Jan 29, 2015
Comeback Athlete: Sean Wallis

Washington University in St. Louis

By R.J. Anderson

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

It was March 2007, and Washington University in St. Louis junior basketball player Sean Wallis was locked in an intense battle–his toughest matchup of the year. In front of a very loud, raucous audience, Wallis rose to the occasion, drilling shot after shot, sending his opponent to a very one-sided defeat.

Unfortunately for Wallis, the game was half-court and his opponent was Wash U’s 50-year-old Head Athletic Trainer, Rick Larsen, MS, ATC. Though the crowd was boisterous, it consisted only of Wallis’s teammates, who were stretching on the sideline and decidedly in the corner of the underdog Larsen.

However, the one-on-one game was a significant milestone for Wallis, who was rehabbing from a right lateral tibial plateau fracture and torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) he’d suffered earlier that season. It was his first real basketball activity since the injury, and his first chance in months to display some of the skills that made him an NCAA Division III preseason All-American.

For Larsen, the friendly competition allowed him to see Wallis test his surgically repaired leg with some basketball-specific moves, and it was a perfect example of the hands-on approach he took throughout Wallis’s rehab. “That game was also a chance for me to really help him build his confidence,” jokes Larsen. “I think he beat me 12-2. I tried to stay with him, but he was crossing me over and doing whatever he wanted that day.”

A true student of the game, following his injury Wallis joined the coaching staff as an assistant for the remainder of the 2007-08 season, helping the Bears snag their first NCAA Division III national championship. The next season, he was back on the court as the starting point guard, leading his team to a second consecutive national title and earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors. He was also a second-team D3hoops.com All-American honoree. Having been granted a medical redshirt for his lost junior season, Wallis is currently a graduate student working to bring Wash U a third straight national title.

Wallis’s comeback story began Nov. 20, 2007, during the first half of a game at Maryville University. “I was driving down the lane and had beaten my man when another guy rotated over to help out. He stepped on my right foot and his leg crashed into mine,” Wallis recalls. “With my foot pinned, my leg couldn’t give and it snapped. At the time, I really didn’t know what had happened–I was lying on the floor in a ton of pain.”

At halftime, Wallis and his father, who was visiting from Illinois, went with Larsen to a local emergency room. A round of x-rays did not reveal a fracture, and doctors surmised the injury was likely an ACL tear. But Larsen was unconvinced and asked the technician to x-ray Wallis’s leg from a different angle, which revealed the fracture.

The next day, Wallis met with Wash U Team Physician Matthew Matava, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who is also the team doctor for the St. Louis Rams and the St. Louis Blues. An MRI revealed two injuries: a partially torn MCL and a fractured tibial plateau–the latter being most serious. A week later, Wallis had a plate and three screws surgically implanted at the fracture site, and Matava did a minor cleanup of the meniscus.

When he awoke from anesthesia, Wallis was hurting. “It was incomparable,” he says. “I’ve taken a baseball line drive off the face and shattered my nose and had other bad injuries, but the pain after my surgery was way beyond anything I’d felt before.”

Matava told Wallis the rehab would likely take about three months, so there was a possibility he could re-join his team if it reached the Final Four. “But Sean didn’t want to rush the process and return too early, so he instead chose to sit out the rest of the season,” says Larsen. “That way, he could also petition the NCAA for medical redshirt status and gain another year of eligibility.”

Wallis spent the next 12 weeks on crutches, wearing a brace that locked his knee in a straight position, and worked to maintain some muscle tone in the injured leg. Larsen gave him electrical muscle stimulation and range of motion exercises to activate the joints adjacent to the injury site, mainly his hip and ankle. “We also did some quad and hamstring stretching, some straight-leg raises, and some quad sets,” says Larsen. “But we were pretty limited by the injury and had to take it very slow.”

At the eight-week mark, Wallis was cleared for partial immobilization, and four weeks after that he was off crutches and ready to bear weight. “When we got the go-ahead for full weight bearing in mid-February, we started getting after it as much as he could tolerate,” says Larsen. “Follow-up x-rays showed that he was healing well and the hardware was intact, so we were cleared to rehab fairly aggressively.”

Matava and Larsen prescribed mostly closed-chain exercises such as squats, leg presses, lunges, leg curls, and extensions, as well as straight- and bent-leg toe raises. “Because we weren’t in a rush to get him back, we were somewhat conservative in advancing Sean from body weight to weighted workouts,” Larsen says. “For example, we did body weight exercises for three to four weeks, concentrating on higher reps. Then in March, we increased the weight and decreased the reps for more of a strength protocol for a couple weeks. From there, we transitioned to a power protocol by adding more reps, reducing the weight, and working on explosiveness. For his conditioning, we used biking and elliptical workouts before graduating to a running program that started on a treadmill and transitioned to ground-based work.”

At this point, Wallis was able to begin more basketball-specific work, which included competing against Larsen in one-on-one and shooting competitions. An accomplished athlete himself–a three-year starter at shortstop for the University of Wisconsin baseball team in the ’70s–Larsen says he surprised Wallis with his shooting touch. “When Sean was able to go full weight bearing, we had a free throw shooting contest where we shot until we missed,” says Larsen. “Sean made 14 in a row, and I made 22. I think that’s why he wanted to beat me so badly when we played one-on-one in front of his teammates.

“I’ve always found that the more competitive and interesting you can make a rehab, the more motivated the athlete will be,” continues Larsen. “Sean really enjoyed those parts of the rehab.”

Wallis’s love of the game also pushed him to approach Head Coach Mark Edwards with an unusual request: He wanted to join Edwards’s staff as an assistant coach. “I told Coach Edwards I wanted to stay involved and that it would be mutually beneficial for us if I took a more active role,” Wallis recalls. “I didn’t want to be the typical injured player in a sweatsuit at the end of the bench–I wanted to really play a part in the rest of our season.”

Edwards was more than open to the idea and asked Wallis to work with the team’s guards, especially the primary ball handlers replacing him at the point. He also asked Wallis to serve as the coaches’ voice in the locker room. “I was kind of a mediator between the players and coaches,” says Wallis. “The coaches would come to me with an idea and I would bounce it off the players, and vice-versa.

“Coach Edwards and the rest of the staff made sure I was part of everything,” he adds. “During games, I sat between our head coach and assistant coach and was constantly talking with them about substitutions and matchups.”

Despite their star point guard sitting on the sidelines in a suit and tie, Wallis’s teammates continued their on-court success, rolling through the NCAA Tournament and reaching the Final Four. Wallis was also on a roll, making great strides in his rehab, and with the team poised to play for the national championship, Matava deemed him fit to return to play.

But Wallis turned the offer down. Even though his leg was healthy, he knew he wasn’t strong or fit enough to be the player he was before the injury.

“I could have come back and given the team a minute or two here and there, but I don’t know if that minute or two would have been as good as what our other players were giving,” Wallis says. “I think I was only at about 50 percent. I could have gone out and not gotten hurt, but that wasn’t good enough for me.

“Plus, I didn’t want to mess with what the team had going and draw attention away from what they were accomplishing,” he adds. “I really felt in my heart that it wasn’t meant to be that season.”

Wash U went on to capture the Division III title, and Wallis took satisfaction in knowing he had contributed to the success in his temporary role. “When the final buzzer sounded and we all ran out on the court to celebrate, it didn’t matter if you were a coach or a player–everyone was jumping around,” he says. “It was special to see how far the program had come. There will always be a special place in my heart for that memory.”

Wallis says the coaching experience also contributed to his rehab success. Even though coaching added to his day-to-day schedule–Wallis would do 90 minutes of rehab with Larsen after each two-hour practice–the time demands also kept him from feeling sorry for himself. “Being at practice around my teammates and coaches every day kept my resolve fresh and served as a constant reminder of why I was working so hard in rehab,” says Wallis. “Plus, I could still have fun.”

That spring, Wallis began immersing himself fully in basketball, but found his rehab story was not quite over. He was still experiencing some soreness, even into the summer. Frustrated with his pain level during a summer league game in his hometown, Wallis consulted a local orthopedic surgeon, who recommended arthroscopic surgery.

“The surgeon removed some scar tissue that had built up over the course of my rehab,” Wallis says, describing the procedure as minor. “The surgery set me back a couple weeks, but afterward I felt better by leaps and bounds.”

Wallis returned to campus that fall feeling like a new player. “I had the confidence to focus on my game and not on my injury,” he says. “Of course I had a little hesitation when I first came back, but after a few practices I started doing the things I used to and clicking with my teammates.”

Wallis admits he may have lost a little of his once lightning-quick first step, but says his skills and instincts were sharper than ever when he returned to the court in 2008. In addition to quarterbacking the team to its second consecutive national championship, Wallis broke the school’s single-season assists record with 251, and also set the career mark with 566.

Though Larsen roots for every one of his rehab patients, he especially enjoyed seeing Wallis climb back on top. “I spent a lot of time with Sean and got to know him pretty well. I really do consider him a friend,” Larsen says. “It gave me a lot of satisfaction seeing him go out and not only compete, but get to the level of performance he was striving for.”

Wallis in turn credits Larsen’s personal touch with keeping him on track. “Rick listened and was very honest with me,” Wallis says. “He put me in the mindset that if I worked hard, I would get better. I didn’t have a chance to get down on myself during rehab because he was always there to pick me up.

“When we were on road trips or playing in the tournament, he would do the rehab right alongside me,” Wallis continues. “He would come to the weightroom and do squats and leg presses right next to me. His presence made a big difference in keeping me motivated.”

Off the court, Wallis graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting last spring and is currently pursuing a master’s in finance that he’s slated to complete in May. After the season ends and he finishes his degree, he’s not sure what the future holds. “I’m looking into a few different sports management opportunities as well as a few management consulting firms. Playing overseas is still an option as well,” he says. “But I’m not really in a hurry to do anything. I just want to enjoy my last year at Wash U and take it all in.”


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