Jan 29, 2015
Lamont Robinson, Salem (N.J.) High School, University of Oklahoma

It was the homecoming football game at Salem (N.J.) High School, and the school’s athletic trainer, Heidi Bower, ATC, was holding her breath. As Bower looked on, Lamont Robinson, the school’s blue-chip linebacker and running back, made his 2004 season debut.

It’s a tense moment for any athletic trainer when a rehabbed athlete returns to play. But this case was special. Robinson had a bright future as one of the most sought-after college football prospects in the country when he fractured four vertebrae in a car accident the spring of his junior year. He doggedly rejected the prognosis that he would never play again and his road back included detours and numerous doctor’s visits in search of a physician who would clear him to play. In the process, Bower became not just Robinson’s athletic trainer, but his de facto case manager.

On that October night last year, six games into the season, Robinson was anxiously trying to adapt to the game’s speed, looking to find the rhythm that had made him one of the top-ranked players in the country. After a few missed tackles, the senior finally made his presence felt, slamming an opposing running back to the turf. “I’m back!” Robinson yelled.

But, it wouldn’t be until the end of the season that Bower could completely exhale. “The nerves for the first game were tremendous,” she says. “Most athletic trainers have never dealt with a kid who broke his neck and wanted to come back and play football, let alone one who actually did. Other athletic trainers asked me, ‘How did you make it through the practices and games given what his injury was?’ I told them, ‘The doctors cleared him and put their names on the line for Lamont, and I followed all the legal avenues that I could. And then, I just hoped for the best.’

“Would I want to be put in that situation again? Heck no!” she continues. “I hope this was a one-time deal.”

Five months before Robinson’s return, it was hard to envision him hitting anybody. On May 19 of his junior year, Robinson was driving home from a family member’s house when he swerved to miss a dog in the road. He lost control of his vehicle and crashed through a chain link fence. Robinson was ejected upon impact and landed in a lake. He was unconscious and severely injured.

A passerby who witnessed the accident quickly came to Robinson’s aid, pulling him from the water and initiating life-saving procedures, after which Robinson regained consciousness. He was then taken by ambulance to Christiana Hospital in New Castle, Del., where he underwent surgery the next day to repair a partially dislocated right eye, fractures to his nasal bone and zygomatic arch, and open facial wounds requiring 60 stitches. A round of MRIs and X-rays revealed fractures to cervical vertebrae five and six (C-5 and C-6) and thoracic vertebrae eight and nine (T-8 and T-9). Because of the nature of Robinson’s spinal injuries, doctors at Christiana told him his football career was finished.

The news hit him like a ton of bricks. “After God and my family, football is third on my priority list,” says Robinson. “To tell me I would never be able to play again was unacceptable. I knew I had to find another opinion.” The prognosis was especially hard to accept because other than his facial injuries, Robinson wasn’t in very much pain. In fact, from the neck down, he felt perfectly normal.

Eight days after the accident, Robinson was transferred to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, where he was treated by Patrick O’Leary, MD, a spinal surgeon who works with the New York Jets and New York Giants. O’Leary told Robinson and his family that there were three or four options for treating his spinal injuries—one of which might allow him to play football again. For Robinson the decision was a no-brainer. On June 1, his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae were fused with a graft taken from his right ilium. O’Leary determined that the fractures to the T-8 and T-9 were minor, and could heal on their own. The surgery was a success, and two days later Robinson was issued a hard neck collar and released from the hospital.

Robinson recovered quickly, going to a soft neck brace after a month. Five days later, O’Leary determined that he had regained enough strength in his neck to perform everyday functions, and he removed the soft brace. However, he was not allowed to participate in any physical activity, and Robinson spent the next month doing little more than sitting around watching television. The inactivity caused him to drop nearly 30 pounds, and his muscular 6’2″, 220-pound body was losing size and definition.

After a few weeks, Robinson began to get antsy. Though O’Leary hadn’t cleared him for any physical rehabilitation, he felt as though his body could withstand some conditioning. He decided to take matters into his own hands and began self-imposed (and self-supervised) rehab, secretly doing 100 to 200 pushups and calf raises a day.

“The doctor told me I was healed, but at the same time he didn’t want me to do any work,” says Robinson. “But I know my body—at that point I felt good. And believe me, I started off very slowly and didn’t do anything that involved my neck.”

At Robinson’s third visit with O’Leary, he learned that all the fractures, including the fusion, had healed. O’Leary cleared Robinson to begin physical activity, but advised against participating in contact football. However, the 17-year old heard a different message.

“When Dr. O’Leary released me at the end of August, I thought I was released to play, but he really meant I could start working out again—running and lifting weights,” says Robinson, who immediately joined his teammates for preseason practices. “I started team drills and conditioning because camp had already begun.” Practicing without equipment, Robinson and his teammates were hitting blocking sleds and doing contact-free conditioning drills.

Three days after his appointment with O’Leary, Robinson met with his family physician for a mandatory preseason physical. The physician told Robinson he would clear him only if O’Leary faxed him a note saying that he had already done so. When the note arrived, it said Robinson could attend school and do just about anything except play football. Though devastated by this setback, Robinson continued working out on his own. He was determined to somehow get back on the field.

A month later, on Sept. 27, Robinson visited O’Leary again and had another round of X-rays, which confirmed his injuries had fully healed. Robinson reported no difficulties with conditioning activities or with hitting the blocking sleds. Despite this, O’Leary still felt uncomfortable releasing Robinson to play football that soon after surgery. He said he would have no problem releasing him six months post-surgery, but that was two months away and would only allow Robinson to play in one or two games.

“He came from the standpoint of what decision he would he make if he were my father,” says Robinson. “I understood where he was coming from, but I was desperate to get back on the field. So I asked him if there was anything more I could do—see another doctor or something like that. That’s when he told me that if ‘Dr. Torg’ cleared me, he would go along with the decision.”

After conducting a fruitless Internet search to find Torg’s address and phone number, a frustrated and depressed Robinson paid a visit to Bower. “He came into my office and said, ‘I need your help to find Dr. Joseph Torg,'” Bower says. “At that point, I told him he first needed to come clean with me about what he had been doing on his own for conditioning. That’s when he told me everything.

“When I found out he was doing exercises on his own, I cringed,” she continues. “I told him he was very lucky that he hadn’t undone something the doctor did to fix him. I also told him that I wasn’t trying to make it more difficult for him to play. I wanted him to play, but I wanted him to be completely healthy when he did.”

Bower went on to tell Robinson that not only did she know who Dr. Torg was, but that he did, too. “He said, ‘I’ve never met this man,’ and I said, ‘No, but you’ve watched his video before every football season,'” says Bower. Joseph Torg, MD, a well-respected neck and spine specialist, hosts the video “Prevent Paralysis: Don’t Hit With Your Head,” which is required viewing for the Salem football team.

Bower obtained Torg’s office number from a colleague who warned her that she might have a hard time getting an appointment. Torg was semi-retired and seeing patients only three days a week. In her call to his office, Bower explained Robinson’s situation, and Torg agreed to see him five days later. Bower accompanied Robinson and his mother to Torg’s office at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.

“Between the doctors’ concerns, an athlete who wanted to play now, and coaches who wanted him yesterday, I was being pulled in a lot of directions,” Bower says. “But I knew that I had to go through the proper channels to make sure the athlete was safe. I also knew that we needed a paper trail, and that took work—it didn’t happen overnight.”

On Oct. 5, after looking at Robinson’s collection of MRIs, X-rays, and CAT scans and performing a physical evaluation that included lateral and forward flexion and extension of the spine, Torg gave Robinson a complete medical release with no restrictions—including football. “Lamont left the office dancing through the hallway, screaming at the top of his lungs that he was going to play football again,” says Bower with a laugh.

However, Robinson’s elation was short-lived. His return to the field still faced several obstacles.

On Oct. 7, at Bower’s urging, the school’s athletic director held a meeting with Robinson, his parents, and Bower to discuss what needed to happen for Robinson to resume his career at Salem. They concluded that the school’s insurance provider would have to check off on Robinson’s injury before he could return and that as a stipulation of his return, Robinson would consult with Bower after each practice and game. It was also decided that Salem’s Team Physician, Joseph LaCavera, MD, would have the final say on whether Robinson could suit up.

The next day, Robinson, his parents, and Bower met with LaCavera, who told them that Robinson would be cleared upon the arrival of the paperwork from O’Leary, as long as it agreed with Torg’s assessment. Four days later that paperwork arrived, but O’Leary still maintained he would prefer Robinson wait six months post-surgery to return. Because of the conflicting opinions, LaCavera delayed his decision until he could speak with each of the doctors. On Oct. 15, nearly five months post-surgery, after consulting with both O’Leary and Torg, LaCavera released Robinson to play football.

Even though the process of getting cleared to play frustrated him, Robinson is thankful for the treatment and care he received from the doctors and from his athletic trainer. “Although I wasn’t always getting the answers that I wanted, I knew that I was in the best hands,” he says. “And Heidi was very instrumental in everything. She made sure I did everything I needed to do and was always there with words of encouragement if I had any problems.”

Weighing 217 pounds at the time of his release, Robinson hadn’t regained all of the weight and strength he had lost, but he was close. There were also some equipment adjustments. Robinson would have to get used to the addition of shock pads, a cowboy collar, and a visor on his helmet to protect the injuries to his face and eye. After a week of pain-free practice, Robinson played his first game of the season.

With its captain back on the field, Salem earned a trip to the state playoffs, losing in the first round. Despite playing in only four and a half games, Robinson notched 40 tackles, forced two fumbles, and had two fumble recoveries. On offense, he scored six touchdowns and six two-point conversions on his way to earning second team all-conference honors at linebacker and running back and first team all-area as a linebacker.

Robinson was equally dedicated in the classroom, earning a 4.27 GPA and graduating seventh in his class. And his ordeal failed to scare off college recruiters. In December, Robinson signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Oklahoma, where he will play linebacker.

As for his experience last season, Robinson feels it has only made him stronger. “It was tough, but I think it’s going to make me a better person, a better man, and a better athlete,” he says. “To have something prematurely taken away from me at a time when I wasn’t ready to give it up, and the experience of having to come back, makes me appreciate my abilities and the opportunity I have in front of me.”

PROFILE: Lamont Robinson

  • Injury: Fractures to cervical vertebrae five and six (C-5 and C-6) and thoracic vertebrae eight and nine (T-8 and T-9) as well as various facial fractures resulting from a car accident.
  • Rehab Hurdle: Obtaining the medical and legal clearance to participate in his final high school season.
  • Result: Rejoined team halfway through season and obtained a scholarship to play football at the University of Oklahoma.
  • Quote: “I asked Dr. O’Leary if there was any thing more I could do to get back on the field—see another doctor or something like that. That’s when he told me that if ‘Dr. Torg’ cleared me, he would go along with the decision.”

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