Jan 29, 2015
Austin Jensen

Florida Atlantic University

By Patrick Bohn

Patrick Bohn is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Florida Atlantic University football player Austin Jensen doesn’t remember the car accident that nearly killed him and cost him the 2010 and 2011 football seasons, although he has pieced it together from the accounts of others. On Feb. 13, 2010, Jensen, then a junior safety, was one of four passengers in a car being driven to the Owls’ postseason banquet. While traveling on I-95, the car was struck on the rear driver’s side–where Jensen was sitting–by another vehicle that had been sideswiped.

The collision caused the car Jensen was in to flip a half dozen times, and despite wearing his seatbelt, Jensen was ejected from the vehicle. He landed on the highway, unconscious, and was taken to the hospital as soon as an ambulance arrived. While the other passengers were uninjured in the accident, Jensen’s skull fractured in two places, his pelvis fractured in four, and he suffered a major concussion and benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. He was put into a medically induced coma and spent a week in intensive care.

When Jensen had recovered enough to process the accident, the last thing on his mind was football. “I kept asking if everyone else in the accident was okay,” Jensen says. “Football wasn’t important to me then. I wanted to make sure everyone else was all right and focus on getting out of the hospital.”

However, Jensen’s time in the hospital wasn’t easy. “The pain was excruciating,” he says. “I wouldn’t wish a broken pelvis on anyone. And my head was so swollen that people told me when they looked at me, they couldn’t see my ears.”

Jensen left the hospital two weeks after the accident, but his injuries were so severe he had to drop his classes and return to his parents’ house in Bradenton, Fla. “I couldn’t walk, and my concussion was so bad that I had to sit in dark rooms with sunglasses on,” he says. “I was fortunate to have a great support structure of friends and family, but it was a difficult time.”

On March 2, Jensen met with John Walz, MPT, CLT, ACM, of Request Physical Therapy in Bradenton for an initial evaluation. Walz says that while he was struck by the severity of Jensen’s injuries, even at their first meeting he believed Jensen could return to the field.

“Because he was an athlete, I knew he would work incredibly hard throughout the entire rehab,” Walz says. “And the body is such a unique machine, it can heal itself from a lot of injuries if given treatment and time. I knew Austin was going to undergo a transformation he might not have thought possible, but I had confidence he could do it.”

The transformation began simply. Because Jensen’s hip and leg muscles had tightened due to the fracture, Walz used range of motion exercises to help him regain flexibility for much of the first week they worked together. “We concentrated on internal and external rotation of the hips and straight-leg hamstring raises just to loosen those muscles up,” Walz says. “Austin also had some pain in his left hip, so to alleviate it, he would do pendulum exercises with his left leg. He would stand on a box a few inches off the ground on his right foot with a two pound weight around his left ankle, then swing his leg back and forth to lengthen the joint a little bit.”

While working on Jensen’s range of motion and monitoring the pain level in his hip, Walz introduced what he called “muscular re-education” to Jensen’s core and lower body. “The goal was to reactivate muscles that he hadn’t used in a few weeks,” Walz says. “For his quads, we used heel slides, and for his glutes, he’d squeeze his butt just to fire the muscles.

“I’d also have Austin do a ball squeeze to activate the inner thigh, pelvic, and lower abdominal muscles,” Walz continues. “And he would lay on his back with his knees up and a Thera-Band around them and externally rotate his hips.”

Though Jensen was coming in for rehab four days a week, Walz says the goal of these early exercises wasn’t to exhaust Jensen–it was just to get his muscles working again after a long period of inactivity. This was especially true of Jensen’s left side, where Walz says his gluteals had atrophied to the point where they were about half as strong as those on his right.

“I tried to make the exercises challenging but not taxing,” he says. “These were very effective because as an athlete, Austin had excellent body awareness. He could activate the right muscles when I wanted him to.”

The early exercises succeeded in reintroducing Jensen’s muscles to work, but he still needed to use a walker to move around and couldn’t bear weight on his left side. “I didn’t get discouraged often during the rehab, but using the walker to get around wasn’t fun,” he says. “It’s terrible when you’re in your early 20s and you have to learn how to walk again. I really looked forward to getting rid of the walker.”

In mid-March, Walz prescribed a new series of exercises designed to help Jensen do just that. He started by working Jensen’s core, having him sit on a physioball while holding onto a Thera-Band and doing “chop and lift” exercises where he brought his arm across his body diagonally. The goal was to help him regain balance in his pelvis and begin bearing weight. After doing those exercises for about a week, Jensen was able to use crutches to walk, so Walz increased his weight-bearing load by having Jensen stand at a parallel bar and shift his weight from one foot to the other.

“I wanted to start Austin small because he hadn’t put weight through his left side in over a month, but he progressed quickly,” Walz says, “Three days after he started on two crutches, he needed only one, so I made the exercises a little more intense. I had him use the Chuck Norris Total Gym to work on bilateral weight bearing. He’d lie on his back on the slideboard, put his feet on the bar, and do a squatting-type motion. I liked this option because he had some pain in his lower back as a result of the accident and it enabled him to keep his back out of the exercise.

“He started doing 30 percent of his bodyweight on the Total Gym, and was up to 50 percent within two visits, which was exceptionally quick,” Walz continues. “Until that point, we had to move slowly while waiting for the bones to heal, but when we got to working his muscles, he responded very well. As a football player, his baseline strength was so much higher than that of an average person.”

“I have always approached working out with a ‘let’s go’ kind of attitude, so those first few weeks when things were moving slowly were tough.” Jensen says. “I was used to training like a Division I athlete. As the rehab progressed and we got into more challenging exercises, things went a lot smoother.”

Once Jensen was able to bear enough of his own weight, Walz says, “The fun began.” Jensen continued to use the Total Gym, but also added ball squats to work his pelvic and core muscles. By mid-April, Jensen was high-stepping on a trampoline in order to work his upper gluteals and stabilize his pelvis, and doing lunges and single-leg squats while holding a 10-pound dumbbell.

“Austin approached every session like he approached a football practice,” Walz says. “It was his job, and he worked incredibly hard because he wanted to get back on the field.”

In fact, Jensen was progressing so quickly, Walz had to make exercises more complex at each session. “Austin would be doing prone planks one day and they were so easy that the next day I’d have to add unilateral hip extensions to them,” he says. “To work his pelvis, he would do bird-dogs, where he’d get on his hands and knees and extend one arm out in front of him while extending the opposite leg back. I put a weight on his ankle and had him grip a weighted pulley in one hand to make it more challenging.”

As April turned to May, Walz began incorporating football-specific exercises into Jensen’s routine. In one, Jensen would get down into a defensive stance while holding onto grips attached to a 27.5 kilogram weight stack before lunging forward and throwing his hands up like he was engaging an offensive lineman. Jensen also did power cleans, ran on a treadmill at about six miles an hour, and jumped on a trampoline.

Despite Jensen’s fast progress, at one point in June, Walz did have to hold him back for his own safety. “We had started doing deadlifts, and Austin progressed to 185 pounds,” Walz says. “He came in the next week and told me he was stiff because he had lifted 305 pounds on his own over the weekend. I had to tell him it wasn’t a good idea to do that because he could break himself down.”

Walz admits it can be tricky to tell an athlete to slow down, because their innate competitiveness can make them unwilling to listen to a non-athlete’s advice. “You have to gain their trust,” he says. “Doing that starts in the opening evaluation and continues throughout the entire rehabilitation. If you make the exercises challenging without overtaxing their recovering body, they will respect that. Then, when you explain the anatomy behind risky behavior and inform them of the possible repercussions, they will listen.”

Jensen listened to Walz and dropped his weight down. But he also learned to listen to his body and his pain level. “I realized that if you don’t pay attention to your body, you’ll overtrain and overexert yourself, so I had to learn when to rest and give my body time to catch up,” he says.

By mid-July, Jensen’s body had caught up completely, so he began working with his high school track and field coach on speed and agility exercises, while checking in with Walz once a week. That fall, Jensen returned to school and loaded up his schedule with 17 credit hours.

Although his life had somewhat returned to normal, he still missed the 2010 football season due to lingering complications from his head injury. Then, in March 2011, Jensen was informed that an abnormality on his brain would prevent him from playing football again the following season. He’s currently hoping to get another opinion, but has also considered competing as a detached athlete in track and field since Florida Atlantic doesn’t field a team.

“I hope for the best as far as football is concerned,” he says. “But if I’m unable to play, track and field may be an option.”

Even though he can’t say whether Jensen’s head injury will prevent him from playing football, Walz admits he wishes he’d done more to help Jensen deal with the possibility he’d need to hang up his cleats. “I think Austin’s struggling with that a little bit, and looking back, I could have done a better job preparing him for the possibility he wouldn’t be able to play football because of his head injury,” he says. “Even though I’m not a neurologist, I could have helped him work through the mental aspect of the rehab process as it related to his head.”

Regardless of whether Jensen will don a Florida Atlantic uniform again, his ability to come back from his horrific injuries was a great moment for Walz. “This is why I got into physical therapy,” he says. “To help people get off the ground and get back to where they want to be, whether it be an athlete or an older adult. I’m amazed at the human body and how it can heal itself.


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