Rehab Diaries: Role Models

Willis McGahee became my muse. It sounds weird, I know, but he was the only guy I could really find, the only contemporary of mine who had suffered an injury like mine. At least it seemed to me like mine. McGahee was a running back out of the University of Miami. I didn’t know him. I’ve still never met him to this day, but he really helped me through.

McGahee was kind of like me in some ways. He was considered a lock to be a top five draft pick and to have a strong career. But in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, he went down and he went down hard. He tore his ACL and MCL, among other injuries, and dropped in the draft to No. 23 when Buffalo picked him. GMs just stopped having confidence in him. I tore my ACL and MCL. I also partially tore the PCL. I dislocated my femur, tibia, and kneecap. Oh, and I chipped my bone up. And I felt like everyone stopped believing in me, too.

After I got hurt, and cut down on watching TV , I just started reading everything I could about Willis McGahee. For him, he actually got tackled. That could happen to him on any play. He plays a contact sport where guys are actively trying to hurt him. For me, it was a little different because I was going for a routine layup, but there was really no contact. I just went up, came down, and my leg snapped. He had a lot more to overcome mentally to get back out on the field than I did on the court. His approach was to just take control of the mental aspect of rehab, at least that’s what I read, and get back on the field. He never thought about the risk involved; he just wanted to play. I just kept thinking, “if he can do this, knowing he’s going to get hit over and over, how can I feel sorry for myself? How can I be worried about another fluke?”

It was really interesting for me to see how another athlete took that stance. McGahee never said, “poor me.” He just beasted through it. I once talked to some of the doctors who worked with him — don’t think I’m a stalker; I was just curious! —  and he told me about his incredible pain tolerance. He also told me he approached every workout, even if it was just a leg lift or something, like he was an animal, like it was the last workout he’d ever have before finding out if he could play again. So I set out to do the exact same thing.

I thought about reaching out to Willis and asking him for advice, but I felt like just reading about him was enough. He inspired me. I started taking a lot more control over my thoughts and my process after reading about him. Here’s a guy who went from one of the biggest names in his sport to an afterthought, and he never stopped believing. He missed a full year. And then he came back to have a really amazing career in the NFL. By the time I got hurt in 2007, he’d had two full years of 1,000 yards rushing. Now that’s inspiration.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is … Thanks, Willis.

This is the second in a series of rehab reports by Shaun Livingston and other athletes who have suffered or are suffering from potentially career-ending injuries. You can read Part One of his diary .