Jan 29, 2015Faster Than Ever: Craphonso Thorpe
How a broken leg helped Craphonso Thorpe get even faster.
Standing on the track at Florida State University, poised to run a 40-yard dash during the football team’s preseason conditioning tests, senior wide receiver Craphonso Thorpe knew nothing was going to slow him down—not the pressure of being a preseason All-America candidate, not the Florida heat, not the steel rod that ran the length of his right lower leg.
For Thorpe, the rod serves as a constant reminder of the injury he sustained eight months earlier during the Seminoles’ overtime win over North Carolina State University. The injury occurred while Thorpe was blocking on a running play near the sideline. A linebacker attempting to make a tackle rolled over the back of Thorpe’s right leg, snapping both his tibia and fibula. Thorpe heard a pop, and when tried to stand up, felt as though there was a 3,000-pound weight sitting on his leg.
After the game, Thorpe was taken to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, where he had emergency surgery to repair the fractures. Doctors inserted a steel rod and three screws—one near the knee and two others at the ankle. Thorpe would remain in the hospital for six more days.
“The hardest part was not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Thorpe. “People would say, ‘You’ll be okay in nine months.’ But when you’re lying in that hospital bed and you can’t move and you have to take pain pills every couple hours and then you’re stuck on crutches for four and a half months, it’s hard to see yourself running again.”
Back at the track, the coach’s whistle blew, and Thorpe began his first timed 40 since his injury. When he crossed the finish line 4.25 seconds later, Thorpe, the 2003 Atlantic Coast Conference 100- and 200-meter champion, was reminded of something else—he was still the fastest player on the team. His time that day was one of the quickest in the history of the Seminole football program. And it was a tenth of a second faster than before the injury.
“At that point I felt great. I knew I would run well, but I didn’t know how well,” says Thorpe. “I felt great because I ran that time and I wasn’t even 100 percent yet, and I knew that I could run faster down the road.”
So how does a world-class athlete break two major bones in his leg and come back even faster eight months later? For Thorpe, part of the credit goes to a supportive family, a hard-working sports medicine and coaching team, and a brand new state-of-the-art training facility—but, say the Florida State athletic trainers and strength coaches, it all starts with Thorpe’s attitude.
“Probably the biggest thing was that during his rehab, Craphonso worked harder than he has ever worked in his life,” says John Jost, CSCS, Director of Strength and Conditioning at Florida State. “Not to say that he didn’t work hard before, but because he is such a great athlete, there were so many things that really came easy to him. Then, when he faced this adversity, all of a sudden the things that came easy to him before were extremely challenging. It was pretty well understood that if he was going to be ready for this season, he would have to go through an awful lot of blood, sweat, and tears.”
Up until the N.C. State game, 2003 had been Thorpe’s breakthrough season. As a junior, he caught 51 passes for 994 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games before breaking his leg. He was gaining mention as a potential All-American, and was fast catching the eye of NFL scouts. Despite the injury, Thorpe was named first-team all-ACC and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver.
Having tasted the success of the 2003 season, Thorpe was hungry for more, and knew that he would have to be fully dedicated to his rehab. As great as that season was, Thorpe and his support network at Florida State knew he could do better.
“One thing about Cro is that he gets better every year,” says Randy Oravetz, LAT, ATC, Director of Sports Medicine at Florida State and Head Football Athletic Trainer. “And I think that he can see that if he continues to get bigger, stronger, and faster, he can be pretty good at this business.”
Thorpe’s rehab also coincided with the opening of a new sports-medicine facility: the Don Fauls Athletic Training Room—a 15,000-square-foot complex that includes eight whirlpools, hot and cold tanks capable of holding 15 linemen, and a swimming pool containing an underwater treadmill. Thorpe was the first athlete to train exclusively in the facility and the first to take advantage of its aquatherapy features.
“Once his incisions healed, we put him in the tub and started working on his range of motion,” Oravetz says. “About six to eight weeks after the surgery, we had him in the swimming pool doing leg extensions and walking short distances on the underwater treadmill to begin putting weight on the ankle.”
For 10 weeks post-surgery, Thorpe worked 30 to 40 minutes a day in the pool. The training staff was able to adjust the amount of weight on his leg by having Thorpe work in the different depths of the pool, which ranged from 4.5 – 6.5 feet deep. Four months after his surgery, Thorpe was riding a stationary bike and walking on a dry land treadmill, eventually graduating to jogging on the treadmill and climbing the Stairmaster.
Even though he was making progress, this proved to be a tough time for Thorpe. “Sometimes I went six or seven weeks without seeing any improvement,” he says. “Then in a two-week span I would see a lot of improvement. Then it would level off again for a while before I would see any more.”
Thorpe says being around his teammates during the rehab helped to bolster his spirits. By the time he began, several other Seminole players were also recovering from injury. “He had a lot of company,” says Oravetz. “We had a large group of guys rehabbing at the same time—the starting center, the starting tailback, and another wide receiver. We had a pretty good team in there for a while.”
Oravetz used the team camaraderie to help motivate the individual athletes. “If they were on treadmills we’d say, ‘Well, so and so is doing six miles per hour,’ and Cro would look over and say, ‘Well, I’ll try that.’ You play little psychological games with them. You tell them about the other athletes and how hard they are rehabbing, and it pushes them.”
In addition to his work in the pool and on the treadmill, Oravetz says Thorpe made a commitment to strengthen his upper body and hips. “He knew he couldn’t really build up his legs, so he concentrated on his upper body,” says Oravetz. “He started getting serious at about the eight-week mark, and to this point he’s added about 15 pounds.”
“For the first time in my career I didn’t have to go through spring practice,” says Thorpe. “So I had a lot of time on my hands and went to the weightroom twice a day and really concentrated on lifting weights.”
At 6’2″ and 200 pounds, Thorpe says the extra muscle has contributed to his improved speed. Before he was naturally fast but not necessarily powerful. Now he has explosiveness that translates to the football field.
Once Thorpe was able to put pressure on his leg, he and Jost began working to build strength in that leg. “It was pretty basic,” says Jost. “We started out with open-chain exercises—going from a leg extension to a leg curl progressing to a four-way hip machine, to a leg press and some closed-chain movements that were single leg—exercises as simple as a very small step-up, to a larger step-up and slowly adding weight. Everything we did started with his body weight as the initial resistance and progressed by adding weight. And once we got him to a certain point in April,” continues Jost, “we started doing a very, very mild form of plyometrics.”
The spring semester ended April 15, and due to NCAA regulations, Thorpe’s contact with Jost and Oravetz was limited. So with their blessing, Thorpe enrolled at the Titus Sports Academy, a private strength and speed development clinic in Tallahassee, where he worked on his lateral movement and balance.
“With the athletic trainers I was doing a lot of strengthening,” says Thorpe. “At Titus I worked on movement stuff—lateral movement, side-to-side movement. I did a lot that focused on my injured leg—hopping up steps on one leg, hopping over benches with one leg, that kind of thing.”
“Titus bridged the gap between spring and summer workouts,” says Jost. “We communicated with Titus and let them know what his limitations were and how hard he could be pushed.”
“I definitely think Titus was big in me coming back as fast as I did,” says Thorpe. “I was at Titus for about five weeks, and when I first went there I could barely jog or even hop on one leg. By the end of the fifth week, I was running 40s, hopping on one leg, running with bungee cords. I could do pretty much everything.”
Thorpe was back at Florida State on June 7, and began working out with Oravetz and Jost again. He was eventually cleared for two-a-days, with some restrictions. “I put him in a blue jersey, which means no contact,” says Oravetz. “He still got bumped and pushed, but nobody flat-out blasted him.”
Thorpe says that upon his return to the practice field, there were some anxious moments when he first participated in blocking drills. But those fears subsided pretty quickly.
Jost says he has been working with Thorpe to improve his ability to decelerate and change direction—facets of Thorpe’s game that have been slower to return. “He is making progress every day,” says Jost. “It’s really a customized workout for him, and one that he will probably do all season. He’s doing a lot of single-leg movements, a lot of controlled plyometric type movements with some bands and other lateral resistance. Now he’s getting to the point where he can do a lot of the movements that everybody else is doing.”
While Thorpe is able to do things on the field that most players can’t even dream of, Oravetz says that it won’t be until November—a year from the initial injury—that Thorpe is 100 percent recovered. Still, he was cleared to begin his senior season, when he will continue chasing his goal of winning a national championship and eventually playing in the NFL. So far this season, Thorpe is leading the Seminoles in catches and receiving yardage, after catching eight passes for 90 yards in Florida State’s first two games, against the University of Miami and the University of Alabama.
Thorpe says he has learned quite a bit from his comeback. And along the way he has impressed more than a few people—including teammates and coaches.
“Before the injury I was very independent, and after I got hurt it taught me to have patience when dealing with other people and that you can’t do everything by yourself,” says Thorpe. “I also learned that you have to not only be happy when good things happen to you, but also when bad things happen. Bad things will happen. How a person reacts when they happen—how they act in a time of trial and a time of distress—defines their character.
“When I broke my leg that was my attitude,” he adds. “I could either crawl into a shell and go hide, or take the attitude that it wasn’t going to beat me and I will be back.”
Jost, who has helped train a number of athletes competing at the professional level, thinks that the experience may end up helping Thorpe down the road. “Quite frequently, when you have somebody who is extremely gifted, once they face adversity—something of this magnitude—it’s going to have one of two effects on them,” says Jost. “I have a saying that the hammer shatters glass, but it also forges steel. What that means is that it’s either going to break you, or it’s going to make you stronger.
“Having overcome that adversity will make Craphonso stronger,” he continues. “I’m sure he’s learned a lot of lessons from this adversity, and it would not surprise me if it ends up becoming a blessing in disguise.”
Award Winner: Craphonso Thorpe, Florida State University
- Sport: Football
- Injury: Broken tibia and fibula
- Comeback Team: Randy Oravetz, LAT, ATC and John Jost, CSCS