There’s a not-so-secret society inside the Arizona football locker room.
Jake Fischer, Jonathan McKnight, Jacob Arzouman, Lene Maiava, Jake Smith and Dan Pettinato are all card-carrying members. And this past spring, Austin Hill, fresh off one of the best seasons by a wide receiver in UA history, joined the group.
It’s “Club Torn ACL” — and it’s a bond players would rather not share.
“It’s not that much more prevalent than any other injury. It’s just you have to stop playing and get it fixed as soon as it happens,” said Randy Cohen, the UA’s head athletic trainer. “(With) the other injuries, you can usually get a guy through a season. Nobody notices it because they aren’t out. This one injury, once you suffer it, your season is over.
“You cannot play with it.”
Hill is the only UA player who is still an active member of the club. The junior wide receiver, who caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, tore the ACL in his left knee during spring drills.
Though he’s currently in the latter stages of his rehab, Hill told the Star he is still about five weeks away from being allowed to put cleats on. Hill said there is a “70-30 chance” he won’t be cleared to play at all this season.
“I wouldn’t say it’s not going to happen,” Hill said. “I may surprise some people. But the doctor and trainers know what’s best for me and I’m going to listen to what they tell me.”
Hill and Cohen took the Star through what the six-to-seven month rehab process is like.
Here’s an inside look:
Step 1: “Prehab”
The toughest part of the entire rehab process might be the very beginning.
Hill tore his ACL after making a catch in practice. Hill got tackled and “my foot just stuck in the ground,” he said. The Corona, Calif., native walked off the field on his own power. At first, Hill didn’t think the injury was serious.
MRI results showed otherwise: The team’s medical staff and coach Rich Rodriguez told Hill the ACL was completely torn.
“I’m not going to lie, it really hurt me; it devastated me,” Hill said. “I probably cried about it for 24 hours. I took the ‘Coach Rod’ 24-hour look at it. Just like after a win, you get 24 hours to enjoy it and then it’s on to the next. So I took about 24 hours with this, too.
“I didn’t tell my parents until about six hours after I found out because I was in a different state of mind.”
Hill quickly got his mind and began working with Cohen and the UA’s trainers. Before a player can have surgery to repair the ACL, they must undergo about four weeks of “prehab” to get it ready for surgery.
“Before you go into surgery, you want the knee to be as good as it can possibly be,” Cohen said. “If you go into surgery with a weak, swollen, stiff knee, that means you’re going to come out with a weak, swollen, stiff knee that hurts even more than it did before surgery.”
The work before surgery consists of walking, light jogging and exercises designed to help the flexibility and extension of the ACL.
“Basically, I had to be able to put my heel to my butt again,” Hill said.
Step 2: Starting over
For the majority of patients, the pre-surgery rehab takes about four weeks.
“You know they’re ready for surgery when they come to you and say, ‘I don’t think I need surgery,’” Cohen said.
“You can do most activities without an ACL. It’s the pivoting and twisting and planting that you can’t do without an ACL and that’s what football players do. They’re doing all the normal stuff and then they say they’re fine, they can go.
“When they get to that point, it’s time for surgery.”
Hill’s surgery was performed in California by the doctor that used to treat his father, David, who played for the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams.
The Cats’ receiver remained there for the first two weeks after surgery. He couldn’t do much: Hill had to use crutches to walk. He had to use his hands and other foot to lift his leg.
“After surgery, it starts all over and that was probably the roughest thing — knowing that all the work you just put in for a month doesn’t really count toward anything and you have to start all over,” Hill said.
Hill returned to Tucson a little more than two weeks after surgery and restarted his rehab.
He spent three to four hours a day with Cohen and the medical staff. He began by jogging on an underwater treadmill that allowed Hill to go through the motions of running without putting any pressure on his surgically repaired knee.
Movement is key in the weeks after surgery, Cohen said. The UA’s head athletic trainer wants rehabbing athletes to be off crutches, out of their braces and able to do their normal activities like going up and down stairs and getting in and out of a car.
Step 3: Getting back
The final two phases are the most important.
Once rehabbing players begin to get strength back in their knees, they begin what Cohen calls “sports functional activities” like twisting and turning and change-of-direction drills.
“It’s a lot of single-leg work,” Hill said. “They’ll have you do single-leg squats, hamstring reps, I’m able to work on my quads and calf now. It’s a long process.”
The final stage of ballistic training is where Hill finds himself now. He is jumping and working on “explosion” — being able to sprint and cut. In Hill’s case, the motions replicate the routes he would typically run on Saturdays.
Hill has begun cutting on the football field, but does so in tennis shoes.
“I can say I’m at about 70-80 percent strength in my leg right now,” Hill said. “It just depends on what I’m able to do now going forward because I’m under the care of the trainers. No matter what I think, I know they are watching out for me.”
Hill joins his teammates at practice, but typically works off to the side with a few members of the training staff. He can catch passes but doesn’t take part in team drills.
The Wildcats’ best receiver has yet to travel with the team.
“It’s rough,” Hill said. “I just wish I could be out there helping. It’s really tough because I was hoping to come out and have a good season again this year and the receiving game has been struggling a little bit.
“The Washington game, I probably wanted to turn the TV off about 10 times in the first quarter. I didn’t watch about half of the second quarter because I was just mad.”
When the anger gets to be too much, Hill checks in with other members of his club.
“You definitely don’t want anybody to go through it,” said Smith, a UA kicker who underwent his ACL surgery last September. “But at the same time, it does help to have other guys to talk to about it and makes it easier to go through.”