If there are three letters that any athlete fears – more than a tough opponent and more than any tough-as-nails coach – it’s ACL.
It stands for anterior cruciate ligament, part of the knee. And strains, sprains and tears of it are, relatively common among athletes at all levels.
The third injury – the tear – is the most severe, and is almost always season-ending, no matter the sport. Surgery is often required, and recovery time is usually six months to more than a year.
However, you don’t have to explain any of this to Tyus Allen. He knows enough about it already.
The 21-year-old South Surrey resident – point guard for the Trinity Western University Spartans men’s basketball team – has torn his left ligament three times in the past four years.
He first tore his left ACL in his rookie season with the Spartans but, after surgery and rehab, was able to come back eight months later, in time for his second year. He tore it again in the final game of that season, and sat out his entire third year, only to return last fall for a fourth year.
The most recent injury came during a Nov. 26 game against the University of Regina, and was the worst of the three.
“The first two times it was just the ACL, but this time it was, like, pretty much every ligament. Usually there’s just one scar, but there’s one here, there’s one here, there’s one here,’ he said, pointing to different spots on his knee. “They did a lot of work.”
The play in which he hurt himself was innocuous enough – while dribbling with the ball, he simply stopped quickly, then went “full acceleration” and his knee buckled.
“No one even touched me,” he explained last week while sitting in the lobby of his former school, White Rock Christian Academy, where he was helping coach a spring-break basketball camp for elementary-age students.
“After the game, (my therapist) was saying she didn’t really know yet how bad it was, but I said ‘It’s torn. I can tell. I know the pain.’ I knew right away,” he explained.
“It’s pretty gruesome. I watched the film of the injury, and you see the faces of the Regina guys… they were just so (grossed out).”
During the first surgery, surgeons stitched the ligament back together, and the second time, they took a ligament from his hamstring in order to rebuild the ACL. For the third surgery, however, fixing the joint required an ACL from a registered organ donor, for which he is grateful.
“Honestly, it freaks me out a little bit, so I try not to think about it,” he said.
Now, about a month after going under the knife – still walking with a considerable limp – Allen is faced with a dilemma: whether to attempt another comeback.
Not many athletes try to return from three ACL tears, and a life away from the court is one Allen didn’t figure he’d have to consider at age 21.
“We haven’t even talked about playing again yet. Obviously, I want to, but I just don’t know if it’s the smartest thing for me right now. Just looking at 50 years down the road – what will it be like?” he wondered.
“I’ve known people who’ve had (ACL surgery) done and then been fine after, but for me, I’ve just had bad luck.”
Mentally, dealing with the latest challenge has been difficult, he said. With the Spartans’ season over, normally he’d take a brief break before training resumes. Now, he’s still fairly immobile.
“I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Mentally, it’s been a huge blow. I’ve never been delusional about basketball and thinking I’d be playing for 30 years – I knew it would come to an end eventually… but I really didn’t think my career would have so many obstacles,” Allen said.
“In high school, I think I missed one game in Grade 8 and that was it.”
Playing next year is “out of the question,” he said.
He has two seasons left of playing eligibility, and one more year of business classes left until he earns his degree.
“I’ve always thought about doing my master’s (degree) and playing at the same time, so that might be an option,” he said. “I don’t know though. It feels like a long way away. It’s in my mind but I’m not really super-focused on it right now.”
If anyone can relate to dealing with life after basketball, it’s Allen’s father Scott, the former longtime basketball coach at both WRCA and Trinity Western University.
The elder Allen was on the Spartans’ sidelines for the first two of his son’s injuries. After more than 20 years coaching, he is now in the real-estate business after resigning his TWU post in 2014, though he still runs One Pass Ahead basketball camps.
His son’s injuries have been tough to watch, both as a coach and as a parent.
“The hardest part was probably seeing him finally get to a point where he was comfortable on the court – it’s a big jump from high school to university – and all three times, he almost gets there and then he blows his knee out,” he said.
“That last game of his, you just saw that glimmer of excellence that he works towards. And he deserves to be awesome and have success out there. But we’re extremely proud of him – he just keeps on fighting back. He’s pretty resilient.”
With any potential comebacks more than a year away, both Allens choose to focus on the positives. For Tyus, it gives him time to focus on his studies, while Scott thinks the adversity can only help his son down the road.
“For myself and for him, the commonality is that we put our whole lives into basketball. I put 25 years into coaching, and he’s put all these years into playing,” the latter said. “You get a hand dealt to you, and you deal with it. If I hadn’t gone through some situations, I might still be coaching, and if he hadn’t gone though these (injury) situations, he’d still be playing.
“But change is good. I think a lot of people are afraid of change, but when you’re forced to do it, you see that a lot of good can come from it. And if Tyus is done, I know he’ll be happy and he’ll use all the drive that he has to be successful at something else.”
He could have a future in coaching, his dad added.
“He’s an excellent coach. He’s always been a leader on the court, so taking that into a coaching role, if he wanted to teach kids, I wouldn’t be surprised. But we’ll let him deal with this first,” he said.