It was the middle of the winter, roughly five or six years ago, where I walked in to the gymnasium at the Brecksville recreation center with the plan of watching a few friends school some Winter League opponents in a basketball game only to find a good friend, Jeff, sprawled out on the basketball court near the intersection of the baseline and sideline, pounding on the floor while wincing in pain. A horse of a human being, Jeff had not just played, but excelled in sports through our entire adolescence. To this day, he has hit the furthest home run I’ve ever seen in a travel league game, doing so having not taken a swing in the on-deck circle; he could kick the living hell out of a soccer ball, a process aided by having tree trunks for legs; while not the fleetest of foot, he used his size in the paint to anchor the frontcourt for any basketball team. Terrific shape and still in his 20s, he had merely crumbled to the floor like a bag of bricks, his knee having given out, his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, torn to shreds.
Returning a punt in the middle of the fourth quarter on Sunday, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin took a hit and then found his body in a similar position to Jeff’s, face down on the field writing in pain. Anyone who has stood next to Benjamin will be relegated to using their hands to show you just how thin the second-year return man’s waist is—his slight frame is the reason why the Browns had, to that point, been reluctant to use the electrifying runner, a former track star at the University of Miami, as a kickoff return man. The hit Benjamin sustained was nothing out of the ordinary, but one that just so happened to occur while his knee was in an unfortunate position. The result: His ACL, torn to shreds.
Somewhere in between Travis Benjamin and Jeff, in both age and physical stature, stands Brian Hoyer. When the St. Ignatius product took to the field against the Buffalo Bills earlier this month, he was doing so as a local hero of sorts, riding a two-game win streak that had Browns fans feeling good about not just the future, but the current season as well, one which was all but despondent just weeks earlier. It was Hoyer who was selected by Rob Chudzinski, the team’s head coach, to take the reins following an injury sustained by incumbent starter Brandon Weeden—the coach cited playmaking abilities, falling just short of saying that the 28-year-old Hoyer was, despite Weeden’s abilities as a scratch golfer and well-documented foray into Major League Baseball, more athletic. It would be said athleticism that would force Hoyer to stretch a broken play into an attempt at a first down. An attempted slide would go awry. Hoyer wouldn’t see another down for the rest of the season, his ACL, you guessed it, torn to shreds.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson sustained a torn ACL two seasons ago only to return and break rushing records galore. Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was the victim of a torn ACL during last season’s playoffs, the image of his knee simply folding still fresh in the minds of many, but looks like a shell of his former self. Chicago Bulls point guard Derek Rose, despite all of the Adidas commercials that painted him as making a huge comeback last season, would go on to miss all 82 games and, somewhat famously, the postseason as well due to a ACL tear suffered during the 2011-12 playoffs. Our own Craig, while not having near the medical attention of many professional athletes, had multiple ACL injuries and now runs half and full marathons. If a pattern isn’t evident by this point, it is because there isn’t one—an athlete tears one of the most fragile ligaments in the human body, has surgery to repair it, and then waits and hopes. He or she waits to walk, to rehabilitate. He or she hopes to run, to cut and, above all, return to the playing floor or field in the same shape (if not better) than when they last left.
There is no telling what will become of the injuries sustained by Hoyer or Benjamin. What is known is that if not for these two men, the outcome of the first eight weeks of football could have been very different. The field position and scoring provided by Benjamin were such that Josh Cribbs’ name was not even uttered until he decided to throw the Browns under the bus late Monday night. The only wins amassed by the Browns to date were in games that Hoyer started under center. Sure, Benjamin may not have much of a future as anything more than a return man or package-specific receiver; Hoyer, already nearing 30 and having started just one game before coming to Cleveland, was not likely to be the quarterback of this team’s future. But both men, regardless of their exact fit, got to where they were today because of their way they could read defenses and get their knees to fluidly project their bodies away from the opposition, Benjamin being able to do such at 4.3 seconds per 40-yard increment.
Jeff’s outcome was what could be considered fortunate. Not a professional athlete despite all of his “successes” within Kent State intramurals, he still plays a slew of sports, including sand volleyball in a highly competitive league. His team has actually won trips to Miami where they subsequently get their asses handed to them by men who get to play the sport year round, but the point remains—cutting and running and jumping are all activities which he’s able to do despite what happened a few years back.
Benjamin is still just 23 years old. Assuming his surgery is successful, he will begin rehabilitation in a few weeks and should hopefully be good to go come training camp next season.
Hoyer is a bit of a different story. He’s older and happens to play a position where, save for Tom Brady, ACL tears have resulted in a different player taking the field (Carson Palmer, Daunte Culpepper) upon their return.
The ACL doesn’t care about your size. It doesn’t care about your age. It doesn’t care about your position or disposition. One false move and you’re relegated to the sidelines, a walking boot and memories. For the Browns, they have to hope that both Benjamin and Hoyer fully heal with their upstart careers not skipping a beat. Peterson provides us all with hope, an extraordinary story of modern medicine coupled with the abilities of a well-trained human body. But Peterson is also the exception to the rule. The Browns just have to hope that, once the rehabilitation is complete and the cleats are re-laced, both Hoyer and Benjamin fall somewhere closer to AP than not. The league will be watching as Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne and St. Louis’ Sam Bradford headline the list of seasons ended by ACLs this year. But back in Cleveland, for a team that needs every break it can get in order to stay afloat, losing two play-makers in the matter of three weeks…well, it sucks. For now, the team will scramble, clawing to find suitable replacements to bide time until the offseason. It will be at that point where the question marks begin to take shape.