Jess Knapp faces crossroads of health, love of the game

Risking further injury, the Penn basketball senior captain chooses to play with two torn ligaments

· February 1, 2012, 12:53 am   ·  Updated February 2, 2012, 10:26 pm

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Jing Ran | DP

Senior captain Jess Knapp positions herself for a rebound Sunday against Cornell. The forward must wear a brace to protect two torn ligaments in her left knee.


No one would have blamed Jess Knapp if she had called it quits after tearing two ligaments in her left knee in late December.

After all, the Penn basketball captain’s options were limited. Surgery would be required to repair her injury, and recovery time would easily exceed the two and a half months remaining in the Quakers’ season.

But these were special circumstances. This was her senior year — the culmination of her career in basketball, a game she hasn’t stopped playing since she was eight years old.

Throwing caution to the wind, Knapp chose not to opt for an operation. To her, there was only one option: play hurt.

***

‘ACL’ is an acronymn no athlete ever wants to hear from a doctor.

It’s never good news. In most cases, injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament put an athlete out of commission for months at a time. Professional athletes miss entire seasons rehabilitating from ACL injuries.

There’s pretty much only one reason for which playing with such an injury could be worth the gamble: senior year.

“It’s a bit of a high-risk enterprise playing with an ACL or MCL [medial collateral ligament] tear, because the chance of [the knee] blowing out is considerable,” said Dr. John Kelly, Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery for Penn Medicine. “She’s got a lot of courage.”

Kelly, who specializes in sports medicine, said there’s almost no question she’ll have to have it repaired once the season is over — assuming she gets through the remainder of the year unscathed, that is.

“It’s definitely more worrisome than playing on an isolated ACL,” he said. “Obviously, the more injured ligaments involved, the higher the risk.”

But it’s ultimately up to the athlete, Kelly stressed. Doctors must sit down with the player and weigh the pros and cons, the latter of which is an extensive list.

“Practically speaking, the most likely thing that will happen will be on the weak link, the ACL,” he said.

The ACL limits side-to-side movement of the knee joint and prevents the tibia — the shinbone — from coming forward. “But the tibia could come forward, and she may damage some cartilage,” Kelly said. “That’s the big risk.”

Even more severe damage could occur if Knapp tears her meniscus, paving the way to a lifelong arthritis problem in the knee. In fact, the only condition her doctor gave her before he took an MRI was that if meniscus damage had occurred, she couldn’t play.

As it turned out, Knapp does have damage to her meniscus in the back of her knee, but it’s not in a high-risk spot. There’s still a 10-percent chance, though, that if she plays, the damage will worsen.

“That’s kind of out of my mind right now,” Knapp said. “The way I see it, I’m already at risk for arthritis with the ACL. But if I didn’t do this, in the long run, I’d regret it — with or without long-term ramifications.”

Knapp knows if she was an underclassmen, she’d be pushed into surgery like she was as a freshman, when she tore the ACL in her right knee. But she couldn’t bear the thought of another year, especially her last year, without basketball.

That first season she had to sit out as a freshman was tough, she said. Coming into Penn as a three-sport high school athlete, who also played summer ball, she never realized how much she took the game for granted.

“[I had] come to Penn to play basketball,” Knapp said. “That’s sort of my identity.”

So when she was given the option to play — to take the risk — she made the decision without hesitation, a decision which her family and coach have supported.

“As soon as we got the verdict,” she said, “I knew I was going to play.”

“Anyone in that locker room would do it,” she modestly insisted Friday night after the team’s win over Columbia and her first game back on the court. “Anyone at this level with six weeks remaining in their season would do it.”

In truth, though, not anyone would do it. The risks of playing with two torn ligaments are too severe.

Even Knapp herself didn’t do it her freshman year. And this time, she has a torn MCL on top of it.

“I wouldn’t be able to sit with myself, knowing that I just chose to hang it up nine games into my senior season,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to cope with it later on.”

***

It happened on the team’s West Coast road trip, against San Diego State on Dec. 30.

“I just caught the ball on a swing … and I just went to rip through, one dribble, jump stop and go up,” Knapp explained. “I made that move in my lifetime literally a thousand times … And I ripped through, landed and just collapsed.”

She knew immediately.

Having to be helped off the court, by the end of the game she was on crutches.

The final determination of her future would have to wait, however, until the team returned to the East Coast, where she could undergo an MRI. The team’s hopes were not high.

That didn’t stop the persistent Knapp from insisting to Mike McLaughlin, her coach, that she would be back.

“Sometimes, these are just tests,” Knapp recalled McLaughlin saying to her immediately after the game. “But I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna play!’”

After five days, Knapp received the verdict that she would be allowed to attempt a comeback. She began rehabilitating, first on a bike, then on an elliptical and finally on a treadmill, after she received her brace.

“The bionic leg,” she called it, laughing.

In less than four weeks, she was cleared to practice. And after three practices, she was finally cleared for gameplay — she logged her first minutes on the floor over the weekend against Columbia and Cornell.

Fittingly, in her first game back, the team won by its largest margin on the season — a 75-50 win over the Lions. It was the Quakers’ first victory since Dec. 29, the last game in which Knapp was able to play in full.

“It’s a great credit to Jess and what she has done the last three years in this program,” McLaughlin said.

And her leadership doesn’t go unnoticed by the underclassmen, either.

“It really shows how much Jess cares,” said freshman Renee Busch. “Just to see how committed she is [to the team].”

As for Jess Knapp, she’ll have no regrets — no matter the outcome.

“The physical pain that I may feel, or putting myself in danger for future injuries, has cost much less for me than the emotional part of not being able to play now.”

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