As high school sports intensify, athletes get bigger, stronger, and faster. That makes for a more exciting experience for the fans, but it also makes those athletes more prone to injury. How are Bearden athletes coping with those risks and working to get back on the field?
Every high school athlete’s dream is to represent his or her school and compete with the team. The work in the offseason, the training, and the preparation all culminate in the excitement of playing.
And all of that can be taken away in a single moment.
For senior soccer player Cole Hilton, that instantaneous moment happened during a scrimmage in February while preparing for his junior season. During the closing minutes of the match, Hilton found himself on the wrong end of a hard challenge, leaving him with
a broken ankle, immediate surgery, and a five-month recovery.
Hilton was unable to play his entire junior year for Bearden soccer.
Likewise, senior soccer player Will Lewis was sidelined for roughly five months after breaking his ankle in a club soccer game during the offseason in August of 2014.
“I was turning up field and after I released the ball, someone stabbed in late, and went studs up into the side of my ankle,” Lewis says. “It ended up snapping my ankle, and I knew it was probably broken as soon as it happened.”
Similar to Hilton’s, Lewis’s injury required surgery and a long, arduous recovery.
As for junior cross country runner Nathaniel Blalock, his injuries were not so sudden. Over the course of his junior season, Blalock battled ankle injuries his entire campaign.
Annoying and hindering pain from multiple twists and turns bothered Blalock throughout the season, yet the pain was tolerable enough to continue on.
Senior baseball player David Beam suffered a torn liga- ment in his elbow requiring the well-known Tommy John surgery, which repairs a torn ulnar collateral ligament. This injury is common in baseball pitchers.
The mental side of Beam’s injury has taken the focus of Beam as opposed to the physical side of it.
“The initial prognosis was really hard on me,” Beam says. “First off, because it was my senior year and just playing with my friends for one last season, and secondly, possibly being able to play with my freshman brother and just knowing that I wouldn’t be able to be out there and play with him.
“When I try to think positively about it, I am just glad it happened this year and it didn’t happen while I was in college.”
The physical aspect of these injuries represent just one side of an entire process. It is physically draining, painful, and a nuisance.
However, the psychological aspect plays just as big of a part.
The road back to full health is a rollercoaster. The ups and downs of recovery are both physically and emotion- ally taxing on an athlete.
The process is different for every athlete, and certain injuries have different recovery times. Nonetheless, the athlete goes through a difficult healing process to get his or her mind and body right for competition.
For Lewis, he wasn’t sure if the injury he suffered would allow him to play again.
Unfortunately, Lewis is no stranger to injuries. On top of Lewis’s broken ankle in 2014, his most recent injury, he has suffered multiple broken wrists and a broken toe.
“This wasn’t new for me, but having to get immediate surgery and going immediately to the hospital was really tough for me, especially psychologically,” Lewis says. “I knew that I had months of recovery and months of physical therapy, and I wasn’t even sure that I was going to be able to play again.”
Given the nature of his injury, Lewis would have to go through extensive physical therapy to recover.
“The rehab process was basically going to physical therapy twice a week for about five months, and it was just a long process,” Lewis says. “Flexibility and building up strength was the main thing I had to work on, especially with it being a lower leg injury.
“It was just a tough rehab process, physically and psychologically.”
Hilton battled through a similar injury just 18 months later. As it was in the beginning of high school season, Hilton had to rehab during the season.
“The process was very difficult mentally and physically because I wanted to go out and play so bad and just watching the team made it harder,” Hilton says. “Physically, it wasn’t the worst because I had our trainer Kristen [Cook] to help me through the whole thing and my teammates helped me plenty.”
Lewis, fully recovered, went on to help anchor Bearden’s midfield on the way to the Bulldogs’ first state title in a decade.
Athletes may not understand how tough the rehab process is until one is experienced. However, coaches like Bearden soccer coach Ryan Radcliffe have seen their fair share of the setbacks.
“It’s more of a mental battle with injuries,” Coach Radcliffe says. “In my opinion, I think injuries are more effec- tive on the mental side, as much as it is on the physical side.
“The amount of time you put into it, and if you put a lot of time into your rehab, then you can come back from it.”
Bearden girls basketball coach Justin Underwood has also gone through his share of player injuries since he started coaching the Lady Bulldogs in 2011.
Coach Underwood believes the toughest part of an injury is the emotional bond that a player has with the team, which quickly gets challenged with an injury.
“The athletes are extremely driven to get back, but the team misses that player,” Coach Underwood says. “Players usually step up and do what is asked of them, but it’s not the same because you miss your teammate being out there.
“All of the sudden you aren’t playing basketball with your best friends, you aren’t able to play in front of the Bearden student section, you’re not being able to go play against rivals, and that stuff gets taken away so quickly and they appreciate the little things that they take for granted in high school basketball.”
Beam is working hard this offseason to get back from his recent Tommy John surgery. This surgery has a 12-month recovery timeline, one that will prevent Beam from throwing for his senior season this upcoming spring.
“For now, I am just focused on gaining the mobility and flexibility back in my elbow and wrist,” Beam says. “I’m also trying to strengthen my shoulder, but in a couple weeks I will really start to strengthen my entire arm.”
For Blalock, his injury was one that would set him back marginally throughout the season. No matter how hard he worked at getting back to full strength, it seemed like a hump he could not get over.
Unlike other season-ending injuries, Blalock was able to train and compete through his ankle injuries, but it was tough to balance rehab and training.
“Anything that gets in the way of your goal that you have set can be really depressing and discouraging,” Blalock says. “But if you love it, I love running, it makes the physical therapy easier.”
For some athletes, the rehab process seems never ending. It is the drive and love for the sport that keeps them going, to get back to playing.
The return to competition is what the athletes long for during the entire recovery process. The dream is to be fully healthy once again.
Unfortunately, while some athletes make a quick physical recovery, the mental aspect may prove to be more challenging to overcome.
“Every injury has some sort of apprehension,” Bearden athletic trainer Kristen Cook says. “They have that fear of not wanting to get hurt again and starting over is in everybody, whether it is a small injury or a really serious injury.
“I don’t ever release a player if I know that they aren’t mentally ready for it because if they are playing scared, it is going to increase the risk of them getting injured again.”
Bearden football coach Morgan Shinlever also believes that there is some sort of apprehension when an athlete gets back into the competitive playing atmosphere again.
“I think if it is any type of a substantial injury, an athlete is always going to have a hesitance in step when first coming back until they get used to going full speed,” Coach Shinlever says. “But usually it’ll take an athlete a couple times out to regain that confidence back in that body part that was injured.”
After long recovery for Lewis, he admittedly was hesitant to jump back in, but the emotional side of returning overshadowed it.
“Coming back was really awesome at first because I was not even sure if I was going to be able to play again, due to my previous injuries as well,” Lewis says. “The process to coming back was slow, but it was rewarding.”
Like his high school teammate, Hilton says it took him training and more hard work to get back to his old form.
“It was difficult at first; I couldn’t go into tackles at first, and I was scared that it would happen again,” Hilton says. “Now I am back to myself and I am back earlier than I would’ve thought.”
Hilton and Lewis will look to lead the Bearden soccer team this coming spring for their senior season.
Fellow senior and baseball player Beam, however, will be a little withdrawn from his team for the baseball season. Beam will continue his ongoing rehab throughout the spring and will still be able to contribute with his bat this season for the Bearden team.
Beam is expected to make a full recovery from his Tommy John surgery and will be 100-percent for the start of his college scrimmages next fall.
After battling through ankle injuries all season, Blalock has shifted his focus in the offseason to getting fully healthy. Blalock, who doubles as a track athlete as well, had a dead period between cross country and track over the winter.
Blalock will be able to recover from these ankle injuries, but his injury is one that he will have to be mindful of. “Just trying to strengthen my ankles and tighten up those muscles around it are the things I’m doing to prevent it from happening over and over,” Blalock says.
Injuries like these, especially in a high school setting, are something that no one wants to experience.
Despite the injuries hindering these Bearden athletes, their drive and determination are getting them back to the sports they love.