UK Football

UK QB Terry Wilson suffered an uncommon knee injury. How have others bounced back?

Josh Moore, John Clay share thoughts on UK’s win over Eastern Michigan

Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay and beat writer Josh Moore share their impressions from Kentucky football's 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan on September 7, 2019, at Kroger Field.
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Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay and beat writer Josh Moore share their impressions from Kentucky football's 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan on September 7, 2019, at Kroger Field.

Leg injuries aren’t uncommon in sports. Kentucky football fans this year have received a steady reminder of that reality.

Starting quarterback Terry Wilson on Saturday became the third UK player to suffer a season-ending injury in 2019. Wilson was diagnosed with a torn patellar tendon and will undergo surgery to repair it.

Wilson’s injury happened three weeks after true freshman Nik Scalzo, also a quarterback, tore the ACL in his right knee for the second time in less than a year. Davonte Robinson, one of UK’s few experienced defensive backs entering this season, tore a quad before fall camp started.

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops during his news conference Monday said he expects Wilson to make a full recovery. A date for his surgery has not been yet been scheduled.

Stoops said it’s “really the same injury” that Darius West, a former safety who graduated in May, suffered during the 2016 preseason. West missed that season but played in 25 of his final 26 games at UK.

“Darius came back from that with no hiccups whatsoever,” Stoops said.

Danny Trevathan, a former linebacker at UK, also suffered a torn patellar tendon later that same year while playing for the Chicago Bears. He has played in 29 games since suffering that injury, including the Bears’ season opener on Thursday. Trevathan topped 100 tackles (102) for the third time in his career and made two interceptions last season.

ACL vs. patellar tendon

Fans are probably most familiar with tears of the ACL — the anterior cruciate ligament — as it is a common injury; about 150,000 ACL injuries occur in the United States each year, according to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.

The Kentucky football team in the last two seasons alone has lost two key players — Robinson this year, offensive tackle Landon Young last year — to ACL tears. New York Jets linebacker Avery Williamson, who played for Mark Stoops at UK, and Los Angeles Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins, who played at UK in John Calipari’s first season with the program, both suffered ACL tears the same week Scalzo suffered his tear.

Tears of quadriceps and patellar tendons have increased in prevalence in recent decades “but remain rare,” according to a summary written by Warren Bodine and Jeffrey W.R. Dassel for “The 5-Minute Sports Medicine Consultant.” According to an incident rate based on higher-risk, active military personnel, about 39,000 tears of the patellar tendon and quadriceps occur each year — less than a third the rate of ACL tears.

The patellar tendon connects the patella — commonly referred to as the kneecap — to the tibia. When it is completely torn, the tendon separates from the kneecap and a person will be unable to straighten their knee.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says patients who require surgery — like Wilson — tend to recover better when surgery is performed soon after the injury occurs, as it can prevent buildup of scar tissue.

On the surgical procedure, from the AAOS: “To reattach the tendon, sutures are placed in the tendon and then threaded through drill holes in the kneecap. The sutures are tied at the top of the kneecap. Your surgeon will carefully tie the sutures to get the correct tension in the tendon. This will also make sure the position of the kneecap closely matches that of your uninjured kneecap.”

Surgeons sometimes will use wire, sutures, or cables to help hold the kneecap in position while the tendon heals; those, if needed, are removed in a later surgery. After four to six weeks a patient’s leg can usually bear their total body weight.

According to David J. Chao, a former NFL team doctor, rehab from a torn patellar tendon takes about six to nine months. According to Chao and ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell, a physical therapist, it is often tough to return from.

“It’s this big tendon that anchors your quad, that large muscle in the front of your thigh, to your shin,” Bell said in a 2016 podcast. “So when it ruptures, essentially you incapacitate your quad. That’s why guys go down in a heap when the injury happens.”

Bell was talking about the injury as Jimmy Graham, then a tight end with the Seattle Seahawks, prepared for the 2016 NFL season after rupturing his patellar tendon toward the end of the 2015 season. Graham, 32, has since continued to play in the NFL without further injury; he caught the Green Bay Packers’ only touchdown in their 10-3 win over Chicago this past Thursday.

Victor Cruz, a receiver who won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants, suffered a patellar tendon tear in 2014 and was never the same thereafter. A calf injury that might have been connected to the patellar injury caused him to miss the entire 2015 season. Cruz played for the Giants in 2016 and briefly signed with the Bears in 2017 but was released and later retired. He is also 32.

Bell, citing a June 2016 study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, said that in a sample of more than 550 orthopedic procedures performed on NFL players, those who underwent patellar tendon repairs fared the worst when it came to performance metrics (yards gained, touchdowns, etc.) and rate of return. Their explosiveness and strength are the most difficult things to recover.

“And their careers were shortened overall significantly,” Bell said. It’s not to say that one individual can’t come back and be phenomenal, but it’s telling you that the odds are against them in terms of returning to form.”

In the NBA, Oklahoma City guard Andre Roberson suffered a patellar tendon tear in January 2018. He missed the rest of that season and did not play in the 2018-19 season but is expected to be available when the NBA season tips next month.

Jeremy Lin, another NBA player, suffered a patellar tendon tear during the Brooklyn Nets’ 2017-18 season opener but averaged almost 20 minutes per game with the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors in 74 games last season. He last month signed a contract with the Beijing Shougang Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association.

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Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.