Jan 29, 2015
Comeback Athlete: Deontae Cooper

University of Washington

By R.J. Anderson

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

Some people say bad things come in threes. Whether that’s true or not, University of Washington running back Deontae Cooper has reason to believe that the third time is the charm–when it comes to rehabs. Sustaining three ACL tears in less than three years, Cooper sat out three straight seasons before playing his first game for the Huskies in 2013. With a full season under his belt last year, Cooper is running strong in 2014.

Cooper arrived at Washington following a stellar high school career. He was ranked as the 10th best running back in the country by Rivals.com as a senior at Citrus Hill High School in Perris, Calif., in 2009. And he had racked up 7,450 career rushing yards and 107 touchdowns while leading the team to a 38-1 record during his three years as a starter.

He graduated from high school early and enrolled at Washington in January 2010. After an outstanding camp that spring–in one scrimmage, he rushed for 114 yards on 12 carries, including touchdown runs of 52 and 29 yards–Cooper’s sights were squarely set on being the team’s starting running back in the fall, a rare feat for a true freshman at a BCS school.

But early in August training camp, Cooper’s meteoric rise came to a sudden stop. “He was running down the sideline, got tackled from behind, and his leg rolled up underneath him,” says Rob Scheidegger, ATC, Head Football Athletic Trainer at Washington. “It was a freak accident and a pretty significant injury–Deontae tore his left ACL and meniscus.”

After undergoing a quadriceps tendon repair of the ACL as well as a meniscus repair, and seeing his promising career put on pause, Cooper was initially devastated. “Even though I eventually went through two more ACL tears, the first was the hardest to deal with by far,” he says. “Going through that for the first time while being far away from home was tough. Plus, coming in with such high expectations only to get injured so quickly was pretty deflating.”

Cooper quickly rebounded mentally, though, and began attacking his rehab. Progressing quickly through a typical ACL and meniscus rehab protocol, he worked twice a day with Scheidegger and Assistant Athletic Trainer for Football Daren Nystrom, MA, ATC, CES, CSCS, who is also the team’s rehab coordinator. Cleared to play seven months later, Cooper was conditioning with the team in late June 2011 when he planted his left leg to make a cut. After feeling an all-too-familiar pop in his reconstructed knee, Cooper crumpled to the ground. He had retorn his left ACL.

This time, however, the surgeon, John Green, MD, an Orthopedist at the University of Washington Medical Center–who performed Cooper’s previous procedure–used a bone-patellar tendon-bone (B-PT-B) graft to repair the ACL. He also did more lateral corner stabilization of the meniscus.

“In looking at Deontae’s knee during that second surgery, Dr. Green felt that the previously injured lateral meniscus may have increased the natural instability in his knee,” says Scheidegger. “Dr. Green thought that having a little more play in the pivot of the knee could have created more tension during flexion, which could have created a higher load on the ACL.”

With another season over before it could begin, Scheidegger and Nystrom went back to the drawing board. “When you’re dealing with a multi-injury knee, you have to be more careful in the rehab,” says Scheidegger. “We slowed things down and staggered back our running progression to make sure the lateral meniscus had time to heal. And because the injury occurred in June, we had more than a year to get Deontae ready for the 2012 season.”

If he was frustrated by the second setback, Cooper never let anyone know. “No one ever worried about whether he would come back or if he would be okay mentally,” says Scheidegger. “In addition to being a super hard worker, Deontae is the most positive person you’ll ever meet. He came back to the athletic training room with the same great attitude he brought to his first rehab and didn’t let this major setback get him down.”

Cleared to return to play in August 2012, Cooper was on the field for the first day of the team’s preseason workouts. But for the third straight year, he failed to make it out of the first week of training camp. A noncontact plant and cut again shredded his ACL–but this time, it was his right one. “That was crushing for Deontae–and understandably so,” says Scheidegger. “But he knew the routine and that there was nothing to do but fix it, buckle down in rehab, and move forward.”

Performing the surgery on Cooper’s right knee was E. Edward Khalfayan, MD, Medical Director and Orthopedic Physician for the Seattle Mariners and Head Team Physician for the Seattle Seahawks, who used a B-PT-B graft to repair the right ACL. Meanwhile, Cooper prepared for another season watching from the bench. “Being on the sidelines was definitely the hardest part,” says Cooper. “Not being on the field with my brothers and being unable to do what I know I’m capable of doing was emotionally draining–especially on game days.”

As someone who prides himself on putting the team first, Cooper carried that attitude into the athletic training room. The veteran rehabber channeled his frustration into encouragement of others, which was not lost on the athletic training staff.

“It makes our job a little easier to have a guy like Deontae in the athletic training room,” says Scheidegger. “It’s easy for injured athletes to get discouraged and not want to be there, but Deontae helped lighten and liven up the room. Also, a lot of our rehabbing players have looked at him and said, ‘If he can work that hard to come back from three ACL tears, I can overcome this problem.'”

Because the damage to Cooper’s right knee was isolated to the ACL, Scheidegger and Nystrom were able to be a little more aggressive with his rehab, and Cooper advanced through the protocol quicker than he did with the injuries to his left knee. Still, the recovery process was not without challenges.

“With all of the work Deontae had done on his left knee, we viewed it like a tire that had only so much tread remaining,” says Scheidegger. “During his third rehab, we wanted to decrease the stress we were putting on his left knee as not to overload it and risk further injury. So we did a lot of work in the Hydroworx tub and with our anti-gravity treadmill.

“Another challenge was breaking up the rehab monotony,” Scheidegger adds. “Going through the same rehab process three times can be a real grind, so to keep Deontae engaged, we tried to make it fun by introducing different games and exercises. For example, instead of having him stand on an Airex pad and catch a football like we did the first time around, we put him on our Biodex Balance System and had him do different balance games.”

The rehab team’s creativity combined with Cooper’s persistence paid off as he was cleared for the 2013 season. But Cooper’s three-year absence, combined with a surplus of talented rushers on the roster, led Washington’s coaching and medical staffs to bring him along slowly and gradually rebuild both his confidence and conditioning.

Cooper’s first taste of on-field success came against Idaho State University in the team’s third game of the season when he ran for 59 yards and scored his first collegiate touchdown. “Standing in the end zone had never felt so good,” says Cooper.

Then on Nov. 23, in the second-to-last regular-season game, Cooper had a breakthrough performance against Oregon State University, carving the Beavers’s defense for 166 yards and two touchdowns. “That game put me over the top emotionally and let me know that my hard work was paying off,” says Cooper, who earned the team’s Guy Flaherty Most Inspirational Award following the season. “It also gave me a boost coming into this year.”

In gearing up for the 2014 season, Cooper had a minor setback following the team’s spring camp. “He had some swelling in his left knee and had to undergo surgery to repair his meniscus,” says Scheidegger. “It was yet another procedure and another rehab, but he came back quickly and had a healthy preseason camp.”

Now that he’s back, keeping Cooper on the field is the last step. This means coming up with new techniques to properly warm him up prior to training. “It takes Deontae a little while to loosen up and get ready for practice, so we’ve started using our Hydroworx pool for him and a few other guys before they take the field,” Scheidegger says. “They’ll do a short warm-up routine in warm water, which lubes the knee joint and helps ease them into a workout.”

In addition, the staff modifies his workouts when necessary and keeps a watchful eye on him at practice. “To avoid repetitive stress injuries to Deontae’s knees, we try to vary the surfaces he’s training on,” says Scheidegger. “Our strength coach already does that with the whole team, but it’s a special focus with Deontae. And if his legs seem a little fatigued at practice or he tells us his knees are flaring up, we’ll pull him out and have him work in the pool or on the anti-gravity treadmill.”

Cooper’s injury history has also tweaked how Scheidegger approaches long-term rehabs. “One thing we learned from his situation is we may have focused so much on his left knee during the first two rehabs that we may have not paid enough attention to his other side,” Scheidegger says. “I’m not saying it played a role in his right knee injury, but it’s something we think about more because of what happened to him.

“So now, when we have a guy on a long-term rehab like an ACL, we try to do a lot more proprioception and balance training with the non-injured leg,” he adds. “It’s easy to forget that when they’re not playing football for a long period of time, not only does the injured leg need to be re-trained, the other leg needs to be kept sharp, as well.”

For Cooper, the lessons from his rehab experience were vast and certainly not wasted. Nor was his time. On the field, he is a second-year player, but off it, he is a college graduate. Last May, he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and ethnic studies and is currently pursuing a master’s degree.

“What’s unique about Deontae is that he’s really steady and all about what he can do that day to get better–whether it’s rehabbing his knee, playing football, or academically,” says Scheidegger. “The kid is a rock. He understands what he can control and doesn’t worry about the stuff he can’t.

“Seeing him get back on the field has been great,” he continues. “But watching him grow and mature as a person has been even more rewarding. What he’s overcome has made him a better, stronger person and will follow him in whatever he decides to do when he leaves here.”

While Cooper’s persistence and work ethic were the main drivers behind his return, he credits Scheidegger and Nystrom as being instrumental in keeping him on the right path. “As much hard work as I put in, I couldn’t have done it without them in my corner,” Cooper says. “Going to rehab and knowing the people you’re working with care about you as a person, not just a player, makes all the difference–especially when you’re there as much as I was.”

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