September 22, 2005

Injured Athletes Face Tough Road Back

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The proverbial alarm clock ticking in Joel Sussman’s head must be deafening.

He puts on his pads.


His jersey.


His helmet.


Imagine how loud the ring will be when the talented senior linebacker takes to the field this Saturday against Yale, his first game appearance in almost a year. He first came back in his signature number 35 carnelian uniform on Tuesday afternoon, when on a cloudless day, Sussman – pads, jersey and all – took the field for his first full-contact practice of the season.

It wasn’t as if Sussman was not expecting to be back on the field. It just seems like during his career, if there was such a thing as a 13-leaf clover, Sussman would have 35 of them in his back pocket. Starting in his sophomore year, Sussman has torn his ACL and meniscus. His right knee is now held together from pieces of his hamstring, and he’s had two staph infections – one of which made him miss the team’s opener against Bucknell last week.

He has been through countless hours of rehabbing, become an expert in the use of crutches and walking up an icy Libe Slope with a bad leg, and knows more than anyone should know about a right knee. Simply, he has been through a lot.

“I wouldn’t want to say that I’ve been unlucky. But I wouldn’t say I’ve had good luck,” Sussman smirked.

In many cases, being an injured and understandably frustrated player like Sussman is more time consuming than being a healthy, participating athlete. Just ask senior soccer player Shannon Fraser. Fraser missed most of last season with a bum left hamstring and would have to go an hour prior to the start of practice to rehab, before watching her teammates play without her. Sure, Fraser could walk, but forwards in particular need healthy hamstrings to accelerate – something she could not do safely.

“I think that [the most frustrating part] was once you get to that point where you feel that you can go out there and play, your coaches and trainers are holding you back. I think the hardest part is really getting back and playing well,” she said.

Senior wrestler Joe Mazzurco had a similar experience almost two years ago when, in a freak accident, he broke his jaw while taking down an opponent. Two metal plates, which are now permanent residents in his jaw, were implanted and for six weeks, Mazzurco, whose “face swelled like a balloon,” could only eat soft food like mashed potatoes. Not that the memory of this impacted his approach to competing 100 percent.

“Whatever happens, happens,” said Mazzurco, who earned All-America honors last season.

Both Mazzurco and Fraser said that their teammates gave them a boost in helping them stay optimistic in bouncing back from their injuries. In Sussman’s case, it is no different. He said in the days after he was seriously injured, it was depressing, but his teammates were always there to pick him up. Not that they’d let the guy with the torn ACL play.

“I always think I can play,” Sussman said with a smile.

Countless hours of hard work, lifting, and bare-boned determination has gotten Sussman back to the point where he can take the field. He still has to go in early when all of his other teammates are in classes or hanging out to rehab and make sure he’s ready for those Saturday afternoons. He knows he has to be careful, taking steps to keep his tender right knee warm and loose so that nothing unfortunate happens to it again. And maybe more importantly, he has to have the right mentality, which means focusing on the game and not being afraid.

Not that there wouldn’t be any negative thoughts in the bowels of an athlete’s mind. Fraser, for example, said she had a flashback when she recently ran a fitness drill for the first time since last year. This was the same activity – which involved sprinting across the field and jogging back – she did a season ago, when she injured herself. Mazzurco also was conscious of his repaired jaw when he first came back, keeping his head down during matches and in practice.

But for both, they have found success in bouncing back from their injuries. Mazzurco was a key member in helping his team to a fourth-place finish at the national tournament last season. Fraser’s four goals have boosted her team to a perfect 5-0-0 record so far this season. And both of them say that once they’re on the mat or field, winning is the only thing that’s on their minds.

Not that Sussman does not get anxious. In fact, the 6-4, 235-pound linebacker, who has played his share of games, gets butterflies in his stomach before every one of those Saturday afternoons. And no, he is not thinking about getting injured.

“I always get nervous before a game. But after the first hit, it’s just football. You’re just playing the same game you’ve been playing for years,” he said. “[And] if you don’t go 100 percent, you’re more likely to get hurt.”

Although on the sidelines for a good part of his Cornell career, Sussman was voted as one of the team’s co-captains this year – a testament to his popularity among his mates and positive attitude. Especially in a league where there are no athletic scholarships on the line, no national media to impress, no tangible incentives to give up, Sussman and others who have dealt with similar circumstances are choosing to bounce back for a simple reason – their love for their sport at Cornell.

“The reason why I rehabbed so hard is so I can play with [my] guys,” Sussman said. “[After you are injured], you start realizing how much you love the game when you are just watching instead of playing – and how fortunate guys are when they stay healthy.”

Sussman is trying not to think about taking the field at the Yale Bowl on Saturday afternoon, instead preferring to take it a day at a time, practice to practice, play to play, tackle to tackle.

“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said.

And after all he’s been through, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Sussman will easily handle all of that ticking in his head

Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Assistant Sports Editor