This is the story of the anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee, how it snapped in 1977 and remains snapped to this day. It took another leg injury suffered twenty-five years later, however, to allow my ACL problem to be eventually diagnosed.
Back in 2002, when I was living and working in Melbourne, I used to regularly attend ‘Tai Bo’ classes in a gym. The ‘Tai Bo’ was short for ‘Thai Boxing’, but it was like a cross between aerobics and boxing and I loved it. There are other versions of it, such as ‘Body Combat’, and I recommend it for those who want to keep fit, but only if it’s done properly. The correct way is to complete the exercises as if you are actually hitting someone as hard as you can. But I digress.
I was participating in a Tai Bo class one night and the exercise I was performing involved placing my hands at the sides of my head and raising my knees up alternately to touch my elbows. This exercise can be done as low-impact by leaving the feet on the floor or, to add a bit extra, a small jump can be added as the knee is raised. I chose to do this and, as I did my little jump, I landed on the side of my right foot and went over on my ankle. I can’t tell you how many times I‘ve done this in my life, but this one was particularly bad and extremely painful but I foolishly went home instead of admitting myself to hospital. It happened on a Friday night and I thought a weekend of rest (I couldn’t walk on it anyway) would suffice, but it was still badly swollen and still painful by Monday morning and I had to take three days off work before I could put any weight on it.
Instead of going to see a doctor (and being given the mandatory anti-inflammatory tablets), I decided to visit a physiotherapist, who eventually referred me to an orthopaedic specialist. I was quite happy about this, because I hoped that he might recommend surgery to fix my wobbly ankle once-and-for-all.
He examined my ankle (which had returned to its normal appearance by this time) by twisting and turning and pulling and flexing it and compared it to my left one (which wasn’t much better). He then examined my knees in much the same way, and as he was checking my right knee he said, “Whoa! When did you do you ACL?” I asked him what he meant and he said, “Your anterior cruciate ligament. It’s gone. Look.” He then moved to my left knee and bent it and pulled it forward and it moved back to its original position by itself. He then performed the same procedure on my right knee. “See?” he said. “It doesn’t move back. That’s because your ACL has gone.” I told him that I had hurt my knee several times when I was younger and he said that it was probably the first bad one when the rupture occurred. “I remember the first time”, I told him. “Was there a loud crack?” he asked. I told him that there was and that my knee had swollen up like a balloon. “Yep. That would have been it”, he said. He asked me when it happened. I told him it was in 1977. “Bloody hell!” was his reply.
I still remember the day very well. It was the first weekend of the May school holidays. I was 14 and playing Australian Rules football for my local junior team, the under 15s and on this occasion we were playing a team away. I was tall for my age and was quite good at taking marks (catching the football), so that meant I was a forward and in this match I was playing at Centre Half Forward, my favourite position. I was naturally not as fast at running as the smaller players and so my tactic was, whenever possibly, to flatten an opposition player before he got a chance to grab the football on the ground and run away from me. Early in the match the ball was in my area, and, as I ran towards it, a small opponent was running for it at right angles to me. I could have waited for him to grab the ball and then tackle him, but I decided to line him up and give him a classic ‘shirtfront’ – a hip-and-shoulder bump to set him on his backside and make him think twice about coming near me for the rest of the match. Nowadays this kind of thing is illegal, but in 1977 it was part of the game and I remember lining the kid up and preparing myself for the impending impact. I tucked my elbow into my side and pushed my shoulder out but I didn’t hit the kid. He had bent down to pick the ball up and I went right over the top of him. The only problem was that my legs basically stayed where they were momentarily and then followed me as I rolled over the top of him. I heard the loud crack that the orthopaedic surgeon referred to (a louder version of when your knees crack as you squat down) and then I experienced the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I’ve broken my collarbone (also playing football when I was 9 years old), been hit by a car on my bicycle and even had a vasectomy, but the pain in my knee beats them all. It was excruciating around my knee and seemed to spread all throughout my leg.
I lay on the ground clutching my knee in absolute agony hoping for the pain to subside, but it never did. I was told to get up by a few of my teammates and also by the assistant coach from the boundary line (who had a voice like a foghorn), but I was in too much pain. I knew there was no way I was getting up unassisted, so I waited for someone to come on to the ground and help me.
The game continued and I waited and waited and eventually the father of a teammate came out to see me and half-carried me off the ground. I was trying desperately not to cry as I reached the boundary line and was virtually ignored by the two coaches while they worked out which substitute to replace me with. There was no medical equipment at all, not even a band-aid, and in the changing rooms there wasn’t even a chair for me to sit on. The father offered the back seat of his car for me to sit in and so I remained in there for the rest of the match in agony, watching my knee balloon up. There was no suggestion of taking me to hospital or even to a doctor. Eventually the game ended and I managed to limp into the change rooms to collect my clothes and returned to the car. I was fortunate enough to be driven directly to my house.
My parents were home as I hobbled in the front door and I immediately lay on the sofa in my football gear, minus my boots. I told them what had happened and showed them my huge knee. Later that night the pain subsided slightly but I could not move my knee at all. If I tried, there was a sharp stab of pain.
I spent the entire two weeks of the school holidays lying on the sofa. My knee eventually ‘went down’ and I gradually regained full movement in it. By the time school went back it was fine and I began training again as if nothing had happened.
I played the rest of the year for my local junior side (we finished 4th) and also for my school, playing on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons and training four nights per week. I had absolutely no problems with my right knee at all, there was no pain and it did not restrict me in any way.
A couple of years later I was playing for my school when my knee suddenly ‘popped out’. It was a very quick movement out of joint and straight back in, but the effect was the same as my original injury (the rupture). Extreme, intense pain followed by huge swelling. Again, two weeks later everything was fine (I got some time off school) and I resumed football as before. This time, however, I convinced my mother to help me find out what was wrong with my knee.
We visited a GP, who carried out a brief examination involving some pushing and pulling of my knee. He remarked on how loose my knee joint was and I told him that I was ‘double-jointed’ in my thumbs and fingers. He announced that my problem was caused by a lack of minerals and suggested I buy a large bottle of multi-mineral tablets and bid me farewell. He didn’t even order any x-rays.
My mother then decided that a chiropractor was the best option (she was paying for it and taking me, so I had no say in the matter) and I was a bit worried when he ordered me to strip to the waist but thankfully he was referring to the top half of my body. He immediately did as any chiropractor does and worked on my back. I reminded my mother that it was my knee that was the problem and, with my school pants still on, he ‘adjusted’ my knee and announced that it was fine. I was thrilled by such an easy fix and couldn’t wait to resume playing footy with my ‘fixed’ knee.
Not long after, of course, my knee half-popped out, giving me quite a scare and proving that the chiropractor’s efforts were useless. Incidentally, I’ve used chiropractors extensively throughout my life and they are excellent at treating back and neck pain. With my knee, I was back to square one and it seemed that no one was really interested in getting to the bottom of my problem. It was still the 70s and knee injuries, especially anterior cruciate injuries, were virtually unheard of. Several famous footballers had problems with knees, but it was usually attributed to cartilage, not ligaments and my problem was compounded by the attitude towards kids and injuries. Kids, even strapping tall ones like me, weren’t expected to suffer serious injures like muscle tears, dislocations, bone fractures and especially ruptured ligaments. Kids are resilient and flexible, as if they are made of rubber, and so I don’t think my knee injury was ever really taken seriously.
I kept playing football with my ruptured ACL for another six years, hurting it again after I had left school and was playing senior football. This time I was working, and so I took myself to see a physiotherapist, hoping once again to have my problem fixed once-and-for-all and being still totally unaware that inside my knee was a major ligament that had been snapped for many years. The physiotherapist was very skilled and my knee was wrapped in a heated blanket before he worked his magic with his fingers all around it for about half an hour. I then received infra-red and ultrasound treatment and usually fell into a deep sleep at the same time. My knee felt great but it was still loose and wobbly and by that stage I had given up ever having it looked at properly. By this time it was the early 1980s and some players that I knew were having their knees operated on, resulting in long, ugly scars on either side. These were the days before ‘keyhole’ or arthroscopic surgery and I didn’t fancy having two scars that looked like leeches running down the sides of my legs. The wife of a friend of mine hurt her knee playing netball and had her kneecap completely removed, which put me off even more. On top of this, there was no guarantee that the operation, attaching a section of the tendon from the kneecap to the inside of the knee joint, would even be successful. My knee never gave me any trouble, even when running, and I quit playing football when it started to interfere with my work.
It’s quite amazing to think that I played the majority of my football and all of my senior football with a bad knee. I feel sorry for anyone who damages their knee and know exactly how a player is feeling and going through whenever I see them writhing on the ground, clutching their knee. These days, the operation is performed quickly and a section of the hamstring tendon is used for the ligament graft, so the kneecap or patella tendon is not touched. The players are usually sidelined for the best part of a year, although some players have started playing again far earlier.
I had the opportunity to have my knee reconstructed in 2010 when I was able to finally have my right ankle properly diagnosed and repaired. I was living in Bahrain and was annoyed by the pain in my right ankle whenever I tried to exercise. This time, I had the proper treatment and my x-rays revealed that two of the three ligaments holding the ankle joint together had snapped over the years. I was able to have them reattached and it’s now the best that I can ever remember it being. I turned down the offer for a knee reconstruction simply because it’s not necessary. Every now and then it does ‘pop’ out slightly and I sit cross-legged and work it back in. There’s still no pain in it at all, which is the main thing.
I guess it’s a little ironic that it took a serious ankle injury for me to discover that I had been carrying a serious knee injury for most of my life. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was still able to play football well, taking plenty of marks and kicking goals week after week despite not having an ACL. I don’t recommend it, though.