Steven Bennett

January 29, 2015
New Castle (Ind.) Chrysler High School


By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].


When New Castle (Ind.) Chrysler High School boys' basketball star Steven Bennett went down with an ACL tear halfway through his junior season, everyone was confident he would return to full strength in time for his senior year. Though the road to recovery would not be easy, New Castle veteran Athletic Trainer Matt Matanich, ATC, LAT, had every reason to believe it would be routine. However, thanks to a crutches-related accident, that was not the case.

Playing in the country's largest high school fieldhouse, which holds more than 9,000 basketball-crazy fans, the New Castle program is steeped in tradition, boasting alumni such as former Indiana University stars Steve Alford and Kent Benson. Bennett, a 6'4" sharp shooter coming off a first-team North Central Conference All-League selection as a sophomore, was receiving attention from a number of NCAA Division I programs, and had New Castle entering the 2011-12 campaign with high expectations.

That November, Bennett got out of the gates quickly, averaging nearly 20 points a game while leading the team to a winning record. Then, on Jan. 20, 2012, during the team's first league home game, everything changed in an instant.

"As I planted my right foot to jump into the defender and try to draw a foul, I heard a loud pop," recalls Bennett. "I fell to the ground and immediately knew something was wrong. There were two doctors at the game who looked me over along with Matt. They all thought my ACL was torn."

An MRI revealed a complete tear of his right ACL and a partial tear of his medial meniscus in the same knee. New Castle's best player was done for the season.

Surgery entailed using a graft from his right patellar tendon to repair his ACL, and all went well. However, the reality of his situation soon set in and Bennett went through a range of emotions--from anger and despair to self-pity. "But once I started my rehab, that all went away and I started focusing on improving and getting better," he says. "Right away, my goal was to come back an even better player for my senior year. I wasn't going to use the injury as an excuse for not performing at a high level."

Matanich says the program Bennett began following was typical of other ACL rehabs he had overseen. "The protocol was given to me by Steven's surgeon, and it was very easy to follow," says Matanich, who is contracted out to New Castle by the Henry County Center for Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, located across the street from the school. "We put in a lot of work."

Just two weeks after the rehab began, though, that work came to an abrupt and painful halt. Feeling confident on his crutches, Bennett was at school descending a short set of steps when he lost his balance. Falling forward, he landed at the bottom of the staircase with his injured leg bent underneath him. Unbeknownst to him, the awkward landing had caused his right patellar tendon to snap.

"As I was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to lift my right leg and I couldn't," Bennett says. "I had no strength in it whatsoever, and it wouldn't move. That's when I knew it was serious, and I started getting scared. Later that day I had another MRI, which showed that my patellar tendon was torn."

Because a graft from that patellar tendon had been used to repair Bennett's ACL, Matanich says it stands to reason the first injury may have contributed to the second. Days later, on Feb. 15, Bennett was back under the knife having his second procedure in nearly as many weeks.

With his patellar tendon reattached, Bennett entered a six-week immobilization period with his leg locked in a straight-leg brace. "There's not a whole lot we were allowed to do rehab-wise because the patellar tendon reattachment needed time in order to heal," says Matanich.

At that point, Bennett says his frustrations reached a whole new level. "I couldn't do anything on my own," he says. "My leg always had to be straight, and I couldn't lift it by myself. It would take me an hour just to take a shower, and I needed help getting in and out. Many of the daily activities I took for granted were taken away."

By early March, the six weeks had finally come to an end and Bennett's surgeon gave Matanich the okay to begin the recovery protocol. This time around, however, the process would not be as predictable as the original ACL rehab.

"I have done hundreds of ACL rehabs, but I have never had one that was set back by a patellar tendon tear," says Matanich. "Because Steven could not bend his knee for six weeks, there was significant quad atrophy, and both his quad and patellar tendon had become very tight. Right away, our main focus was to regain flexion in that leg, which proved to be a very slow, tortuous process.

"We worked two to three hours a day sometimes, and we pulled out all the stops to try to bend his knee--from me cranking on him manually to putting him on a Cybex machine," Matanich adds. "The surgeon said we could push as hard as Steven's pain threshold would allow, and we certainly did. But if the kid is sitting there in tears, writhing with pain, you can only go so far."

Through March, April, and May, regaining even a degree of flexion a week was considered successful. "We had to focus on maintaining a positive mindset and keeping the athletic training room high energy and lively," Matanich says. "We wanted Steven to look forward to coming in, even when he wasn't seeing improvement, which is not an easy thing to do."

The uniqueness of the situation did not go unnoticed. "Our facility serves as a clinical site for the Ball State University athletic training program and Steven became a case study for them," Matanich says. "They saw that every day was a battle and the starting point was so difficult. With a typical ACL rehab, you see improvement almost daily. Because of Steven's patellar tendon repair, there were days and weeks with very little to no progress. But the students also saw how we all stayed with it and never got discouraged."

With the rehab at such a glacial pace, Bennett was given the option of undergoing a surgical manipulation. A 30-minute procedure, he would be under anesthesia while the surgeon bent his leg without the hindrance of pain. Though Bennett was reluctant to go through another surgery for fear of even more setbacks, Matanich persuaded him to give it a try. He went in for the procedure on June 7.

"It was a complete success," says Matanich. "Basically, the surgeon opened up the knee, removed the wire that had pinned the damaged tendon down, then started bending the knee five degrees every couple of minutes. By the time he was done, he had obtained full flexion--which he took pictures of to show us that it could indeed bend all the way."

The next day, Bennett and Matanich went back to work. "There was a big difference right away," says Matanich. "That first week alone, we regained 15 to 20 degrees, and his progress just took off from there.

"Once we got close to full flexion in early September, we were able to really advance his rehab and ramp up the traditional ACL elements like strengthening and proprioception while transitioning to more sport-related activities," Matanich adds. "His comfort level is on the basketball court, so whenever we could put a basketball in his hands for various drills, we would."

The expedited pace reinvigorated Bennett. "I was finally making the gains that I was expected to," he says. "Instead of seeing minute improvements every two to three weeks, I was progressing every day. I was so relieved."

Bennett continued doing rehab activities with Matanich through the summer and into the fall. Throughout the process, there was one date circled on everybody's calendar: Nov. 20--New Castle's first game of the 2012-13 season. With the rehab finally on a more typical timeline, Bennett began doing running and jumping exercises in October and was cleared for half-court two-on-two and three-on-three competition. By November, he was released to fully participate in five-on-five drills and scrimmages.

When New Castle's first game arrived, 10 months after his first surgery, Bennett was ready. Wearing a brace that would be a part of his uniform for the entire season, Bennett announced his return by lighting up Blue River High School to the tune of 23 points, 13 assists, and nine rebounds while leading the Trojans to an 89-38 victory.

Despite his production not having missed a beat, Bennett admits that his quickness and jumping ability were somewhat compromised. "When I first came back from my injury, I really had to focus on the little things a lot more," he says. "I couldn't drive as well as I used to, so I had to figure out more ways to score from the perimeter. That meant improving my touch, incorporating more shot fakes, and getting better at using screens to free myself for open looks."

As the season progressed, so did Bennett's athleticism and court skills. Finishing the regular season with an 11-9 record, the young, undersized Trojans entered the first round of the Class 4A sectionals with a game against higher seeded Anderson High School, which had defeated New Castle by six points just 11 days earlier. Seeking the program's first sectional victory since 2008, Bennett poured in 30 points as New Castle won by 15. Along the way, he eclipsed 1,000 points for his career.

"That's the game that sticks out as far as signaling that he was pretty much all the way back," says Matanich. "He was on fire and just willed his team to victory. He was knocking down almost every shot he took and it seemed like everything was finally normal with him."

New Castle continued its run into the sectional championship game, where it was defeated by Pendleton High School. Calling it a "satisfying season," Bennett ended the year leading the team in scoring, rebounds, assists, three pointers made, and steals.

Bennett's 1,047 career points put him 12th all-time in the New Castle record books. He also became the seventh player in school history to earn three first team all-North Central Conference selections (he was honored after his junior season, despite only playing a couple of league games), and along with teammate Korey Ryan, was named a New Castle Courier Times All-Area Co-Player of the Year. His postseason included appearances in a number of high school all-star games featuring the state's top seniors.

Despite Bennett's impressive season, offers from the Division I teams that expressed interest in him prior to his junior season never materialized. "Before I got hurt, I was getting some looks from Ohio University, Miami University of Ohio, and Davidson University," Bennett says. "Those went away after my injury, and there were times I got frustrated and mad about what could have been. But eventually I just accepted that life isn't always fair. Besides, there are a lot worse things that happen to people than what I went through."

Still, Bennett's dreams of playing Division I basketball weren't completely dashed by his injuries. In the fall, he will attend nearby Butler University, where Head Coach Brad Stevens is giving him an opportunity to make the team as a non-scholarship preferred walk-on.

"Although I got offers from some Division II and NAIA schools, I ultimately decided that since I had the skills to play Division I before I got hurt, I was going to work hard to get back to that level again," says Bennett. "We've had six or seven players from New Castle play at Butler and I think the program and the school are a good fit for me. I'm excited to see what I can do."

Matanich says Bennett's rehab is one that will stick with him for the rest of his career. "Seeing him back out on the court after all the time we'd spent together was one of the more rewarding experiences I've had as an athletic trainer," Matanich says. "Steven and I developed a bond, and what he went through is something we'll probably talk about for a long time. That's why athletic trainers do this job--to have an impact on a kid's life."

Bennett says it was Matanich's attitude and personality that helped him turn a difficult rehab into a successful return. "I give so much credit to Matt," says Bennett, who is considering going pre-med at Butler. "He was extremely patient and understanding of what I was going through and always positive, even when we weren't making much improvement those first few months.

"Despite the pain and frustrations, I looked forward to working with him every single day," Bennett adds. "I know it wasn't easy on him either, yet he constantly went the extra mile for me."
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