I’ve Been There

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Shawne Merriman, Senior Correspondent - The Players' Tribune

I know what Derrick Rose is going through.

He returned to the court this week after missing 20 games following his third major knee injury in the last three years, and everyone is wondering the same thing: Will he ever be the same Derrick Rose?

That’s the million-dollar question, and I don’t have the answer. I doubt Derrick Rose even knows the answer. The truth is, only time will tell. He’s already shown signs of being his old self in his first couple of games back, but as is the case when anyone comes back from multiple injuries, it’s not just whether or not he can still play at a high level. It’s whether or not he can stay on the court.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics

Three years into our careers, D-Rose and I had very similar resumes. In his first three seasons in the NBA, he earned two All-Star selections. He won Rookie of the Year and an MVP award. He led his team to a No. 1 playoff seed. He was the most explosive and exciting player in the game.

In my first three seasons in the NFL, I made three Pro Bowls and recorded double-digit sacks each year, leading the league in sacks in 2006. I won Defensive Rookie of the Year. I helped lead my team to a No. 1 playoff seed. I was one of the most explosive defensive players in the game.

Everyone knows what happened next for D-Rose: the torn ACL in 2012 followed by the torn meniscus in 2013 and now the meniscus tear in 2015. It’s been a rough couple of years for him, to say the least.

Like I said, I know what he’s going through. Around the same point my career, the injury bug bit me pretty hard, too.

AFC Divisional Playoffs: New England Patriots v San Diego Chargers

In a game against the Titans in 2007, my third year in the league, a couple of offensive lineman seemed to have it out for me. On one play, about 20 yards away from the ball, they were grabbing at me, and when I went to the ground, they jumped on my knee.

Was it intentional? Were they told to do it? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. One of them even apologized when we played them in the playoffs later that year, saying it was never their intention to hurt me. But the damage was done.

In my head, nothing was gonna tell me that I couldn’t get back to being the old Shawne Merriman.

I had a torn LCL and PCL. Basically, the whole back corner of my knee was gone.

I knew that if I had surgery, I’d be done for a while, so I played the final three games of the season and three playoff games basically without a knee. We had an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl, and I wasn’t gonna let anything get in the way of that. I wanted that ring.

We eventually lost in the AFC Championship Game, and that offseason, I went to several different doctors — including Dr. James Andrews — to have my knee checked out. But I was really just looking for someone to tell me I could play. I knew if I had surgery I’d be out until midseason the following year, and despite the extreme pain, I didn’t wanna take that risk because I was still playing well.

I decided not to have the surgery, but in the first game the following season, I could tell I wasn’t in any condition to play. My knee was sliding all over the place. Looking back, I can’t believe I was able to play at all with my knee in that kind of shape.

I had the surgery and sat out the rest of the 2008 season.

San Diego Chargers v San Francisco 49ers

I rehabbed hard. In my head, nothing was gonna tell me that I couldn’t get back to being the old Shawne Merriman. I was pushing myself and doing whatever I had to do. That was my mentality — that superhuman mentality that separates the elite athletes from the rest of the pack.

And as I pushed myself, this little thing called compensation started to take its toll.

When any part of your body isn’t 100 percent, your body is gonna naturally compensate by deferring some of the workload to other body parts. When it’s happening in real time, you don’t even notice it.

When D-Rose came back from his first knee injury, some speculated that favoring his surgically repaired left knee when he came back contributed to him tearing the meniscus in his right knee. It’s tough to say if that’s true or not, but you can understand why people would think that. It’s just how the body works.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Chicago Bulls

In my situation, it was my Achilles that started to bear the load.

I was putting so much pressure on my right Achilles to compensate for what my knee could no longer handle that it started getting sore. I thought it was from my shoes — at least that’s what I told myself — but that soreness turned into tendonitis, which eventually became a partial tear as I continued to push my limits.

It was like someone was jabbing a knife in my Achilles. I would get out of bed and I would have to drag my feet flat on the floor to the bathroom and take a warm shower just to loosen it up enough to walk normal. I had a walking boot, but I could still play.

That’s when it really hit me that my body was turning on me.

The injuries started to trickle down and pile up on me. When I returned to the field in 2009, I missed a couple of games and parts of others. Even then, I still wouldn’t accept the fact that I wasn’t gonna get back to being the old Shawne Merriman. I wouldn’t even let that thought enter my mind.

But my body had other ideas. In 2010, I played in just five games before the Chargers put me on IR. Less than a month later, they waived me. I ended up in Buffalo, still hurt, and when I got there, I went straight back to IR.

When any part of your body isn’t 100 percent, your body is gonna naturally compensate… It’s just how the body works.

I rehabbed like crazy. Getting my Achilles stronger wasn’t the issue, it was getting that confidence back. Even if I felt good running around, I always had it in my mind that it might pop on me if I pushed off it too hard. Even when I did get over that psychological hump, I wasn’t the same. My jump off the line of scrimmage wasn’t as strong. I wasn’t capable of blowing past a tackle anymore. I didn’t have the same power when I tried to bull-rush.

After going back on IR, the Bills released me.

I couldn’t help thinking, How did I go from double-digit sacks and multiple Pro Bowls to getting released twice?

The Bills eventually brought me back, and even though I could still play and contribute to a team, I just couldn’t come to grips with the fact that I wasn’t gonna be that dominant player I was when I was at my best. It finally set in that I wasn’t the same Shawne Merriman anymore.

And that’s when I retired.

The glaring difference between my story and D-Rose’s is that I played through my injuries. I didn’t take the necessary time to heal my body before stepping back on the field. But even if I could go back and do it over again — back to 2007 when I first tore my knee up — I would still play. We had a shot at winning the Super Bowl that year, and that’s why every one of us plays the game: to win a championship.

D-Rose caught a lot of flak for taking time with his rehab to make sure he was as close to 100 percent as possible before stepping back on the court. A lot of fans questioned his commitment, and that’s unfair. He should — and did — take all the time he needed to have confidence in his body. He wanted to ensure that he could still play the game at a high level because he knows the consequences of trying to come back from injury too soon.

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Chicago Bulls

I also know them — all too well.

The same thing that made me great is what makes Derrick Rose great. When I first came into the league, my first step off the line was quicker than anyone I went against. I would jump off the line of scrimmage and blow past an offensive tackle before he even took his kickback step.

Explosion.

You ever see D-Rose dribble into a crowd in the paint and come springing out the other side for a layup or a dunk?

Explosion.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Chicago Bulls

But there’s a reality that D-Rose is gonna have to face at some point. As he moves through the season, there are gonna be times when he doesn’t have that same spring. Three knee surgeries takes a toll on anybody, no matter how well they rehab or how much time they take. His mentality is always going to tell him that he’s still the same old Derrick Rose. That’s what makes guys like him so special. There’s a superhuman mindset that you can do anything. You have to have that mindset to be elite at that level.

But there will be times when his body will remind him that he’s not the same Derrick Rose. And when you’re an elite athlete whose game is based on explosion, that’s a harsh reality to face.

I’m not saying he’s not gonna flash that same explosion, but I can almost promise you he won’t be able to do it on a daily basis.

The Bulls are easing him back in. He played 20 minutes Thursday night and dropped 12 points. In his first game back on Wednesday, he played 19 minutes and had nine points, including a pretty D-Rose-like coast-to-coast drive and layup.

The question is, will that be his game, or will that just be a flash of his former self that we see every now and then?

In my mind, as someone who’s been in his shoes and fought the battles he’s fought, I think we’ll have to settle for those flashes. But in my heart, as a fan of the game of basketball, I hope he’s back for good and that he’s the same D-Rose we know and love.

merriman