Athletes turn injuries into inspiration

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael

Even though he’s injured, Leland Armstrong, right, is still very much a part of the Guilderland football team. The senior was supposed to start on the Dutch’s line this season, but tore up his knee earlier this summer at a football camp. Here, he talks to a teammate who sprained his ankle at a practice last month.

Enterprise file photo — Jordan J. Michael

Bouncing back: When Tristan Wilson was a freshman at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, he fractured his forearm completely, the bone bursting through the skin. Wilson fully recovered, and played three more seasons for the school before graduating in 2013.

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Rising up: Now a sophomore at Boston College, Jennifer Cillis shoots a lay-up for Voorheesville as a senior in 2012. In 2011, as the leading scorer for the Birds, she went down with a knee injury, ending her basketball season. Still, Voorheesville went on to win a sectional championship.

Enterprise file photo — Jordan J. Michael

Spin cycle: Joe Bender, seen here during Guilderland football preseason in 2012, won the starting quarterback job that year as a senior, but broke his leg in the first game. He supported his team from the sidelines, and eventually went on to excel in baseball during the spring. 

Suffering a season-ending injury can be traumatic both physically and mentally. It’s a major setback, forcing an athlete to start over from scratch.

Surgery and rehabilitation are different kinds of challenges than competing in a game, but the reconstructive path can lead to better health and performance.

“Kids think they’re untouchable, unbreakable, but they realize they aren’t,” said Kate Gawrys, the certified athletic trainer for Guilderland High School. “When they get injured, they can’t see the end, but, with some goals, they can feel better.”

In 2009, Tristan Wilson fractured his forearm, the bone breaking through his skin, after he was knocked into during a lay-up attempt for the Berne-Knox-Westerlo junior-varsity basketball team. One year later, he was playing on the varsity team.

Last fall, as the starting quarterback for the Guilderland football team, Joe Bender broke his left leg in the first game of the season, missing the rest of his senior campaign. Six months later, he was having a successful season with the baseball team.

As the leading scorer for the Voorheesville girls’ basketball team in February 2011, Jennifer Cillis tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee. That next August, Cillis was cleared to play her senior season of soccer, and went on to finish out her basketball career.

Earlier this summer, at a Union College football camp, Leland Armstrong tore the ACL in his left knee, and suffered two meniscus tears. The senior was supposed to start on the offensive and defensive lines for the Guilderland football team, and is currently recuperating.

Wilson, Bender, and Cillis weren’t slowed for very long. Armstrong has hopes of coming back before the football season is over.

“Working twice as hard has been the driving force,” said Armstrong. “There’s no way I’m not recovering.”

In its most recent study, documenting the 2005-06 school year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 1,442,533 injuries occurred among United States high school student athletes participating in practices or competitions for the nine sports studied — football, wrestling, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ basketball, volleyball, baseball, and softball. Football had the highest injury rate of 4.36 injuries per 1,000 athlete exposures, compared to the average of 2.44 for all nine sports.

The CDC estimated that 4.2 million kids participated in those nine high school sports in 2005-06. So, roughly 34 percent of the nation’s high school athletes in those nine sports got injured that year.

However, the CDC study doesn’t take into account injuries that were sustained outside of school. Only injuries that came to the notice of certified athletic trainers were included in the report.

Gawrys said that she knows of at least two Guilderland athletes this fall who were injured outside of the school. “You never know when it’s going to happen,” she said.

Bad break

What was just another basketball game four years ago turned into what Andy Wright describes as a “war movie” playing out after Tristan Wilson’s horrific arm fracture.

Wilson, a freshman on BKW’s junior varsity team at the time, found himself on a break-away with teammate Alon Willing during a tournament at Voorheesville. Deciding not to pass, Wilson took it to the hoop for a lay-up, getting his legs clipped by a defender, and falling awkwardly on the court.

“It’s the worst injury I’ve ever seen,” said Wright, BKW’s varsity basketball coach. Wilson’s arm had snapped through his skin, and blood was shooting out.

“I didn’t feel the pain at first, but my arm was just dangling, spitting blood out with every pulse,” Wilson recalls. “The referee asked me what was bleeding, and I’m like, ‘Really?’”

Confused, sitting on his knees, the pain finally came. Wilson’s father, Laurence, held his arm in place, but blood was all over him. Wright talked to Wilson, hoping to distract him from the terror.

“I don’t know how my father stayed so calm,” Wilson said. “I was calm, I guess, just waiting for the EMS to show up.”

Both bones in Wilson’s forearm had snapped in half. The ambulance arrived 20 minutes after the injury.

“I didn’t want him to live in that moment, so I was telling him jokes and stuff,” Wright said. “It was a terrible moment. I will never forget it.”

Wilson’s BKW teammates were aghast, and some panicked. There was dead silence in the gymnasium because no one knew what to do.

“That play could have happened a million times without an injury like that,” said Wilson. “It was just the wrong angle.”

Wilson said emergency personnel kept on asking him how much his arm hurt. “I said ‘10’ every time, and they gave me the maximum pain relief, even though I asked for more,” he said.

During surgery, two plates were put into Wilson’s arm. The plates are still there today.

Twelve weeks after surgery, Wilson was healed, but he had to build back his muscle memory, as well as his mental will to play competitive basketball. Coach Wright had moved Wilson up to varsity one year after his injury, but, psychologically, Wilson says it took him until the middle of his senior season to fully get over his once-snapped forearm.

“Without even thinking, I’d pass the ball if I saw someone guarding the basket,” Wilson said of his sophomore and junior seasons on varsity. “It’s tough to play basketball without driving the hoop, but I avoided contact. Sometimes, I would take the bad shot.”

Wilson was one of the best junior varsity players at the time of his injury, so Wright was nervous about his future. Wright also knew that Wilson was a hard worker who loved to play basketball.

Wright facilitated, directed, and guided Wilson back into the game. “I kept telling him that driving is part of basketball,” Wright said. “Lightning doesn’t strike you twice.”

Still, Wilson made passing the ball a habit. He did not like to drive the basket, so he set teammates up and took more jump shots. He would shoot lay-ups, but only if the traffic was clear.

“He gave me confidence, had my back the whole time,” Wilson said of Coach Wright. “He had confidence in me, and never scolded me.”

Wilson was BKW’s starting guard for two full seasons before graduating last June. He’s currently studying mechanical engineering at the University of Buffalo, and plays recreational basketball whenever possible.

Fracturing his forearm was nothing more than a fluke.

“The thought of never playing again never crossed my mind,” Wilson said. “The way my arm looked, I’m sure some people thought I would quit, but that was not the case.”

“No regrets”

Last year, Joe Bender won the starting quarterback position as a senior on the Guilderland football team. He was poised to lead the Dutch, but a rough tackle in the first game left him with a broken left leg.

Bender had played one half of a football game, and now his season was over.

“It really hurt,” said Bender. “I was heartbroken, and felt like someone took something special away from me. I worked so hard, but one play changed everything.”

During that home game against Christian Brothers Academy, Bender had ran out of the pocket, getting his leg twisted by a defender. On the bottom of a pile, Bender’s left leg stuck to the ground.

“It was difficult, but we put faith in the next player,” said Guilderland Head Coach Dan Penna. Frank Gallo, then a junior, relieved Bender. “Joe is a team-first type of guy, so he took whatever role he could. We embraced him.”

After surgery, Bender couldn’t be on the sidelines for the next game, but received the game ball that was signed by his teammates. Bender went to the practices, games, and stayed as involved as he could with the team.

“They gave me sympathy because they felt sorry for me,” Bender said of his teammates. “They were my brothers, so I knew they could win without me.”

Guilderland made it to the Class AA playoffs while Bender acted as a motivator on the sidelines. Every game, he really wanted to play, but he was on crutches.

“I could have been out there, but I eventually got over it,” Bender said. “I kept telling myself that there were no regrets, a freak accident that could have happened to anyone.”

If Gallo ever made mistakes at quarterback, Bender would be there for support. Mostly, Bender wasn’t worried about Gallo because he played well.

“He’s a good athlete and a good leader, so he gave a lot of vocal support,” Penna said of Bender. “He had time to center himself and recalibrate his future, and he made the best of his unfortunate luck.”

Bender had a successful baseball season for Guilderland last spring, playing third base. He hopes to compete in the sport for Hudson Valley Community College where he’s now studying physical education.

“You never know when the last play can happen, so you always have to work your tail off,” said Bender. “There are no regrets about anything.”

No self-pity

Jennifer Cillis thought she had bruised her right knee; she was surprised when her doctor said that her ACL was torn.

Going up for a rebound for the Voorheesville basketball team in February 2011, Cillis was knocked in the knee, falling forward onto the court. She got up, hobbled off, and went to work the next day.

Cillis was Voorheesville’s leading scorer at the time, and she told her teammates that her knee was fine. Upon word of the torn ACL, everyone was shocked.

“I knew I had strong muscles, but I trusted the doctor’s opinion,” Cillis said. “I had been hit with the right force, and at the right angle, to tear my knee. It was hard to wrap my head around.”

Losing a star player is hard for any team, and Cillis remembers that Voorheesville had turned the corner on its season right before she got injured. Cillis could have played with a brace, but she thought hard about her future, and decided that surgery was the best, safest option.

“You’re 16 years old, and you want to play, but you have to look down the road,” Cillis said. “I didn’t want further damage.”

Voorheesville Head Coach Bob Baron said that some girls on the team were crying when they found out about Cillis’s injury. “The players knew Jen felt bad, so they used that emotion for the better,” he said. “They gave more than they were used to giving to fill the void.”

The Blackbirds went on to win a sectional championship, making it to the Class C state semifinals. Cillis enjoyed the ride, and still felt very much a part of the team.

“They did such a great job without me, and they said that I helped them get there,” Cillis said. “It was great to watch them because they played every game for me.”

If Voorheesville advanced all the way to the state semifinals without its leading scorer, what would have happened if Cillis never hurt her knee?

Cillis said the team didn’t talk about a “what if” situation. “It may have been different, but what’s the point?” Cillis said. “It doesn’t mean we would have won; it’s not fair. I saw what happened, and they did a great job. It was great to be there with them.”

Baron said that Cillis was at every practice and game while doing physical therapy three times per week. She even worked out at practice, shooting hoops and dribbling while sitting in a chair.

There were two important parts to dealing with Cillis’s injury, Baron said. “First, we let her know that we cared about her,” he said, “and second, keeping her involved. She was always around, making comments and being a critical part.”

Cillis felt like a leader, even from the bench.

“Coach had me be a defender in practice, and I kept all the stats,” said Cillis. “He always talked to me, and really thought I helped the team get there. It was really nice.”

Being on crutches in the middle of winter was a little frustrating, Cillis said. Her hours and hours of physical therapy and mobility training paved the way for her clearance in August 2011. She could now play full seasons of soccer and basketball for her senior year.

Some people do rush back to the playing field, but Cillis was conservative. “I was so ready to play,” she said. “My mentality, and you can ask anyone, is giving 100 percent at all times. I never go easy, never soft…I wanted to play, and be the same player.”

Cillis went full throttle into her senior soccer season, and her knee actually felt stronger. She didn’t lose her quickness, not bothered by the knee brace she was wearing.

Now, a sophomore at Boston College, Cillis studies biology in a pre-med program because of what she went through with her injury. She still plays basketball and soccer.

“My injury really solidified my interest in the medical career,” Cillis said. “I felt so much better after surgery. I want to help put people back together.”

Cillis says that she has no fear. Any reservations were put to bed when she started playing.

“Big injuries aren’t the end,” she said. “You can come back if you want it enough. I didn’t pity myself, and looked forward. I wasn’t going to feel bad for myself.”

“Working every day”

Summer football camp is supposed to get a player better prepared for the upcoming fall season, but the experience backfired for Leland Armstrong earlier this year.

Armstrong already had an unstable left knee; he decided to go to Union College camp anyway. During a cut drill, he planted on his left foot, and felt his knee buckle out. He fell to the ground.

“One of the worst pains of my life,” said Armstrong, who has dealt with all types of harm as a lineman for the Guilderland football team. “For this one, I had to bite down on something to keep myself from screaming.”

Severing the ACL in his left knee, and suffering two meniscus tears in the process, Armstrong is sidelined for his senior season. Part of him wishes he had never gone to summer camp.

Two weeks before the camp, Armstrong had fallen on his left knee. He brushed it off and kept working out. Two weeks later, he was in the middle of a nightmare.

“I should have taken care of myself and not gone to camp,” he said. “The way I tore my knee was in an infrequent way. I’ve had problems before.”

After falling to the turf after the injury, Armstrong said he just laid there in disbelief, as if to say, “Not me, not now.” Pain wasn’t his first thought.

Armstrong was treated, and his serious knee injury was confirmed.

“I wanted to break down, but then I thought about how often I could get to the gym,” said Armstrong. “It was looking pretty dull, but I might be able to make it back. I don’t want to hinder anything this season, so I’m working every day to get strength.”

Armstrong had surgery three months ago, and started walking two weeks after the procedure. He’s been attending practices and games, and feels stronger now. He said he’s been coaching kids on defense, like a “team mechanic.”

“We have great coaches, so our line should be good,” Armstrong said. “I recruited my friend.”

Shortly after his injury, Armstrong came across a sign that inspired him. It was a picture of a guy who had lost his leg, and the picture fast-forwards three months, and the guy is ripped, totally in shape.

The sign said, “The loss of my leg didn’t make me weaker, it made me stronger.”

“It was weird seeing that at the time, and it changed my work ethic,” said Armstrong. “I still have my leg, so I can make it back.”

Best of the bad

Since millions of high school athletes are injured every year, Kate Gawrys keeps busy at Guilderland. She takes every injury seriously.

“There’s always studies on how to keep kids safer, but they’re playing at 110 percent,” she said. “Kids are playing harder, hitting harder, over and over again. There’s no real way to prevent injuries.”

However, coming into the season in top shape can only help an athlete. Those who are exhausted will be worse off.

“With kids, we treat injuries day by day,” Gawrys said. “We don’t jump to conclusions, or think the worst. We keep them in the moment, focused on how we can make the situation better.”

High school athletes are closely bonded to their teams, and that positive energy may have the power to heal.