Bouncing Back from an ACL Tear: Two Years Later
In November of 2019, four UNC student-athletes – Jackie Williams, Will Bowen, Brooke Bingham, and Patrice Rene – joined us for a Tar Heel Talk about the mental, physical, and social struggles they faced after tearing their ACL’s.
Now, two years later, we reached out to them to learn more about their individual journeys and how their tears have affected them, both as athletes and as humans, since the Tar Heel Talk.
Jackie Williams: Women’s Lacrosse
It was a normal day at lacrosse practice during her sophomore year at UNC. Jackie and one of her teammates spotted a praying mantis on the field and had been joking around about it. During a scrimmage that day, she took a routine dodge. Immediately after, she knew that something didn’t feel right.
“I take a dodge. [I went] down the right alley [and] rolled back, and there's no contact on me or anything. I just go down. Immediately, I knew I tore my ACL,” said Williams.
She soon found out that she had, in fact, torn her ACL for the first time. After undergoing surgery to repair it, she went through nine months' worth of rehabilitation. During this time, Jackie had to shift from being out on the field, to cheering on her teammates from the sidelines.
“You want to play. You don't sign up for the team, you don't put yourself through all of the grueling workouts and everything because you're satisfied with being injured and sitting on the bench. That was interesting, trying to be able to shift the mindset of being encouraging as a competitor, but now not even being a competitor.”
Fast forward to the fall of her junior year, almost a year since the tear, and Jackie was going through the return-to-play progression. She was excited to finally get back to playing the sport she loved. Again, she knew something didn’t feel right.
“I kept saying to everyone, ‘I don't know, it just feels really unstable.’ [It] keeps kind of shifting on me, and [I’m] not really sure what's going on,” said Williams.
Around October of that fall, Jackie went back to the surgeon to ask for an MRI. The surgeon discovered that the graft that was supposed to be holding her ACL together was partially torn. Her options at that point were to either undergo another surgery to repair the tear or wear a brace and continue her return-to-play.
“So, I'm a week out from being a year post-op with my first surgery, and I am traumatized from my first process. There's absolutely no way you're going to get me to go into the knife this close to being out.”
Jackie chose to wear the brace for the remainder of fall and over Winter Break in preparation for lacrosse season in the spring. She got back to campus in early January prepared to take on the coming season. Her first practice back in the spring, she felt a pop in her knee.
Jackie had no choice now but to undergo her second ACL surgery. Yet, what the surgeons found during surgery was alarming. There was no ACL graft in her knee at all and the screws they had put in place during her last surgery were sticking out. Basically, she had likely played all fall without an ACL. She realized at this moment that her body really did know best, as she was in pain throughout the fall.
“That's what I always tell people when they're coming off their ACL [surgery]. If something doesn't feel right, advocate for yourself.”
Jackie drew from her experience the previous year supporting her teammates from the sideline, and she shifted towards a more positive mentality.
“It was so mentally exhausting to constantly feel sorry for myself or constantly blame everything. When I finally stopped doing that, I could enjoy everything. Everything was fun. Then, it didn't matter. I think the mindset I had shifted into allowed me to have so much fun and compete, and get to that next level competitively on the field.”
After that second procedure, Jackie underwent another surgery where they took a graft from her opposite knee, as well. Jackie had reached her senior year as a Tar Heel. She was excited to get back on the field and compete since she hadn’t been able to do so since her freshman year. Yet, she was still experiencing residual pain from her surgeries. Her doctors gave her three options this time: another surgery, medication, or medical retirement.
“So, it was like, ‘Well, I'm just going to medicate [and] see how far I can get through the season. I'm gonna push as hard as I can and I'm just going to go for broke. Why wouldn’t I at this point? I literally have nothing to lose.’”
She developed a mentality during senior year that she was going to give every practice all that she had.
“Because at this point, I don't even care.
I was so sick of being injured. I was so sick of being sidelined and everyone thinking that I couldn't achieve something.
I felt like I kind of had something to prove to myself, but also [to] other people.”
She had one more procedure in the fall, but she was able to make it to the spring lacrosse season. Her coaches encouraged her throughout the process. The pinnacle of Jackie’s journey, she says, was a conversation she had with her defensive coordinator. He told her that she would be in the mix when the coaches were discussing who would be on the starting lineup this season.
“I still carry that as my biggest, ‘I made it.’ Not that I ever started at Carolina, but to me, that might as well have been my name being called out on game day because with everything I had been through and all of my challenges, I [felt] like I made it.”
She acknowledged to him that she was still struggling with residual pain.
“Then he started to say something, and I was like, ‘You know, I get it.’ If my body was more reliable, I would actually be a contender. And he was like, ‘Yeah.’”
Nevertheless, Jackie did get playing time her senior season. Unfortunately, her season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She considered coming back to Chapel Hill for a fifth year but determined last minute that it wasn’t going to work out. Instead, she applied to podiatry schools.
Jackie is now in medical school for podiatry in Des Moines, Iowa.
“[My knees] still don't feel great but, I mean, that's kind of the gamble you take when you push yourself.”
Will Bowen: Men’s Lacrosse
After returning from Winter Break his freshman year at UNC, Will Bowen stepped on the field for practice. It was his second week back on campus, and the energy was high in anticipation of a scrimmage against another school that week.
He was performing a routine cut when he tore his ACL.
“I couldn't have said it was my ACL, but I definitely could identify it. It was something that I hadn't done before to my knee or to any sort of lower extremity,” said Bowen.
Later that day he went to the doctor for an assessment and an MRI. The results came in that night that he had in fact torn his ACL and meniscus, as well as strained his MCL.
“At that point, I had no understanding of the magnitude of an ACL tear [and] what the next eight to 12 months would look like until my return-to-play. So, you know,
I was devastated at that point.”
Leading up to surgery, Will was tasked with completing pre-op exercises.
“I remember a couple of days before surgery, basically being able to jog again. I definitely couldn't play, but it was pretty strange to be able to jog a month after having torn my ACL and step in the operating room, and then come out the next day and not even be able to walk.”
A month after the tear happened, Will underwent surgery to repair his ACL and MCL. At this point, he was out for the season. The next six to nine months would be dedicated to rehabilitating his knee. This put him in a tough spot mentally because he wasn’t able to play the sport that had always been such a major part of his life.
“I'd say for the first week to two weeks I was pretty down in the dumps. It wasn't that I was trying to isolate myself, but I just was kind of pushing people away. Whether I was doing it consciously or not, I was keeping to myself. Then, I had an honest conversation with my trainer and kind of just opened the floodgates.”
Will coped with these struggles by leaning on other people for support. His family was the first one he went to, but he soon realized he also needed a support system in Chapel Hill.
“There were tons of Carolina athletes that had torn their ACLs, and I had some friends from home. So it was really cool and helpful to be able to tap into that support system and figure out some pros and cons from other people's experiences and use those to try to make the most of mine.”
Through living with his teammates throughout his rehabilitation and return-to-play processes, Will was able to stay connected to the team, even though he wasn’t able to be on the field.
“It was cool to see their successes and their lows, and still feel emotionally attached to the team and their performance throughout that spring.”
Another way Will was able to stay connected to the team was by traveling with them for away games. Will’s coach allowed him to be on the sidelines to run the IPad and do in-game film work.
“As the weeks and months went on, I ended up playing a pretty big role within our team, even though I wasn't standing on the field. That was a nice way to still feel special and of value even though I was obviously injured, barely able to walk, [and] definitely not able to play.”
The next year, Will was able to be on the field again, until the lacrosse season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During his time at home, he decided to accelerate his school timeline to graduate early.
“I think a lot of what I credit to my injury is it forcing me to think a lot about how I wanted to spend my time most efficiently and get the most out of what's going to be five years of college.”
He played out his last year in Chapel Hill, before graduating a year early. Will is now continuing his lacrosse career and earning his master’s degree at Georgetown in Washington D.C.
“I've been very fortunate to have built back a pretty strong knee and left leg and have had no real physical issues, other than some pretty typical chronic patella pain that a lot of people go through.”
Brooke Bingham: Women’s Soccer
Brooke’s journey with ACL tears began her junior year of high school. She recovered quickly from surgery with a strong motivation to play in college.
“My recovery was pretty simple. I only tore my ACL, so they went and fixed it. I bounced back from that one pretty quickly. I honestly don't have any complaints about it, and it was a really smooth and a really good recovery, honestly.”
Her freshman year at UNC was met with time on the field right away. She earned a starting role at left center back during her sophomore year and played in all 27 games. The season ended late that fall, and the team began to practice again during the spring semester. It was at one of those practices that Brooke tore her ACL again, this time on the opposite knee. She underwent her second surgery, as well as a scope to clean everything up and ensure it all looked good.
“I think the hardest thing was having the mental strength to get through it, especially being my second time.
At that point, once I tore my ACL again, [it had] gone through my mind that I might have to medically retire. So, I kind of put myself in the position to be like, ‘I'm going to find my way back, and if I can't, I can't, but I'm going to try my best to do so.’”
After her rehabilitation and recovery from her second ACL tear, she suffered a third one during her first practice back on her left knee. The third surgery was no easier than the first two. The surgeons repaired not only her ACL, Meniscus, and PCL, but they also did a bone graft. Many doctors told her that that surgery was extremely hard to get back because it was her third major surgery and fifth surgery overall.
“But that didn’t matter to me,” said Bingham. “I was determined to put all I had into getting back. I wanted to look back and have no regrets, which I definitely accomplished. I put everything I had into each of my recoveries.”
After recovering from back-to-back ACL tears for two and a half years, Brooke medically retired on September 13th, 2021.
“I medically retired after running one last beep test, which is horrible.
I ran it because that’s what I love: my teammates next to me, running, exhausted, [and] on the verge of passing out, yet still leaning on each other, supporting each other, and getting each other through such a dreaded time.”
After running the beep test, Brooke tearfully announced to her coaches that she was medically retiring.
“It was crushing and it still affects me to this day. It’s so hard to come to terms with when it’s all I’ve known for so long. Mentally, it’s draining.”
Just like she leaned on her teammates during that last beep test and all the ones before it, Brooke leaned on her coaches, teammates, and family to get her through what had been a long, difficult process.
“I think it's really important to keep those relationships throughout recovery and to lean on people because, without that support, you feel like you're alone. It's so nice to have people around you that support you and want you to get back, and want you to be your best.”
During her time in recovery and after medically retiring, Brooke realized that she could still utilize her passion for soccer and developing the game.
“I think what really made me go from playing to wanting to coach was the coaches that I had in the past and how much [of an] impact they have had on me. I think I've really lucked out and have had coaches that really focus on instilling the love of the game into you and just enjoying the game and playing it with a smile on your face. I want to instill that in other kids.”
Brooke is now finishing up her senior year at UNC. After graduating, she plans on coaching youth soccer.
“My heart is still in the game of soccer, but after five ACL tears, my body and knees simply couldn’t keep up anymore. I am forever grateful for what soccer has brought me, [and] I wouldn’t trade my soccer career for anything; from the many challenges that helped shape my character to the priceless relationships I have built along the way.”
Patrice Rene: Football
Patrice finished off his high school career with success and a list of accolades. His time at UNC playing defensive back for the football team was no different. He started in all 11 games as a true freshman, and again as a sophomore and junior.
Patrice’s senior year was set on the same trajectory, after starting in the first game of the season. The second game was a home game against the University of Miami. It was a sold-out crowd, so the atmosphere in Kenan was electric. Patrice started and made five stops against the Hurricanes.
“So, the last play before halftime, [it was a] crazy football play. I ended up getting a helmet to my knee.”
Patrice was taken to the locker room during halftime to be evaluated. The doctors told him that he was done and could go ahead and take his pads off. After some convincing, they told him that they believed he had torn his ACL.
“Coming off a really good junior year, and kind of supposed to have this last season to send me off to the next level, it was devastating, honestly,” said Rene. “I heard that [and] I kind of went into shock mode. For the first day, I just didn't even know what to think [or] what to believe.”
Patrice later underwent surgery to repair his ACL. He recounted the physical pain he was in after surgery, as well as the simple tasks he was now not able to perform.
“It takes you back a little bit, you know, doing little activities that you might have taken for granted,” said Rene. “That was tough, just regular tasks that you probably took for granted a lot of times, now, you're really having difficulties doing and realizing it's a different type of pain.”
There were two things Patrice emphasized that he struggled with during recovery, one of which was having to switch up the plan for his playing career that he’d always had in his mind.
“I wanted to have a perfect ending to my career at Carolina, [after] going out there [and] doing all four years playing as a true freshman. I kind of had a whole vision for myself. My plan had to switch up. That was tough as well.”
The second piece that he found himself struggling with was not being able to be out on the field with his teammates.
“I just tried to motivate them as best I could [and] be a part of the team as best I could, just going out there cheering on on the sidelines, or helping the younger guys [and] giving them tips. I was just trying to stay involved in the game as much as I can. It was definitely tough on the mental side of it for me.”
Although Patrice couldn’t physically be out on the field with his teammates, their bond was able to remain due to the fact that they were a major support system for him.
“We hung out every day, not just on the field, but off the field, outside of school, [and] outside of the stadium. We always hung out, so my teammates were big supporters.”
His friends from home and outside of school, his coaches, with whom he formed a close bond, and his parents also helped him mentally through his period of recovery.
Patrice was able to come back to play for the 2020 season. Once that season ended, players were awarded an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He decided he would continue playing football and get his master’s degree at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“Now, being two years out, my knee has been feeling really good. It hasn't bothered me at all, honestly, and I think the doctors over there did a really good job. My trainers have helped me really well in terms of rehabbing and getting to the level I was at before, if not better.”
There’s clearly a lot more to an ACL tear ...
than the ligament detaching from the knee and shin bones. Since the Tar Heel Talk took place almost two years ago, Jackie, Will, Brooke, and Patrice were all able to learn a lot about themselves and become more mentally strong in the difficult process of recovering from their ACL tears.
- Jackie Williams, Will Bowen, Brooke Bingham, Patrice Rene with Sam Annetta