Dori Knight was at her weekly softball lesson, executing a familiar pitching drill, when she heard an unfamiliar sound.
She knew it was trouble.
“I just heard a pop,” she said. “I dropped instantly.”
And in that instant, her softball season was over.
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The “pop” was an ACL tear. The aftermath was surgery. And the road back is a months-long rehab process that, depending on a variety of factors, can be as short as six months or as long as a year.
A junior pitcher on the Indian Creek softball team, Knight is banking on — or rather, working toward — a quick return.
“(Doctors) have told me six to nine months,” Knight said. “But we are looking at getting me back on the field by September.”
How quickly she comes back is, in many ways, up to her.
Anatomy of an ACL tear
One of four ligaments that stabilize the knee, the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) runs through the center of the joint and prevents the shin bone, or tibia, from sliding out in front of the thigh bone, or femur.
When the ACL tears, the knee is not stable, the athlete is sidelined and reconstructive surgery is performed.
But surgery in and of itself doesn’t hasten a return to action. Rehab largely dictates that. And the more aggressive an athlete attacks it, the faster he or she is likely to return.
“I tell these athletes the rehab will be just as important as the surgery,” said Dr. Scott Gudeman, a sports medicine surgeon at OrthoIndy and the Indiana Orthopaedic Hospital who specializes in knees and shoulders.
A longtime team physician for Franklin College, Gudeman said athletes who are disciplined about rehab can expect to return within six to nine months — a far sunnier forecast for an injury that used to be career-threatening.
“I tell athletes that 20 years ago this used to be a career-ending injury, and now I tell them it’s a season-ending injury,” Gudeman said. “It can be a six- to nine-month recovery. It really varies as far as which athlete can come back sooner and which one needs to come back later.
“It depends on the sport that they play, and it depends on how motivated they are.”
Regaining muscle strength, joint stability and full range of motion are the objectives of rehab, which in many cases begins with a few hours of surgery.
“For my patients, I’ll tell the family that their rehab will start tonight,” Gudeman said. “It’s going to be doing simple things like straight leg raises, really focusing on getting that full knee extension.
“You may not be able to do it right away, but you have to try.”
The road back
Projected for a breakout season at Indian Creek, Knight was penciled is as the Braves’ No. 1 pitcher.
A dedicated softball player whose older sister, Clarissa, is a starting shortstop for Grace College, Knight was practicing an explosive drill during a pitching lesson in early February when her plans fell apart.
“We were working on kick-outs off the mound, and we were seeing how far we could get out,” Knight said. “I kicked all the way past the mound.
“When I landed and came through with my drag foot, my knee decided to go out, and the rest of my body stayed straight.”
That’s when she heard the dreaded “pop” and fell to the ground.
But she didn’t stay down.
“I got back up and I decided to run on it,” she said. “I ran to the plate and ran back to the mound, and it popped again, (but) I thought I was fine. So I decided I could go back and pitch again.
“When I went back and pitched again, it popped again, and that’s when my dad decided to take me to the hospital.”
An MRI revealed an ACL tear in her left knee. On March 7, the first official day of high school softball practice, she had reconstructive surgery at Johnson Memorial Hospital.
Knight, who was on her feet two hours after surgery, has rehabbed tirelessly ever since.
She disposed of her crutches less than two weeks after surgery and adheres to a strict rehab protocol.
“I ride a (stationary) bike every day for at least 20 minutes,” Knight said. “I have to flex the muscles around my knee as an exercise. I have to lay flat on a bed to make my knee go straight, working that muscle and getting it stronger and straightening my leg so I can walk better.
“That’s an every day thing.”
Gudeman, who is not Knight’s physician, said vigorous rehab is the key to a speedy recovery.
“We call it the accelerated rehab. It’s something you have to focus on every hour or two,” Gudeman said. “I’ll sit down with the parents in the recovery area and I’ll have to show them how their child can start doing these exercises.
“It would be easy to say, ‘Oh, just let them rest these first 24 hours (after surgery),’ but you really have to change that mindset.”
Eye on next season
Knight’s injury was more than a personal disappointment. It was a blow to the Indian Creek softball team.
Although Braves coach Gary Mitchell has full confidence in junior pitcher Brittany Dugan, he had high expectations for Knight.
“I’ve been impressed with her since she came in as freshman,” Mitchell said. “I really looked for this to be her bust-out season where she just turned the world upside down. She’s as dedicated as a kid as I’ve ever coached.
“She plays with all the heart she’s got. She leaves it on the field, and the game means a lot to her. She really loves the game.”
Knight’s love for the game fuels her rehab engine.
An aspiring college player who wants to play at Grace where her sister is having success, Knight has resumed her pitching lessons and expects to be at full strength by fall.
“I was really disappointed when it first happened because I knew that my season was gone,” Knight said. “What I did was, I trusted the Lord with his plan for me at this point. Obviously, it’s not the plan that I wanted, but everything happens for a reason. I’m just trusting in the Lord that he’s going to get me through this and everything’s going to be all right, and I’ll be able to play next year.
“Next year will be my breakthrough season, I just know it.”
Name: Dori Knight
High school: Indian Creek
College plans: Wants to continue softball career at Grace College, where her older sister, Clarissa Knight, is a junior shortstop.
Parents: Tom and Jonetta Knight
INSIDE AN ACL
One of four ligaments in the knee joint, the anterior cruciate ligament runs diagonally in the middle of the knee. It provides stability to the knee by preventing the tibia (shin bone) from sliding out in front of the femur (thigh bone).
When the ACL tears, or splits in two, the knee joint becomes unstable.
SOURCE: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgions