H e can’t seem to sit still. There are too many things to do and even more to think about.
Carter Crouch fidgets with his hands, while his pale blue eyes dart around, fixating only momentarily on various aspects of the Lake Linden-Hubbell football field.
Today, as he gazes over his home football field, Crouch is looking for purpose. Not for himself, but for a single event that is already changing the course of his senior season.
In a preseason scrimmage, Crouch tore his ACL. He came back to play in LL-H’s 40-0 win over Houghton on Saturday, but he only made it through a quarter-and-a-half before a tackle tweaked the injury and he had to take to the sidelines wish a crutch under his arm.
Every game will be different. Maybe next time his brace will hold up for longer and Carter will make it through the whole contest. Or maybe, his knee will give out in warmups, and he won’t play at all. That’s the uncertain path he’s on this season, and Crouch can’t help but wonder why.
This isn’t a case of an athlete who needed to get hurt in order to rekindle his love of the game. No, Crouch never wavered from his passion for football. He also didn’t need to be humbled. Despite his success as a quarterback, team leader and playmaker, Crouch knows he is just one small piece on his team, in his school and in the community.
Still, this had to have happened for a reason. But for now, the answer to that question is as unclear as the raincloud-covered sky over his head.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I don’t know what the reason is yet, but at some point, I’d like to figure it out.”
When Crouch sustained the ACL injury, it wasn’t instant unbearable pain. Instead, he was confused. Football is a series of bumps, bruises and more serious injuries day in and day out. Pain is part of the game, but Crouch wasn’t sure exactly what was going on with his leg.
“It was an outside run to the right and I went to go plant,” he said of the play. “My leg locked instead of having it bent so I could push off, and my knee just gave out. I didn’t fall down right away, I just went with it and went down with contact, but I knew something wasn’t right. The next play, I went to do my fake and hand the ball off, I almost fell over. I knew it wasn’t right.”
The pain of the injury was nothing compared to the emotional sting Crouch felt thinking that his senior season was over before it began.
And yet, a few weeks later he was on the field again.
As it turns out, playing with a torn ACL is possible — not easy and not without discomfort, but possible nonetheless.
Last season alone, two UP athletes played with torn or partially torn ACLs — Anthony Mattson of Munising finished out his senior basketball season, while Austin Forbes of Gwinn was injured during football, came back and then played basketball as well.
On a larger scale, there are athletes like DeJuan Blair, who played basketball at Pittsburgh and then spent the majority of six seasons in the NBA. Blair tore both of his ACLs in high school, and after extensive and intense surgeries, he was left with essentially no ACLs.
According to Brett Gervais, a member of the LL-H football staff and a physical therapist, there have been records of athletes being born without ACLs at all, so athletic activity is possible without them.
“You do some testing to see if the knee has excessive movement and if a player has enough strength through the knee, and the other ligaments are holding up, and it is deemed that they are able to play safely, then you get them a brace and they are able to go back and compete,” he said.
In addition, multisport athletes also have a better chance of battling this kind of injury because they train year-round and strengthen their muscles in a variety of different ways.
That was the case for Crouch, who also plays basketball and runs track.
About a week before the Lakes dismantled Houghton in Crouch’s return to the field, he had a conversation in which his doctor said he had “a good chance of being able to play.”
When he heard that, Crouch was set on taking the field again. Forget “a good chance,” he would play no matter what.
“As soon as I heard that my mindset wasn’t going to change at all,” he said. “I told my close buddies — I probably shouldn’t have, but that’s how we are. And they were like, ‘If you come back it will help so much.’ I needed to hear that as well.”
Of course, playing on such a serious injury isn’t without risk.
“If it’s completely torn, and you are under the age of 20, usually you want to get surgery right off the bat because your risk of things like osteoarthritis increases,” Gervais said. “I can see it from a therapist’s point of view, but then with someone like Carter who has been training for 16, 17 years to play his senior year of football definitely factors into it. Carter also wants to play at the next level, so that factors into it.”
It simply comes down to whether or not the risk is worth it. And for Crouch, that is an easy question to answer.
“He made the decision on his own,” said Andy Crouch, LL-H’s head coach, and Carter’s father. “He is playing for him and his teammates, not for me.”
In practice, Crouch looks like almost the same player, at least to those who don’t know him. He still makes sharp cuts, still explodes through gaps and is still bursting with toughness.
His brace is a dead giveaway that he’s not 100% healthy, but he still looks like an elite high school football player.
“In the last week-and-a-half of practice, if you didn’t know he had an ACL injury you probably wouldn’t even notice,” Coach Crouch said. “But he doesn’t start and stop as quickly, and the brace limits him, but it is what it is.”
It’s those last few words that he struggles to get out. “It is what it is.” As both father and coach, Andy Crouch is heavily invested in Carter’s injury. When he speaks about it, his face is marked by several different emotions, and his mouth takes shape into a half smile, half grimace.
“Having him on the field with his experience and leadership is huge,” Coach Crouch said. “As a dad, I’m an absolute nervous wreck, but just to see him on the field is pretty good.
“Most kids aren’t out there playing on a torn ACL, so as a dad I’m pretty proud to see the leadership and determination he has.”
As for Carter, he seems oddly content.
His unwavering faith that everything happens for a reason surely plays a part, and so does his intense focus on the task at hand.
His current task is the 2019-20 season, and no injury will change his focus.
“There is always going to be bad, no matter what, but you’ve got to have the good outweigh the bad, and if we can keep everyone hyped up with a positive attitude, then we will be all right,” he said.
Before Carter returned on Saturday, he was flooded with calls and texts from his family and friends. They all followed a similar theme: Be careful.
That notion makes Carter chuckle a little because while he appreciates their concern, he also knows there isn’t really any way to be careful playing football.
All he can do is put on his brace and hope for the best.
This will be his most difficult season, but Carter is ready. Someday he will discover why this happened, but for now, he will just keep playing football.
Because ACL tear or not, football is what he does best.
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