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Serious Injuries Affecting Football's Biggest Stars

October 17, 2017  |  Daniel K. Davis, MD

In a span of seven days, the National Football League (NFL) has seen three of its biggest stars suffer season-ending injuries. Even if you do not follow football, you may still recognize these stars based on the numerous television commercials they are featured in. Odell Beckham Jr. (OBJ), JJ Watt, and Aaron Rodgers all sustained these injuries during what would be considered relatively normal activities on the field -- one of the many hazards of life in the NFL. Interestingly, these injuries are all relatively rare football injuries, with the exception of Rodgers’ collarbone fracture. To you and me however, these injuries are quite common in the field of orthopedic surgery and they are treated with great regularity in our community.

We literally see and treat these types of fractures on a weekly basis that so many of us can empathize, or at least identify with, what these super-athletes are going through. Although it may seem as if their recovery will be somehow accelerated due to their genetic prowess and access to cutting edge rehabilitation services, reality tells us that they need to go through many of the trials and tribulations of healing that us mere mortals experience.

Fracture healing takes time, with or without surgery. As it is, all three of these individuals have had or will need surgery to fix their respective injuries. The healing process, just as with you and I, goes through many stages. Early healing, followed by bone formation and hardening, must occur to stabilize the fractures and take stress off of the implants used in surgery. Without fracture healing, ALL surgical implants would eventually fail or break. Fracture healing is followed by remodeling of the surrounding bone back to its pre-injury status. These wonderful processes that our bodies miraculously perform all require time and patience. It cannot be rushed.

Additionally, there are collateral injuries that also require time to heal. In the case of OBJ, his ankle fracture was complicated by severe ligamentous damage that is consistent with his injury. These ligaments will require not only time to heal -- even longer than his fractures -- but will require intense rehabilitation to regain strength and mobility of his ankle. These injuries occur in our communities frequently: hiking slips and falls, softball miscues sliding into base, surfing & skiing accidents, skateboarding twists and tumbles and a multitude of other mishaps can lead to the exact injury that OBJ suffered. His fracture will be healed very quickly, but he can count on 10-12 months before he is back doing the acrobatics that we are so accustomed to him performing.

JJ Watts' tibial plateau fracture is another very common injury, one that we frequently see in motocross accidents in our younger patients and in lower-energy activities with our more elderly population. Nonetheless, this is a very common malady often requiring surgery to "re-align" the fractured and depressed joint surface of the upper portion of the shin bone. Additional knee ligament and cartilage damage is common with this injury as well and needs to be addressed at the same time.

Another common cause of this fracture, aside from "missing a step" on a stairway, is to get hit from the side by an excited canine. I treat at least 3-4 severe knee injuries annually from an inadvertent cross-check by a dog. Yes, they are "man's best friend", but one must be careful when they start playing with other dogs and get worked up into a frenzy. They are more of an un-guided missile at that point.

Now JJ Watt was not hit by a dog, but the replay of his injury shows how his knee bent inwards as he was rushing the quarterback. His thoroughly muscled 290 lb. frame was too much for his upper tibia to withstand and his tibial plateau collapsed under the crushing pressure. One can be sure that JJ will make a strong recovery. He has come back from severe elbow and back injuries already in his young career. But again, just like the rest of us, this will take time, hard work and a lot of perseverance. He undoubtedly will garner the coveted NFL's Man of the Year award for his tremendous work in Houston with the hurricane victims, but unfortunately his Sundays will be spent on the sidelines.

For the second time in his career, Aaron Rodgers has sustained a clavicle, or collarbone, fracture that will likely end his season. Now unlike OBJ's and JJ's injury, Aaron could potentially return to the gridiron this season after surgical fixation and healing of his fracture. Unfortunately for Packer fans, his team would likely need to make the playoffs for this to ring true. Clavicle fractures are typically stabilized with a plate and screws. Once fixed, they only require 6-10 weeks for solid healing. And because clavicle fractures do not involve a joint like the ankle or knee, recovery is much quicker and more predictable because stiffness and pain generally speaking do not take place in this setting.

Fortunately for all three of these fan-favorite superstars, just as with our patients, they can all expect a solid recovery as long as they have realistic goals and work hard during the recovery process.

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