Tearing an ACL can feel like a football player’s worst nightmare.
All that blood, sweat and tears you put into your game are gone in an instant. Now you’re sidelined for months and forced to start back at square one. But a torn ACL isn’t the end of the world—in fact, a number of players have been able to come back and have career-best seasons immediately following their ACL reconstruction. It doesn’t happen often, but these players are living proof that a torn ACL doesn’t mean you can’t come back better than ever. The stories of their rehab often share a common thread—they didn’t see a torn ACL as the end of the road. Rather, they saw it as an opportunity to rebuild their bodies and minds and come back refreshed and rebuilt.
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To help us understand why these players recovered so well, we enlisted the help of physical therapist Derek Samuel, MPT. Samuel operates a clinic inside the La Jolla Sports Club in La Jolla, California, where he’s helped hundreds of high-level athletes (such as Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer) come back strong after ACL injuries.
1. Carson Palmer’s Torn ACL Led To His Best Season Ever
When Carson Palmer tore his left ACL for the second time in 8 years during the 2014 NFL season, many fans couldn’t help but wonder if it was the end of the road for him. After all, Palmer was 34 years old. Could he really come back and be an effective quarterback? Palmer said he “cried like a baby” after the non-contact injury, but once he got over the initial shock, he locked in on what he needed to do to come back stronger than ever.
Samuel, who worked with Palmer closely through his rehab process, says he’s never seen a better patient. “Carson Palmer is the ultimate patient. In my 20 years, I’ve never seen someone work so hard. Why did Carson do so well? Well, the rehab was right up his alley. He’s so detail-oriented. He’s so meticulous. He’s such an absolute addict to the process and to working for self betterment and growth, that this [injury] fell into his lap at a time where he was highly motivated,” Samuel said. “He wouldn’t just go through a lift. He’d want to understand why the lift is important, what he should be feeling during the lift, and then after each exercise, he’d give me feedback. He was so emotionally invested in the process—not just the outcome, the process. In my experience, the guys who do very well [post ACL reconstruction] are emotionally invested in the process. They succumb to it, they embrace it.”
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We profiled Palmer during his recovery, and he admitted that the long rehab process was far from easy. But being mentally tough enough to remain motivated throughout all the monotony of rehab was his secret to success. “You have to be ready to attack every day,” Palmer told STACK. “You have to be ready to be mad, and bored, and sick of doing the same thing every day. You just have to know that is what the situation is going to be, and get through it.”
The injury also gave Palmer a chance to strengthen his hips—something he’d never really focused on before. Samuel said, “Carson never fired his hips in the way he did during his rehab. He didn’t work on internal rotation range of motion, or his external rotation strength, in the way he did after his second ACL reconstruction. His hips were on point when he went into that season, and I think it made a huge contribution to why he had a successful season.”
The next season, Palmer set new career highs in passing yards (4,671), touchdowns (35), yards per completion (8.70) and passer rating (104.6) en route to a second-team All-Pro selection and NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
2. Jason Kelce Become The NFL’s Best Center After His Torn ACL
Jason Kelce’s first serious football injury didn’t come until his second year in the NFL. While Kelce was blocking on a run play during a game against the Baltimore Ravens, a player collided into his right knee, tearing his MCL and ACL.
Not being out on the field with his teammates left Kelce feeling helpless, but he brought the right mindset to his rehab. He was determined to approach rehab with the same tenacity and attention to detail that he brought to his game preparation.
“My mindset was that the rehab would replace my football season. That had better be your mindset, otherwise it’s going to be a very difficult rehab,” Kelce told PhiladelphiaEagles.com. “It was nine months of a lot of frustrating work, especially early on, and then a lot of gratifying results toward the end of it.”
The frustrations are to be expected, but Kelce’s patience paid dividends. According to Samuel, rehabbing after ACL reconstruction is an up-and-down process. “Even for elite high level athletes, it’s always two steps forward and one step back. That’s very normal,” Samuel said. “Don’t be impatient, don’t try too much too soon. [That can] create swelling in the knee, which creates an inoptimal environment for tissue healing.”
In addition to his diligent rehab, Kelce used the time to bulk up his upper body. “Having a full year to dedicate in the weight room to my upper body was beneficial,” Kelce said.
The next season, Kelce started all 16 games and helped the Eagles reach the playoffs. Pro Football Focus graded him as the best center in the NFL that season. He’s since been named to two Pro Bowls (2014, 2016).
3. Chris Harris Jr. Bounced Back and Became an All-Pro Corner
In many ways, Chris Harris Jr.’s torn ACL couldn’t have come at a worse time.
He had gone from being an undrafted rookie free agent in 2011 to a starting cornerback for the Denver Broncos. While he hadn’t yet garnered any big accolades, he was slowly gaining respect as one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL. But during the Broncos’ 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, his rise was abruptly cut short by a torn ACL. Following the season, he received no recognition from the NFL—no All-Pro, no Pro Bowl, nothing.
It was a brutal string of disappointments, but Harris responded the only way he knew how—with hard work. “I just knew I had to come back and have a breakout season,” Harris told STACK.
Harris never missed a single treatment. He saw the rehab as a chance to rebuild his running form and eliminate any bad mechanics that had crept into his movements. ”When you tear your ACL, you kind of have to reteach the whole leg how to work,” Harris said. “I kind of re-taught myself how to run, how to fix my mechanics and the fundamentals of running. Little things like that. Now I feel faster and quicker. [I worked] on having fast feet, good strides, drive—anything I could to get faster.”
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According to Samuel, Harris’s approach of fixing long-existing flaws during rehab is the best way to take advantage of the process. It’s not often that elite athletes get the chance to take a step back and start from square one.
“It’s a wonderful back-to-the-drawing board opportunity. I know if I have a patient for the next 6 to 9 months, I’m gonna be able to rebuild an absolute machine,” Samuel said. “To be able to retool and rebuild these structures, it’s an opportunity for the athlete to come back in a way that’s going to be more efficient and more effective.”
Harris returned to have a spectacular 2014 season en route to his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections. In December of 2014, he signed a 5-year, $42.5 million contract extension with Denver.
4. John Ross Came Back a Monster After His Torn ACL
John Ross came to the University of Washington as a four-star recruit with a reputation for supersonic speed. During the first two seasons of his college career, he bounced between receiver and cornerback, flashing brilliance at both positions but feeling frustrated by his sporadic usage. He envisioned himself as a star wide receiver, not a utility man.
During a spring ball practice his sophomore year, Ross tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee. Though he could potentially have come back and played in the latter half of his 2015 junior season, he decided it would be best to take a medical redshirt and miss the entire year. According to Samuel, Ross’s decision not to rush back was wise.
“My industry likes slow and steady. The guys who’re trying to set records [for how quickly they return after ACL reconstruction], there’s always a problem down the road—patellar tendonitis or they’re dealing with some sort of kinematic sequence issue. I hate that. Slow and steady; we’re not trying to set records,” Samuel said.
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The injury was heartbreaking for Ross, but he quickly focused on the task at hand. He was diligent and meticulous in his rehab, never missing a single treatment. While he rebuilt his body, he also strived to improve his football IQ. He re-watched film of himself from previous seasons, noting what he could’ve done better. He noticed that defensive backs often played off of him, because his only real weapon was his speed. When they took that away from him, he was largely ineffective. The experience helped Ross learn that he’d have to become a total receiver if he wanted to reach his full potential. He shadowed his receivers coach at every practice, taking mental reps and soaking in everything he could.
Once he was able to return to training, he headed to the field at dawn so he could run through cone drills. When he was cleared to participate in spring ball practice, he continued to put in extra work either after practice or on off days. “I would set up cones on off days and after practices and do stuff by myself until I was tired.,” Ross said. “I’d get sore, but I felt like if I wanted to reach my maximum potential, then that’s what I had to do.”
Ross went on to have a spectacular redshirt junior season, recording 1,150 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Prior to that season, he’d totaled 579 receiving yards and five touchdowns over his entire college career. Ross went on to run a record-setting 4.22 40-Yard Dash at the NFL Combine before being drafted 9th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2017 NFL Draft. “It turns out,” Ross told The MMQB, “[tearing my ACL was] the best thing that ever happened to me.”
5. Jeremy Maclin’s First 1,000-Yard Season Came Post-ACL Tear
Heading into the 2013 offseason, Jeremy Maclin was the Philadelphia Eagles’ top receiver. He’d just wrapped up a 2012 campaign in which he snagged 69 receptions for 857 yards and 7 touchdowns. Eagles fans were understandably distraught, then, when Maclin suffered a non-contact ACL injury during summer training camp. The injury forced him to miss the entire 2013 season.
Though he was disappointed, Maclin was determined to prove his career trajectory was still on the rise. He wanted to come back stronger, faster and better after the injury. “I’m going to rehab and get stronger and be better than I was before,” Maclin told PhiladelphiaEagles.com.
That’s a smart approach to take—especially for a player who suffers a non-contact ACL tear. Roughly 70 percent of all ACL tears are of the non-contact variety, and Samuel believes that an athlete who suffers one should understand it might’ve been preventable. “[A lot of athletes] want to get back to who they were, but who you were suffered a non-contact ACL injury. Who you were didn’t work, or you wouldn’t be in my office with a non-contact ACL injury. You don’t want to get back to who you were, you want to get back to who you weren’t,” Samuel said. “You want to get back to a guy who does have the hip strength, who does have the core stability, who has all the things they didn’t have when this thing failed.”
After a long rehab, Maclin returned feeling better than ever. “I feel faster,” Maclin told Philly.com prior to the 2014 season. “I feel more fresh, more physically strong. I just think you put so much hard work into your rehab process that that’s kind of what happens. You get that leg back. You build that leg back stronger.”
Maclin went on to have a spectacular 2014, recording new career highs in receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,318). Perhaps most impressive was the fact Maclin played 1,031 total snaps that season, the third-most of any NFL wide receiver.
Photo Credits: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images, Corey Perrine/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images, Gregory Shamus/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images, Andy Lyons/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images, Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images Sport/Getty Images