DeMarcus Ware, a veteran defensive end recently signed by the Denver Broncos, knows a thing or two about sacking quarterbacks, having led the NFL in sacks in 2008 and 2010.
He also knows a few things about overcoming injuries.
While the former is no easy task, it’s the latter that takes a lot more mental toughness.
As a starter for the Dallas Cowboys for nine seasons, Ware was on/off the injured reserve list for a handful of injuries, including elbow, shoulder and hamstring.
But it was a neck injury in 2009 that actually worried the 6’4” 250-pound pass-rusher who slammed headfirst into another player. He fell limp, unable to move his legs.
“I couldn’t fathom myself never playing football again,” Ware recalled in an interview with Mile High Report. “You never think about being that guy – a player carted off the field. And I was that guy, so that was my rude awakening.”
Ware was far luckier than most – and he knows it. Not only did he regain feeling in his legs, he returned to the playing field a week later.
The seven-time Pro-Bowler is now with a new team but in the familiar position of doing rehab after an injury. But the memory of his neck injury reminds him every day how lucky he is to both be alive and still be playing professional football.
“It was almost a career-ending injury for me,” Ware said. “But some things happen in life and make you realize how blessed you are.”
Many athletes at any level aren’t lucky enough to return to their sport at all, much less return strong enough to be competitive.
And this realization is tough to accept – especially for athletes who can’t breathe without being competitive.
“Psychologically I was almost defeated,” recalled Tom Barry, a standout center fielder for the University of San Francisco.
On pace for a Minor League contract in 2010, Barry showed promise for turning baseball into a career for at least a few years.
But a second cartilage tear in the same knee meant those pro scouts wouldn’t be calling.
Although Barry was able to play his senior year, it wasn’t the same.
“I never was truly as good as I was before the injury,” says the Chicago native. “It was extremely frustrating. I did everything I was asked to do and then some. I was very depressed for a long period of time.”
For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world.
“Some days I sit and just wonder what could have happened if I never got injured,” says Barry who works for a logistics firm now. “How much different my career would have been.”
Donovan Rider, a seven-time member of the USA National Taekwondo team, blew out his knee during the third-round match of the 2012 Taekwondo Olympic Trials in Colorado Springs.
“My immediate reaction was anger toward myself, God and everyone. I felt I had come so far in my career, finally achieved a life-long dream of making the U.S. Olympic team only to have this happen,” Rider said. “I felt that life was playing a cruel trick on me.”
Diana Lattimore, a sports psychology consultant with Back in the Game, says depression and anger are very common traits among athletes recovering from injury.
“Their entire world has been flipped upside down,” says Lattimore, also a professor at University of San Francisco. “They are usually motivated initially but after months of rehab, it gets hard. Their team has gone on without them and the athlete is left to continue the fight alone.”
Fans never notice the monumental effort it takes an athlete to return to competition – to overcome depression, fear, anxiety, not to mention pain – just to get back to playing, much less competing for the top spot.
“We may briefly witness the anguish that high-profile college or professional athletes go through after suffering a season-ending or even career-ending injury,” Lattimore says. “But moments later, we are just paying attention to the players on the field.”
And you can bet injured athletes know this. Their biggest fear is becoming irrelevant in their world as they are shut off from the sport they love and the competition they crave.
“Once my injury kept getting worse, I became scared, anxious, angry, and I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that I wasn’t good enough anymore,” says Haley Nemra, a two-time Olympian in the 800 meter sprint for the Marshall Islands national track team.
Having been through various treatments and numerous doctor visits, Nemra found herself relieved at getting a definitive diagnosis but depressed over the news of surgery for bone spurs on her Achilles tendon.
“I was emotionally and physically exhausted,” she remembers. “I was nervous about the surgery, disappointed in how long it would take to recover and insecure about not knowing if I would be the same runner. It horrified me.”
For Sho Nakamori, a gymnast on Stanford’s 2009 National Championship team, the six-month rehab for a torn ACL was a lot easier than the psychological trauma that came with the injury.
“I felt disappointment and a constant fear of falling behind my teammates,” said Nakamori, who trained to compete in the 2012 Olympic Trials.
After his knee was back to full strength, the Olympic hopeful had no trouble working out but competing was problematic. “I was afraid of getting hurt again,” he said.
Working with a sports psych consultant, Nakamori eventually learned to quell his fear by focusing only on what he could control.
“I just took it day by day,” Nakamori said, noting that ultimately the recovery process had a very positive effect on his entire life, not just competition. “I learned I could overcome odds and come back regardless of any situation. But it takes planning and a positive attitude.”
Anxiety and fear are not uncommon when trying to get back on the playing field. Unfortunately, fear of re-injury often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because athletes hold back and don’t play smart.
Lattimore noted that mental imagery, goal setting, focusing on what an athlete can control and positive self talk are among the best tools for achieving a healthy state of mind – whether returning to competition or not.
“The reality is that getting back to competition is hard, and few athletes have the inner strength to do both the physical and mental rehab required every day for many months,” she said.
Keith Eldred, a professional acrobat with the Bud Light Daredevils in the late 80s and early 90s, busted his knee during the half time show of a Final Four game. Learning he would have to have surgery was “one of the most devastating pieces of information I could have heard.”
Not only had he lost his athletic outlet and social identity but also his livelihood, which led to a breakdown in his professional and personal relationships.
“It was like having someone close to you die,” he said. “Because my whole life had revolved around athletics.”
Heather Sharp Gringosso, a gymnast at Southeast Missouri State in the mid-90s, had a similar reaction to news that she had suffered the “unhappy triad” – a tear of the ACL, MCL and meniscus.
“It hit me hard. All I lived for was gymnastics. I could not imagine having to go through surgery and rehab to try to come back to a sport I loved so much,” she said.
Gringosso ended up quitting gymnastics altogether – a common side effect that comes with the depressive state following a major injury.
“It’s not that an athlete couldn’t return to full strength or that he or she doesn’t try to, but so many pieces have to be in place for a successful return,” Lattimore says. This includes a knowledgeable medical team, a support network of family, friends and teammates, encouraging coaches and someone to be a sounding board.
Although Barry still wishes he had been able to get back to the same form before his injury, he returned in good enough condition to compete and still enjoy the game.
Which, he believes, was a really good second option.
“It was extremely frustrating that I could never get back to playing 100 percent, but I had a few great teammates I could lean on and a consultant to help me deal with issues,” Barry said. “The best advice I could give is just to battle every day. It won’t be easy but it will work itself out.”
Like Barry, Rider has come to terms with his injury.
Now a coach of his own Taekwondo school in Charleston, S.C., Rider has found solace in helping young athletes aim for the highest level.
“I was a very humbled athlete after my injury,” Rider said. “And I’ll always question if retiring was the right thing. Some days it feels right and some days I wish I were still out there chasing the dream. But when one of my athletes reaches the top, I’ll be just as happy for them as I would have been for myself.”
Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann is a journalism professor at the College of Charleston who also regularly contributes to the Mile High Report, mostly so she can put her personal Denver Bronco fandom to professional use.
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