes the monotonous process of undergoing physical therapy. Zach is well versed in the rehabilitation process and could probably have a minor in sports medicine with the amount of physical therapy he’s undergone. Physical therapy is unique to the injury at hand “all three of my physical therapies were very different both physically and mentally”. “Physically they were different, because my body reacted differently every time from the injury and the way they reconstructed my ACL”. Personally I have never had to go to physical therapy, even when I had a spinal fusion where I had two metal rods and 18 screws placed in my back, but I’ll take Zach’s word that going through physical therapy is no quick, easy, or pain-free task. Zach explained that his physical therapy sessions involved a lot of strength training because his body needed to regain the strength in the muscles that have been torn or damaged “after surgery your knee gets stuck and through therapy you have to break through the scar tissue”. Zach explained that his first round of formal physical therapy (for a torn ACL and meniscus) lasted six months and after nine months he was cleared to play again “Mentally, the first physical therapy was tough, because I could not play soccer, and that was a large part of my life. It also really sucked, because I had never been exposed to that type of pain or recovery. I was mainly just working my ass off to get back to soccer”. His second round of formal therapy was very similar to the first round but yielded the same results “The second therapy was similar to the first because it was basically the same physical therapy. I blew out my knee again 6 months after the first surgery, so I basically never got out of therapy and just continued working”. Even after two ACL tears accompanied by two rounds of physical therapy Zach’s passion for soccer could not be extinguished, but passion doesn’t prevent injuries. Once again Zach tore his ACL, but the third round of physical therapy was conducted through the school trainer as opposed to a formal site. “The third time was very different. I was the most disappointed at this one, because I knew my soccer career had basically come to an end, which was very hard to handle. I was told by two separate doctors, my coach, and my athletic trainer that I should call it quits. My mind set during my third physical therapy was weird. I still wanted to play soccer, but another part of my motivation to keep playing and work through physical therapy was that I wanted to prove everyone wrong”. While it seems to be a no brainer to the startling surprise of many players, just because you have finished a round of physical therapy and can play again doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, one of the many harsh realities of life.
Due to Zach’s numerous injuries it is bewildering as to why he continued to play all throughout high school and college. Throughout the entirety of his time as an injured player his coaches were very supportive “my coaches never pressured me to get back on the field before I was ready”. In fact it was the opposite, they wanted to protect him to make sure he was back to 100%. When an athlete is injured it is common to experience a loss in self-esteem because their identity as an athlete is damaged. Some athletes cling to the prestige that comes with the title of a varsity athlete “we had a freshman who no longer plays here but would go to parties and introduce himself as the starting freshman on the soccer team and tell girls his number and name…hilarious. So I’m sure that there are people out there who need the identity”. While some athletes require the need to identify as an athlete that was not the case with Zach. “I didn’t keep playing to be able to tell people that I play soccer at CNU. But I definitely did not want to lose playing soccer at a high level”. “The main reason, by far, to keep playing was just because of my love for the game. Part of it was to prove people wrong, but it was mainly just, because I didn’t want to lose the feeling of playing soccer”. Like many athletes Zach just wanted to get back onto the field but he wouldn’t be so lucky. “The first time I didn’t really understand that I was at more risk to tear it again and twenty minutes into my first practice back I blew both out again”. For Zach experiencing a series of significant injuries has been hard to cope with, but he is not the only one on the team who has experienced this. “Yes, another guy on the team has played for so long that his body is basically falling apart”. “One of the best players on the team doesn’t even practice during the toughest part of the season because he’s constantly pushing through the pain”. Even when not identifying as an athlete for the prestige when you’ve fancied yourself as an athlete for so long, which is a major part of your identity, when it is gone that part is gone forever and that is almost more difficult to deal with mentally than any injury.
While passion is what makes many athletes great it can also be their downfall, as is the case with Zach. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to not be able to do what you love anymore because of injuries incurred through an activity you are passionate about. While concussions are the most discussed injury within the industry of sports media, and arguably the most dangerous, muscle tears such as Zach’s ACL and meniscus should not be downplayed. “My passion for soccer has damaged my knees, long term. My doctor told me I already have arthritis, no cartilage on the back of my knee cap, and I will probably have to get my knee replaced before I am 35. My knee swells with minimal activity, although it is getting better as I continue to do physical therapy”. To me already having arthritis as well as having no cartilage on the back of the patella (kneecap) which both cause daily pain are not things that should be taken lightly. To top it all off Zach’s doctors have told him that he will most likely have to have his knee replaced by the time he is 35. While many college students complain about how they are getting so old at the mere age of 22, which is just a quarter of many people’s lifespans, suffering from severe injuries such as Zach’s especially at the age of 22 should not be taken lightly.
While Zachary Shaeffer and his endless scroll of sports injuries may be a rare occurrence within the NCAA, sports injuries in general are not. With advances in medicine and technology ACL tears are no longer career ending injuries but rather setbacks. While it may hurt ones pride to sit on the sidelines the future versions of themselves will be thanking them when they aren’t downing a bottle of Aleve a day.