When Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware broke his leg, in two places, in gruesome fashion during Sunday night’s regional final against Duke, one name popped into many minds: Joe Theismann. Though it’s been nearly 30 years since the New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor broke Theismann’s leg during a vicious sack on Monday Night Football, for many, the image is still vivid: Taylor clutching his helmet and waving for a trainer to help Theismann, with his leg twisting to the ground.
So Theismann wanted to reach out to Ware, since he knew exactly what the young college player, 20, was going through. Theismann offered himself as a resource, at any point in Ware’s recovery. After exchanging texts, they finally spoke by phone on Monday afternoon. “I told him, ‘you’re going to be the NCAA comeback player of the year next season’,” Theismann says.
“I’ll try,” Ware responded.
“He’s in terrific spirits, really,” says Theismann. “His mind is clear.”
That seems like a minor miracle, given what Ware went through near the Louisville sideline on Sunday (upon seeing the graphic nature of Ware’s injury – Ware’s tibia protruded through his skin — the Louisville bench recoiled in horror. Unfortunately, that reaction might be the lasting image of this year’s March Madness). “I’ve been an orthopedic surgeon for 35 years, and I’ve never seen such in injury in basketball,” says Dr. David Helfet, director of orthopedic trauma service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “This is a freak accident.”
The play – Duke’s Tyler Thornton shooting a three-pointer , Ware contesting it — was routine. “He didn’t have a wayward, awkward leap,” says Dr. David Forsh, chief of orthopaedic trauma at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But Ware’s landing was another story. His body was moving forward, while his right leg was moving backwards. Ware’s tibia, the main weight-bearing bone in the lower leg, didn’t support the force. “It was like breaking a pencil in your hand,” says Dr. Craig Roberts, chairman of the orthopedic surgery department at the University of Louisville.
Roberts didn’t see the play live; when he returned from the operating room, the CBS camera showed three Louisville players seated on the court, with their heads down. “I thought it was a multi-player injury,” says Roberts. He soon realized that Ware was down, and his teammates couldn’t bare to look. “It was like time stood still,” Roberts says. “It felt like a funeral.”
Forsh and Helfet suspect that Ware’s bones were predisposed to injury. “The most reasonable assumption,” says Forsh, “is that there was some weakening of the bone prior to this injury.” Helfet says Ware may have had prior stress fractures that went undetected. Kenny Klein, the sports information director for Louisville’s basketball team, calls this conclusion “pure speculation at this point.”
Ware went right into surgery, at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. To realign the bone, doctors inserted an intramedullary rod in the tibia. “It’s almost like they shish kabob the bone,” says Helfet. He was up on crutches on Monday; doctors planned to keep Ware in the hospital until Tuesday, to protect against a possible infection. Helfet says if Ware had, for example, torn ligaments in his knee, it might take him even longer to recover. Bones are more forgiving. “Though this is devastating and gruesome, the prognosis is better than it would be for some more subtle injuries,” says Helfet. “I expect him to be playing basketball on an elite level again.”
(Klein also said that insurance will cover all of Ware’s medical bills for this injury. Some college athletes, as we have discovered, aren’t as lucky).
Ware’s rehab will also be a mental challenge. “The psychological part is just as important as the physical part,” says Theismann. “Here, you have an opportunity to play in the Final Four, and your dreams are washed away. It’s not hard for the ‘what ifs’ to start creeping in.” Ware is staying upbeat, and the whole nation is offering moral support. But rehab will be a lonelier pursuit. “This is a trauma,” says Roberts. “Right now, he’s in the denial phase, the macho phase.” At some point, Roberts says, Ware will have to confront other stages of grief, like anger and depression.
Ware’s teammates, however, will be supporting him. “The prognosis is good,” says Roberts. “Despite the severity of the injury, this player got superb care, and post-operation, he will have access to first-class rehab. He’s a young man who is motivated, and has a great attitude. By three months, I expect him to be doing some light shooting. All things considered, things couldn’t have gone any better for him.”