By Tom Robinson
When Maddie Martin appeared in her first college basketball scrimmage, the significance of the event – and, in particular, the date – were not lost on her.
Martin stepped on the court as the starting point guard for the New Jersey Institute of Technology against Monmouth University in a scrimmage between two of New Jersey’s NCAA Division I women’s basketball teams Oct. 20.
Before the day was over, Martin went to her Twitter account to share her excitement about the milestone.
“Exactly 2 years ago today, I tore my ACL for the first time,” Martin wrote. “Today, I got to play in my first college scrimmage. Grateful isn’t even the word.”
Two years, two torn ACLs, two distinctly different reconstructive surgeries, two lengthy stretches of injury rehabilitation have all stood between the JB Hoops alum’s completion of her high school career at Dunmore and her scheduled college debut.
Throughout such a long wait, Martin has learned the importance of celebrating the steps that lead toward the major goal, the anticipated, injury-delayed college regular-season debut in the season opener Nov. 5 at home against Colgate.
“I think throughout the whole process, you kind of have to make those small goals or else otherwise you’re going to get caught up in things like, ‘oh, I’m out for nine months’,” Martin said in a telephone interview this week. “I think each month, having a different goal is the only way you can stay on track.
“You have to make short-term goals like that, otherwise it seems like too much to come back from.”
It’s that attitude which leaves a player, who has been in championship games and played in front of packed gyms during an all-state high school career, ecstatic about being able to take part in a scrimmage.
Although she is already a junior academically before ever appearing in a game, the bio-medical engineering major, still has hopes of taking advantage of her two medical red-shirt years to have the four-year college career that was intended all along.
There is a lot to be sorted out between now and then, but rules allow for her playing days to continue along with postgraduate studies.
Thinking too much about careers can wait when simply getting to the debut has taken so long.
Martin was a freshman preparing for that debut when she suffered the initial injury to her left knee during an NJIT practice.
Anterior cruciate ligament injuries have become too common for athletes – especially female athletes and female basketball players – for Martin not to be aware of that possibility when she felt the initial pain of the injury.
“Obviously, when you go down, you’re thinking ACL right away,” Martin said.
Being able to walk following the injury brought a little hope, but Google time online before getting a chance to have a confirming MRI allowed for the reality to begin settling in.
“The next day my knee kind of blew up,” she said. “I was Googling the symptoms and it was like checking every box.”
Research and knowledge can only go so far.
For as much general knowledge as athletes and sports fans have picked up about ACL rehabilitation, full understanding is not obtained until going through the process.
“For the first time, you think you know because everyone says ‘it’s 6-9 months’,” Martin said. “Once you hit the 3-4-month mark, you realize, ‘wow, this is hard. This is a long haul.’
“There are days when you’ll have progress and days when you’ll take a few steps back.”
Which is what makes steps like taking part in a scrimmage Oct. 20, 2019 feel so special.
“When it’s the hardest is when you’re past the point of surgery, but you’re not back to playing yet,” Martin said.
It can be harder when the process is repeated a second time without getting the reward for all the work from the first trip through rehab.
That was the case for Martin in 2018 when she was cleared to return to action in September and suffered a new tear on the first day of October.
Unlike the original injury, which was the more frequent event of the ACL suddenly giving way or popping during one of the many cuts, plants and twists an athlete makes, the re-injury was the result of violent contact with Martin being clipped from behind in practice.
Again, there were hopeful moments that maybe the injury was not so severe. This time, however, Martin was pretty sure she knew what was wrong.
“I had a video and I was showing my physical therapist and everyone,” she said. “They didn’t think it was ACL, but it was hard to tell with the way I went down because it happened so fast.
“But I knew.”
Martin went back to surgery and back to rehab.
The surgery this time, however, was different and therefore, the rehab had to be as well.
ACL can be reconstructed with allografts from tissue donors, but in athletes, they are often done by taking a graft from the injured person’s own hamstring, patellar tendon or quadriceps tendon.
Martin’s knee was rebuilt the first time with a graft from the hamstring on the same leg. After the damage the second time around, the patellar tendon from her right knee was selected, leaving Martin with two knees to rehab.
To return to competitiveness and reduce risk of future injuries, Martin needed not just her knees, but the supporting surrounding muscles in her legs and the rest of the body to be as strong as possible.
“That’s why rehabbing knees is so hard, because it’s not just your knees, it’s your quads, hamstrings, everything,” she said. “So, rehab is hard because you have to make sure everything is kind of equal on both sides.
“For my second surgery, they had to take my patellar tendon from my other knee, so I was rehabbing both legs.
“ … It’s a lot of moving parts. That’s why it took longer to come back from my second surgery. Both sides have to be equal or else everything will be off and that causes other injuries.”
The endurance test of rehab is followed by the mental tests that go with returning to competition.
Martin does not just want to be on the court, she wants to play her game the same way – as a playmaker, who combines accurate shooting and ballhandling to also be a scoring threat.
She sees this as one time when not being the most athletic of Division I basketball players may be to her advantage.
“My biggest thing is I didn’t want to have to change how I played,” Martin said. “Also, I’ve never been the fastest or the strongest, so that was kind of to my advantage. It wasn’t like I was always this athletic, fast player and now I’m going to have to change my game.”
Martin has always looked for ways to keep up with potentially quicker opponents.
“I have to be even smarter about how I play and just use anticipation, rather than athleticism,” Martin said.
That was part of the game that Martin could keep working on when sidelined.
“I think being able to see the college game for two years was a big benefit for me because I was able to see the speed and then last year, with the new coach (Mike Lane), I was able to watch our whole new offense and whole new system,” Martin said. “Being able to work on my IQ and watch film with the coaches, rather than be out there playing is beneficial to me now.”
Martin is anxious to put all those off-court preparations to work.
A scrimmage on an anniversary was just the latest chance to show her progress.