Seven months ago, I made the difficult admission that I am not a professional athlete. Stunning, I know.
Days after that column, I underwent reconstructive surgery on my left anterior cruciate ligament, a repair of my medial meniscus and the removal of a shredded lateral meniscus. I was immobilized for four weeks due to the meniscus repair.
In all, it’s the third knee surgery I’ve had and second true reconstruction, the first being on my right knee 15 years ago. This one was different as the surgeons used a part of my left hamstring to replace the ACL, as opposed to the patella tendon used in my right knee. This was due to the fact I had developed "jumper’s knee" over the years on the left side, which prevented them from getting in there and harvesting that out.
Anyway, here I am, seven months out and I’m nearing full-strength. I was cleared to return to golf six months out – which was a huge accomplishment considering the work I had done. I’m a right-handed golfer, which means I put a lot of torque on that left knee. My surgeon and physical therapists were concerned because I have no lateral support anymore without the meniscus and let’s face, it’s a still-healing structure.
The last step towards being cleared was having to start running, and running successfully for several minutes at a time.
This sounds easy, but trust me, it’s not – especially when all this happened because you were running. So, those first steps were a little freaky. I had some mental flashbacks to the injury itself. That, my friends, was not fun.
But, I continued busting my butt every day in rehab, did the running, and was cleared.
It was a goal I set from Day 1, and I met it. I can’t tell you how good that felt – though not nearly as good as those first tentative swings out in the green spaces of a golf course.
While the physical work was my own, there was no way to accomplish that goal – and set a great foundation for future goals of running a 5K, playing Turkey Bowl flag football, or shooting hoops with nieces and nephews – without an incredible support group that was led by my beautiful wife, Michelle, and a dedicated medical staff.
(I also want to thank all of my colleagues in the media from Milwaukee, Chicago and Green Bay who sent me encouraging thoughts, as well as the staff and players of the teams I cover. It meant more than you know).
I’m the type of athlete – always have been – that if you tell me I can do something, I believe you. Once my doctors and therapists said I could walk without crutches, I did. They told me to jump, and I did. They told me I needed to start running. I did. They told me to go all out on the golf course, and I did.
Sure, there is some natural trepidation – but if they told me I had to do certain things in order to get better, and that my knee was sound enough to handle it – I did it.
When I went through this as a teenager, I had no concept of true rehab and all that went into it. I wasn’t an elite athlete, so I went through the motions. I was a kid. And, I paid the price later as an adult, as that left knee was gradually worn down by overcompensation and poor athletic form developed over the years.
It gives me a greater appreciation and more importantly, understanding, for what the pro and college athletes I cover go through, physically and mentally, during this process.
It has raised questions, too. My doctors and therapists and I talked frequently about the rehab process of Chicago Bulls’ star point guard Derrick Rose, who missed all of last season recovering from a torn ACL. We talked about the injury and subsequent recover of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
It was great to get some perspective and additional knowledge - a lot has changed since my last surgery and rehab in 1998 – and I feel I’ll be a more educated reporter going forward.
I’m still going through the healing process – I may be cleared for "everything" in a month – but I can say this has been one of the better experiences of my life. Fortunately, I didn’t feel any pain when my knee fell apart, and having to pay additional bills and be basically useless for four weeks was not fun, but it’s made me a better person, healthier, smarter, and better in my job.
When something "bad" happens in life some often say it could always be worse, that it’s not "that bad" – but this was an unexpected mental and physical challenge placed in front of me and I’d like to think I’m better for it.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.