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Amazing comebacks for Steelers’ Hampton, Starks, and Mendenhall

How quickly things change for the Steelers. Less than 9 months ago, we were all wondering if Max Starks, Rashard Mendenhall, and Casey Hampton would be able to play in the 2012 regular season. For that matter, if they were able to play, it certainly wouldn’t be in the season opener right?

It used to be that a torn ACL was the end of the road, see ya in 12 months. Even one suffered in the offseason with months before the new regular season games started was no guarantee of a full recovery in time to play. Advances in medical science and rehabilitation, even in just the last few years have made it possible to return quicker than ever for professional athletes.

A little bit of background on ACL’s for those that are interested (see also diagram below): The ACL arises from the front of the medial femoral condyle and passes through the middle of the knee to attaches between the bony outcroppings (called the tibia spine) that are located between the tibia plateaus. It is a small structure, less than 1 ½ inches long and ½ inch wide. But regardless of its size, the anterior cruciate ligament is vital in preventing the thighbone (femur) from sliding backward on the tibia (or, from the other point of view, the tibia sliding forward under the femur). The ACL also stabilizes the knee from rotating, the motion that occurs when the foot is planted and the leg pivots.

Without a normal ACL, the knee becomes unstable and can buckle, especially when the leg is planted and attempts are made to stop or turn quickly.

It’s amazing just how small this little part of the body is but how crucial it is not just for every people like you and I but for athletes who put so much pressure on their knees every day in practice and every week in games.

Max Starks tore the ACL in his right knee against Denver last year in the playoffs and then had surgery not long afterwards. The Steelers placed offensive line as a priority in their draft this past April because nobody knew if Starks would be ready for the upcoming regular season. Even if he was ready, the team knew they had to ensure their future at LT, so they drafted Mike Adams out of OSU with the plan of him becoming Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side protector for the next decade.

Starks though is no stranger to fighting off competition. He spent the entire offseason in the Steelers training facilities rehabbing and working with the trainers as they monitored his progress. As it stands now he is recovered sufficiently to be named the starter at LT and will play in Denver. For a guy whose 6’8″ 345 lbs, you wonder how he could even walk, let alone play football now, but he’s back and feeling better each week now.

Rashard Mendenhall also tore his ACL late in the season last year, giving way to Isaac Redman to finish out the last regular season game and start in the playoffs. Running Backs aren’t nearly as big as Tackles but a ball carrier like Mendenhall relies on his knees in a different way. He’s the type of runner whose game emphasizes on his cut back ability and quick change of direction followed by a burst of speed. If you’re knees aren’t 100% you simply aren’t going to be effective.

Kevin Colbert said earlier this offseason that he’d be surprised if Mendenhall wasn’t on the PUP list to start the year. Nobody can blame him; you just never know how players will react to treatment after surgery, and how quickly their body will heal. He was removed from the PUP list a couple weeks ago and is practicing with the team, minus the “don’t touch me” red jersey.  Brett Keisel said he looks “incredible” and Lawrence Timmons added that  “he looks great and is finishing runs well”.

Tomlin has not yet ruled out Rashard for the season opener, but most feel he’ll take a back seat early in the season just to be safe.

Casey Hampton, the Big Snack, a guy who’s been there done that for the Steelers since 2001 has been through previous ACL injuries and assured everyone at the start of the offseason that he would be fine, fully expecting to be ready for the regular season. The 6’1″ 325 lb. beast from Texas stayed true to his word. Even after the Steelers took Alameda Ta’amu in the 4th round of this year’s draft, and with 3rd year standout Steve McLendon have a great offseason, Hampton is back on the field.

Much like Starks, Hampton is a huge man and we often wonder how in the world they can recover so quickly. It’s a testament to not only state of art rehab techniques used by the NFL but also players will to survive if you will, and get back on the field. Hampton knows his time in the league is limited these days and if he has anything to say about it, he’ll be in each week at his familiar spot.

So having an ACL tear is no longer an automatic spot on the sidelines for the new season. Even with 9 months of an average recovery time as it stands now, there’s no telling who quickly that will change in the next 5 years.

That’s not to say that if you tear your ACL in preseason that you’ll be back, we can’t all be Rod Woodson right?

Still though, the Steelers are fortunate to get these 3 players back and on the field this year because as we all know, things can change in an instant. Having 3 veterans available is more than they probably bargained for earlier this summer.

Below is a diagram of what your knee is comprised of, and how the ACL fits into the whole scheme of this critical part of your everyday life.


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