Keaton Schlegel rushed into the opening, filling the hole to block the opposing running back's path upfield. The running back cut back, and Keaton took a step upfield to follow. At that moment, he felt his knee explode.
"I heard a pop," Keaton recalls. "It was almost like a gunshot. As soon as I hit the ground, I knew my knee was out of joint."
It was homecoming for Keaton and his team. Keaton was a junior, a linebacker on the Pittsford football team. He had been called on a blitz and rushed in, just as he had in dozens of games and hundreds of practices before. But as Keaton cut, one of his own players rolled up underneath him, hitting his knee and causing him to crumple to the ground.
"The pain was excruciating," Keaton says. Head coach Fred Ricci and Assistant Coach Keith Molinich worked to calm Keaton down. He recalls looking at their faces, seeing expressions of puzzlement as they surveyed his knee. The team doctor and trainer popped Keaton's knee back into joint, then put an air cast on the joint.
"That was the last pain I had," Keaton says. But he already knew that his season was over.
Keaton was taken to the hospital by ambulance. He was seen by a doctor in the emergency room, who tested his knee and told Keaton he had a torn meniscus. By 4 in the morning, Keaton was home and in bed. But he was up again within hours, attending his team's 7 a.m. practice on crutches.
Keaton told his coaches he had a torn meniscus, but Coach Molinich suspected there was more to Keaton's injury. He pulled out his cell phone and found the number for his friend, Mike Maloney, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine expert at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Dr. Maloney said that Keaton needed to come back to the hospital.
An orthopaedics resident examined Keaton this time, and discovered that he had at least torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL)—two of the key ligaments that stabilize the knee—as well as his meniscus and a piece of his quadriceps muscle. Keaton was then sent for an MRI, which revealed he had also torn his posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).
"They told me I had one of the most devastating knee injuries," Keaton recalls. "I was kind of shocked. I knew I wasn't going to be playing that season. But I started questioning whether I would ever play again."
An appointment was set up with Dr. Maloney for the following Monday. Dr. Maloney explained to Keaton that his knee would require major reconstruction. Keaton was done for the season, and he would need 9-18 months for recovery after the surgery. Dr. Maloney explained that, in a case like this, he really couldn't give Keaton a specific date when he would be better. They would just have to wait and see.
"I knew this was life-changing," Keaton says. "But at that point, I was really let down. I wondered if I would be going through life with a limp."
When the day of the surgery arrived, Keaton was nervous. He had experienced some minor surgeries before, but never anything requiring anesthesia. And he had only met Dr. Maloney days before. Still, what he heard from other people helped calm him.
"Everyone who had Dr. Maloney said that he was remarkable," Keaton said.
The surgery took about 4 hours. As the anesthesia wore off, Keaton groggily said to a nurse, "Did you see the train that just hit me?" But he was surprised to find that he didn't feel any pain at all.
Keaton's physical therapy started that day. A therapist taught him how to squeeze his quadriceps muscle to begin to regain control of it. His first appointment for outpatient physical therapy, at University Sports Medicine, was set up for one week later.
Keaton's coaches had always been impressed with his work ethic, and he applied that same drive to gaining back his strength and mobility. Still, he had to be patient: His PCL needed 5-6 months to heal. But at that point, he was able to move on to leg presses, leg curls, and other more challenging movements.
When football training started the following summer, the rest of Keaton's team was far ahead of him. So Keaton began hitting the weights with a newfound consistency.
"I couldn't slack off," confesses Keaton. He worked out three times a week, often progressing in weights quicker than he ever had before.
Keaton performed the staple exercises of football weight training, like squats and deadlifts. Soon, he was among the strongest players on his team.
One day, the players and coaches organized an impromptu competition in the weight room. With over 200 pounds on the bar, the players were given 30 seconds to do as many deadlifts as possible. Keaton did 20. Only one player was able to surpass him, doing just one repetition more.
Keaton's coaches and doctors were astonished by his progress, as were all of the people who were there to see Pittsford Mendon's first game that season. Keaton was not only back on the field, playing with the intensity he was so well known for. He was named Captain of his team.
With his knee intact, his dreams have mended, too. Being sidelined much of his junior year, he missed many opportunities to be noticed by scouts. But Keaton still hopes to play Division 3 college football. At a recent recruiting night event, several college coaches expressed interest in having him play for their teams.
Keaton also looks forward to returning to karate, another passion of his. He is a black belt who has trained for over a dozen years and competed at numerous events locally and nationally. He has his eye on
a the Amateur Athletic National Tournament coming up in a few months. He is also trying to choose between playing baseball or golf for his high school in the spring.
With his knee feeling stable and strong—and with his 40-yard dash within 1/10 of a second of his pre-injury time—it's easy for Keaton to feel like nothing ever happened to him. Still, he feels indebted to his coaches for standing by him and believing in him and to Dr. Maloney for helping his knee to heal.
"He's just a phenomenal doctor," Keaton says.