The long road back

The surgery went perfectly, the rehabilitation is going according to plan, and the target date for a return to the field is set for the end of April. Still, Brian Johnson isn’t accustomed to this.

The Ute quarterback, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a loss to New Mexico last Nov. 12, has never suffered through an injury like this and is finding that it’s every bit as difficult as he’s been told.

After undergoing successful surgery, he spent a significant amount of time on crutches and out of commission before beginning the notoriously arduous rehab process.

But while the difficulty of the physical work has been just as high as advertised, Johnson, who turns 19 this month, says the mental wear-and-tear has been even greater. After all, having never gone through the process before, his temporary physical limitations are a whole new experience.

“It’s about what I expected. I didn’t think it was going to be anything outrageous,” Johnson said. “But the biggest thing for me is it’s just frustrating more than anything. It’s not physically hard as much as it is mentally hard, I would say.”

This time of year, with plenty of time left to go before spring ball kicks off, Ute football players continue to train and lift at the Smith Center. Johnson is no exception, but his work extends beyond lifting in the weight room with his teammates.

He also spends hours every week undergoing physical therapy at the University Orthopedic Center, trying to restore strength to his left leg as quickly as possible.

“First, it was just a process of just trying to get all my range of motion, and now the biggest thing is just trying to get my leg back strong, get my quad muscles back strong,” Johnson said.

The typical window of recovery for an ACL injury is four to six months, and Johnson will be right in that time frame if he is, as expected, ready to go full-speed by the end of April.

Until then, however, he has to wait patiently as he slowly works his leg back into playing shape.

“It just feels different the way it is now. It just doesn’t feel right,” Johnson said. “It’s just a long process; it takes time to heal, and so you’ve just got to deal with it.”

Johnson’s weekly routine includes “single-leg” exercises-i.e., squats, leg presses-on his right leg while he focuses on regaining strength on the injured leg.

“He’s limited as far as running, changing direction, jumping, those kinds of things,” said Bill Bean, the U’s head athletics trainer. “He’s just trying to get his overall strength going.”

As is typically the case with ligament tears, Johnson’s left leg atrophied following surgery, and while he has regained much of the strength he lost, there’s still plenty of work to do before he’s ready to go. In fact, since he began his rehabilitation process, it hasn’t gotten any easier.

“This might be the toughest part of rehab right now. Your body feels fine, but you have limitations to what you can do,” Johnson said. “This might be the toughest part ’cause I’ve got to work on adding muscle to my leg and getting all the strength back in my leg that needs to be there. I think it should become a lot easier after that.”

Time is of the essence for Johnson, who will be a major player in what head coach Kyle Whittingham calls an “open competition” for the starting quarterback spot for the 2006 season. That might be surprising, considering that Johnson was No. 4 in the nation in total offense prior to getting injured, and he put up those numbers in his first season as a starter.

But Brett Ratliff endeared himself to his coaching staff and the Ute fan base when he took over, leading the Utes to a season-ending road upset over archrival BYU and a blowout victory in the Emerald Bowl over heavily favored Georgia Tech.

And then there’s 6-foot-7-inch, 221-pound physical specimen Tommy Grady, a cannon-armed transfer from Oklahoma who spent last season manning the scout team for the Utes. While he has yet to prove a thing on the field, his physical talents have gotten plenty of people talking.

What makes it more difficult, and more frustrating for Johnson, is the fact that he won’t be able to participate full-time in the spring. Ratliff and Grady will both be able to compete in spring ball, which begins in March, and get fully acclimated to the offense and a new-look receiving corps.

Doctors have informed Johnson that he should be able to take part in seven-on-seven drills, but won’t be able to see full contact until summer rolls around. Even if he is ready before spring ball closes, coach Kyle Whittingham said his participation will be limited.

“It’s kinda hard because I won’t be able to be there to compete in the spring, so it basically will have to play itself out,” Johnson said. “I just have to take it one day at a time and trust the people who are working with me.”

The situation going into the spring is much different from last year, when Johnson was the only quarterback on the roster and saw reps with the first team all spring and summer.

Whittingham has kept a close eye on Johnson’s progress and, despite any setbacks caused by the injury and subsequent rehab, still expects Johnson to be fully able to compete for the starting job. In fact, as of right now, Johnson is still at the top of the depth chart.

“We’re going with the pecking order. Brian is going to be No. 1 by virtue of what he did in 10 football games,” Whittingham said. “With Ratliff and Tommy Grady getting all the reps in spring, we’re not counting Brian out, but it’s always a disadvantage when you don’t get reps?Brian is a proven commodity.”

But Johnson isn’t worrying about that right now. For the moment, his concentration is on fully healing his damaged knee and completely recovering his athletic abilities. He has spoken with several players who have undergone similar injuries, and the message, Johnson said, has been the same: “The key is to not to try to push it too hard, to know my limits, and if I do that, I’ll be fine.”

Leaps in modern medicine and technology have made it possible to make a full recovery from an ACL tear-and in Johnson’s case, given his youth and relative injury-free history, he is expected to be as good as new once he makes his return to the football field.

“I’m not really worried. My doctors are doing a great job, we had a well-respected surgeon operate on me,” Johnson said. “We have a great training staff and those guys are doing everything in their power to get me back quick.”

His rehab has reached its pinnacle, and it will continue for almost three months before he is cleared to play. Johnson is anxious to get back on the field-and he’s not the only one.

“Brian Johnson is coming along very well,” Whittingham said. “He’s right on schedule, and we’re excited to get him back healthy.”

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