Quinton Granger ran laps around a turf football field, each step helping strengthen his mended knee.
Two surgeries in high school, one to reconstruct a fully-torn ACL and a second to repair a partial tear after a bone fragment chipped away at the ligament, forced him to go easy and steadily build it back up. Two and a half years removed from his most recent surgery, he was finally starting to feel healthy.
But as he reached the end zone of the football field at Cook Pavillion on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, Granger eyed the goal post. Just like Tony Gonzalez, a former star for his favorite NFL team, he was going to jump up and pretend to dunk a basketball over the crossbar.
His feet plant, he launches off, his hand ghost-dunks. Then he lands.
“I knew exactly what I had done,” he said.
Just like 200,000 other Americans each year, the 20-year-old UNL sophomore had torn his ACL. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says more than 70 percent of all athlete ACL tears occur free of player-to-player contact, including all three of Granger’s tears.
“Whenever you’re dealing with activities that deal with a lot of planting or cutting, that’s when a lot of ACL injuries happen,” said Robin Whisman, the assistant director for Injury Prevention & Care at UNL’s Campus Recreation Center.
The first blow
Granger’s first tear came as a sophomore at Kearney High School in Kearney, Mo., where he played defender on the soccer team and power forward on the basketball team. Before he took the pitch (field) for a junior varsity soccer match, his coach gave him a varsity jersey for that night’s game. He was certain he would have earned one in basketball the following season, as well.
But as the JV game neared its end, Granger chased a ball out of bounds and planted to kick it back in. He didn’t know it at the time, but his ACL was tearing in two.
“Part of it is the shock value,” Granger said. “You can’t believe what you just did, but you know exactly what you just did because you felt your knee just bend in half.”
Granger knew his hopes of playing basketball were gone.
“I was just really disappointed at that point in high school. That was everything,” he said. “That’s all that matters are sports … until I tore out my knee. Then I had to reevaluate everything.”
He made one last push at playing soccer during his junior year of high school, but his knee was just too fragile. A fragment of bone wore away at his ACL, partially tearing it, requiring a second surgery.
“The fact that I couldn’t play sports kind of threw me to the wayside with my friends because you can’t do what everybody else is doing,” Granger said. “I pretty much had just a total lack of direction with what I wanted to do.”
A change of plans
Granger got his ACT score back — he had scored a 30, much higher than he expected. Unlike some other athletes whose careers come to an early end, he could go to a good college without the backing of an athletic scholarship.
“I could get the hell out of here,” Granger said. “That’s just not something I really thought about before.”
Just like his parents, he chose to enroll at UNL. He toyed with an engineering major before switching to biochemistry, now focusing some attention on forensic science.
During his first two years at UNL, he only stepped foot on a soccer pitch once. He never shot a basketball. He was afraid his knee would give out again.
“It’s a huge mental game,” said Whisman, who deals with ACL injuries on a regular basis. “The psychology of it is just as important as the physiology that is going on.”
The third time is a charm
All it took was one jump — one dunk on a goal post during Granger’s sophomore year — and his ACL was split again.
This time, he used a different surgeon who opted to pull a piece of his hamstring instead of using a cadaver. Granger said between the better surgeon and a smarter approach to recovery, he was in better position to fully recover.
“Rather than trying to push it, I took it easy and took it slow,” Granger said. “I paid attention to what bothered it.”
Granger, who is now 22, stepped on a basketball court for the first time since high school when he shot hoops at the Campus Recreation Center May 24.
He drove to the rim, planted, pivoted and pushed off, all without any issues. After three surgeries, he says his knee is finally back to full health.