ATHENS, Ga. – Looking back, Michael Bennett concludes now that the first weeks were the toughest.
Michael Bennett was able to practice in a limited capacity this spring and expects to be fully cleared for the preseason.
While teammates were going for first downs and touchdowns, he was merely trying to find ways to pass the time, unable to bend his right knee without the help of a machine and on a training table for hours at a time, doing only basic exercises.
Bennett would read. He downloaded movies and TV shows onto his phone.
“The tougher stuff I did, the more stuff I could do, the heavier weight, I enjoyed it,” Bennett said, “because It was like, ‘I’m coming back.’ But at first, it was just nothing. And it just sucked. That was the hardest.”
With spring classes completed, summer has arrived for Georgia’s football team. It’s one of the rare true breaks that college players get during the year. Many have headed home or elsewhere for a few weeks, but not Bennett. He’s still working to complete his recovery from “reconstructive” ACL surgery in his right knee.
Bennett is one of three Bulldogs players currently recovering from some type of ACL injury as the 2013 season approaches. Freshman receiver Tramel Terry (ACL reconstruction and meniscal repair, surgery in early January) and junior college transfer defensive lineman Toby Johnson (at least a partially torn ACL, injured in November) are each recovering as well.
With much of the rehab behind him, Bennett is in the home stretch now and approaching the finish line. He said he would be cleared fully in a few weeks anyway, he said, but likes that he’ll have extra time to recover before August.
“For sure, I’m almost there,” Bennett said last week. “I’d say I’m about 90, 95 percent of what I was back in early October when I got hurt. It’s a different comfort level for everybody, but I’ve been out there running routes for two months now, and I don’t see any difference to what I was. It’s a great feeling that I can just trust my knee now, trust my rehab. … If we started practice in about three weeks, I’d be in a red jersey. But it’s good I’ve got June and July to really get ready for the tough practices that we have in August. I’ll be 100 percent, ready to go.”
As it stands now, Bennett, Terry and Johnson are each expected to be available for the Bulldogs this season, which speaks to the medical advances in regards to a severe injury that not too long ago was considered a potential career-killer for a football player.
In two seasons, Bennett has caught 56 passes for 665 yards and nine touchdowns. (Photo by Wes Blankenship/UGA Sports Communications)
That's not the case anymore. Each case is different, but the standard recovery time for an ACL injury is now roughly six-to-eight months.
“It’s not the kiss of death as it used to be back in the day,” said UGA assistant athletic trainer Ryan McGovern, who took the lead in Bennett’s rehabilitation. “The surgical interventions are 10 times better. They don’t cause as much trauma to the body. They can go in with a minimally invasive procedure, repair the ACL and then close it up and get them back. Rehab-wise, with the steps we know now and techniques, we focus on the area, get them back.
"It’s basically not letting them sit around. I think the biggest thing was back in those days they would cast them for an extended period of time, just to try to let the ligament heal. Now we know that getting motion going, getting strength back, that’s just so important to the ACL.”
Georgia’s fifth-leading receiver with 345 yards and four touchdowns, Bennett did that in only five games. He missed nine of 14 games after September.
His sophomore season ended the Tuesday before the South Carolina game in early October, when he tore his ACL while blocking on the final scrimmage play of Georgia’s final full pads practice before facing the Gamecocks. The timing was cruel, so much that others around the team have said it made them sick to their stomach when it happened.
For Bennett personally, he had just caught a career-high two TDs against Tennessee days before that. And now here he was, undergoing surgery exactly a week after the injury and then in the training room with McGovern, extending his toes and reaching for modest goals.
“I think I felt a little invincible,” said Bennett, who had never suffered a serious injury before this one. “I felt like I wasn’t going to get hurt. So as soon as I got this injury, I had to have a whole different type of mental toughness. You’ve got to start from simple, simple stuff and do your very best at that, whereas before I was doing my very best at catching balls against SEC defenders. So it’s a whole different mindset.”
Recovery started slowly. It stayed slow.
Freshman Tramel Terry enrolled early and has been undergoing rehab at UGA in recent months from his ACL injury.
Really, that’s the only pace with an ACL injury. It isn’t grueling physically so much as mentally.
And especially for Bennett, who had 10 months of recovery time to work with. McGovern says the plan was conservative, “because we could be.”
“With an ACL, what makes it such a long recovery is the quad, hamstring, calves, the surrounding structures, it does take a lot to get those back to normal comparatively, because they are strong muscles,” McGovern said. “And then also just what the ligament is asked to do in the body with football players.”
McGovern wrote out various benchmarks for Bennett to try to meet, gradually working from the training table to mini-squats to hamstring curls to – after months of recovery -- a treadmill scaled down in resistance (“Says Bennett: ‘It felt weird at first, just like running in nothing’).
“We’re working with athletes,” McGovern said. “They are competitive people. You have to get them something to fight for, and he exemplified that. He basically hit every benchmark that he and I set out to do. He made my job easy. He worked harder than anyone I’ve worked with coming back from this injury. … It’s a daily process. If you miss a week, I mean, it sets you back, especially early on. With his work ethic and getting in here every day, that’s definitely why he’s hopefully back close to 100 percent right now.”
Bennett eventually progressed to running on grass after about five months, then sprinting. Then he was actually being able to practice in a limited capacity. He ran full-speed routes the final week of spring, a very encouraging step before he returned to the routine recovery grind this month.
Currently, Bennett is able to work speed drills with Coach Sherman Armstrong two days a week, run routes with quarterbacks two days a week and lift weights four days a week. Bennett is making the most of it and will often cram sessions together, getting the most out of his prescribed days by running in the morning and then again in the afternoon.
“The month of May is pretty tough, but it’s worth it,” Bennett said. “You’re a little tentative at first (on the knee). You just have to tell yourself in your mind, ‘Trust your rehab.’ As soon as you do that, you’re like, ‘OK, I can do this. It’s back to how it was.’”
McGovern says his role in the process for Bennett now is essentially “maintenance” and making sure the final stages of the recovery go as planned.
Not everything is back to normal, of course. Bennett was able to fly to the Dominican Republic for a mission trip with teammates over spring break. He’s still not allowed, however, to join them as he used to for pick-up basketball games.
But Bennett says he has grown from the experience as a player and a person.
“Right now, my explosion isn’t quite all the way there yet,” Bennett said. “So I have to really focus on my footwork and get that down totally so I can still be effective in my route-running. … As a person, I’ve really grown in my faith, grown in the way that I treat people. I realized that it can all be taken away like that. It’s kind of crazy. It humbles you, really.”
Given the time, a closer bond has developed with other injured athletes, like former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who has reached out to Bennett after the injury.
Terry also reached out to Bennett soon after tearing his ACL in a high school all-star game, and the early enrolling freshman receiver has been undergoing rehab alongside Bennett in Athens.
“I’ve kind of been able to mentor him a little bit,” Bennett said of Terry. “He’s been able to see how well I progressed and gotten a good idea in his head of where he wants to be. … It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to come in every day and just have a determined work ethic. I would tell someone that it’s not going to be easy. But nothing in life is easy. If you want to get to the top and be the best, you’ve got to overcome adversity.
"It’s all about how you respond.”