Note: The following post follows the journey of Oklahoma Sooners’ wide receiver Ryan Broyles. I discussed his injury on my show and wrote about his college career-ending injury in a column for The Post and Courier.

From April 26-28, the lives of nearly 260 athletes changed. The NFL draft took center stage at Radio City Music Hall. The preparations for this all-important day are well documented. Essentially these athletes face a constant four-month long job interview. One such hopeful athlete was the 5’10”, 188-lb Ryan Broyles, who played wide receiver at the University of Oklahoma.

Commended for being a remarkably consistent receiver throughout his collegiate career, Ryan Broyles was projected to make a huge impact on the NFL scene just a year ago. Instead of leaving early for the pros, Broyles decided to return to college to try to win a national championship. His senior year ended cruelly, when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the third quarter of a game against Texas A&M.

Like the majority of athletes who experience this injury, Broyles suffered a noncontact knee injury. Despite what most people assume, most athletes don’t suffer ACL tears by being tackled, although that can occur. Most of them are hurt in one of two scenarios. Either the athlete lands from a jump on the foot while the knee is fully extended or hyperextended. Or he runs, plants his foot to turn, and feels a pop in the knee as the ligament ruptures.

The NCAA FBS record holder for career receptions remembers seemingly every last excruciating detail of the play to this day. Broyles ran a 30-yard crossing route. As he jumped to catch a pass, he planted, twisted and felt something give in his knee.

“I hung my head, I cried a little bit,” Broyles said. “I knew that I came back for my senior season to make a run at the national championship with my teammates, but we fell short of that obviously. That was the biggest thing, knowing I couldn’t finish my senior season with those guys.”

Broyles did finish his career however with an NCAA record 349 receptions. Broyles talked about his toughest time since the injury.

“Those few weeks right after my injury, I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t finish the season. It was tough for me to see my teammates finish what we had started without me. On a lighter note, I hated the fact that I couldn’t run for a while. I took that for granted.”

ACL rehab
The athlete must regain balance, proprioception, and plyometric strength and be able to perform sport-specific skills before returning to play.
Broyles, like most athletes suffering a torn ACL, underwent surgical reconstruction. Unfortunately while the surgery is performed as an outpatient procedure, it is still major surgery. Most athletes require approximately six months to even by cleared to return to sports. That six-month process involves aggressive physical therapy to regain knee range of motion and quadriceps, hamstrings, and lower extremity strength. They then start jogging around three months after surgery. The final phase of functional training, working on balance, plyometric strength, and sport-specific skills, often requires another few months.

Prior to the draft, his knee troubled many scouts and media analysts, who were already concerned about his limited size, height, and bulk. They did rave about his intangibles and work ethic. His draft profile at states the following:

Quick and agile, he can separate from defenders and is great in short-yardage situations. The injury he suffered at the end of the 2011 season may limit his already average straight-line speed.

One main concern about elite athletes and ACL tears centers around whether they will ever return to their pre-injury status. Will they run as fast or jump as high? While traditionally orthopaedic surgeons in the United States have cited statistics showing return to sports rates as high as 90% or more, there has been evidence recently that successful return to play might not be guaranteed after all. In fact, one recent study showed that only 70% of college football players return after an ACL tear. Fear of re-injury was the most common reason many never play again.

Broyles had said he was ready to work out for teams just five months after his knee surgery. He turned some heads April 12 when he ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 32.5-inch vertical during his own pro day held on Oklahoma’s campus.

“My will to win, you can’t match that up with a 40 time or a bench press,” Broyles said. “It’s something mentally you have. I’m driven from within.”

I don’t like to publicly cheer for athletes on this blog or in social media, but I became a Broyles fan after writing about him and his injury and hearing his poise and determination. I was thrilled to hear his name called out late Friday night. The Detroit Lions selected him with the 54th pick in the second round. He joins an excellent receiving core, spearheaded by All-Pro Calvin Johnson. It is probably safe to say that Broyles would have gone much higher, possibly even in the first round, had he stayed healthy during his senior year in college.

“Glad to be a Lion, glad that these guys and this organization think a lot about me, about my production,” Broyles said at his introductory press conference. “They’re not really knocking me too hard for the ACL, they believe that I’m going to produce and that I’m going to be healthier, stronger and faster than I’ve ever been.”

The Lions’ confidence in Broyles likely reflects the franchise’s belief that it got a steal in the draft. Fans will most likely end up seeing Broyles develop a niche as a slot receiver. Broyles won’t get another chance to chase a college national title, but he might help an NFL franchise looking to build upon their success from last year, when they made the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

I want to thank Prateek Prasanna for his research and assistance with this post.