Jan 29, 2015Lucasz Selwa, Salisbury High School, Pa.
On Oct. 8, 2004, following a short pass reception, Lucasz Selwa experienced something he will never forget. Hit by four tacklers at once, Selwa heard what he later described as “a large tree branch snapping.” The sickening sound came from Selwa’s leg. The junior at Salisbury High School in Allentown, Pa., lay on the football field writhing in pain and screaming at the top of his lungs.
When William Frye, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Salisbury, evaluated Selwa, he knew right away that the situation was bad. “As soon as I touched the leg I could tell that the tibia was very unstable,” says Frye, a subcontractor from Orthopaedic Associates of Allentown, whose team was playing at conference rival Northern Lehigh High School. “I told the other team’s athletic trainer to get the ambulance.”
A speedy, hard-nosed running back, strong safety, and kick returner, Selwa was in unfamiliar territory, having never before experienced a serious injury. Salisbury’s star player and emotional leader was diagnosed with a mid-shaft fracture of the right tibia as well as a spiral fracture that ran down to his medial malleoli. Doctors told Selwa his season was over, and that the rest of his playing career was in jeopardy.
No more football was a frightening prospect for Selwa, but he turned that fear into motivation to get back to the game he loves. As his story unfolded over the next several months, however, the very zealousness that made him a star player proved to be extra challenging for Frye and provided a learning experience for both the player and his athletic trainer.
After a few weeks in an L-shaped plaster cast, Selwa was fitted with a fiberglass cast, and he was soon walking with crutches and easing into his rehab. Unable to do much with his leg, Selwa, under Frye’s guidance, began simple exercises like toe curls, straight-leg raises and extensions, and basic quad and hamstring stretches to keep his leg muscles active. Selwa also began upper-body weight-lifting with his teammates and on his own, which he continued throughout the rehab process.
After two months, Selwa was fitted with a walking boot, which he wore for another two months as the tibia continued to heal. X-rays showed his bones were fusing together, and the leg was becoming a little more stable. At this point, Frye ratcheted up the rehab, inserting more range-of-motion exercises like ankle pumps, circles, alphabets, and inversion and eversion stretches into Selwa’s program. Selwa also began doing some gentle ROM exercises on a stationary bike and continued his quad and hamstring exercises.
As Selwa progressed, his leg was able to support weight without using crutches, and he began partial weight-bearing exercises such as weight shifts, toe and heel raises, resistance-band exercises in all four directions, and non-aggressive joint mobilization exercises to improve his ROM. For two hours a day, six days a week, Selwa worked with Frye, in addition to the upper-body lifting he did with his teammates.
Four months after the injury, Selwa was cleared to remove the walking boot and start jogging. He was feeling good and ready to take his rehab to the next level. However, this improved feeling turned out to be a curse. Armed with false confidence, Selwa became too aggressive in his rehab, doing more and more on his own.
After one particular light, three-minute jogging session, Selwa’s leg became swollen, and he began limping again. Frye talked with Selwa about slowing things down. “That’s when I found out that Lucasz was running at home without my supervision,” says Frye. “He also admitted he had begun playing pick-up basketball, which was a huge no-no.”
Frye realized it was time to have a heart-to-heart with his patient. ” I told him, ‘You’ve got to stop,'” says Frye. “I told him that if he wanted to play later, he couldn’t kill himself now.
“He was an impatient kid who just wanted to get out there as quickly as possible,” Frye adds. “He believed that if he did extra stuff he would get back faster, but I told him that it doesn’t work that way with this type of injury.”
Following two weeks off, Selwa resumed the beginning phases of jogging, and after a week, was completing 10-minute sessions. Pain-free during those sessions, Selwa was cleared to begin sprinting.
“Sprinting went well, except for the acceleration aspect,” says Frye. “The microfracture was on the bottom of the tibia where it meets the ankle, so every time he pushed off or stopped, the ankle was pressing into the bottom of the tibia, pushing on the fracture. He had some discomfort, but as time went on, that started to subside.”
Once Selwa got a handle on straight-ahead sprinting, Frye introduced more functional drills like carioca, shuffles, and ladders. Much to Selwa’s delight, Frye had the teenager out on the football field running pass routes.
Again, Selwa’s confidence began to soar. And again, it jeopardized his rehab. “About a month after the first setback, Lucasz got brave again,” says Frye. “His friends were out playing basketball, and he chose to join them and ended up overdoing it—though not as badly as he had the first time.”
A member of the basketball team prior to his junior season, Selwa was having a problem staying off the court, a surface that put a lot of stress on his injured leg. Frye again sat his patient down for another reality check. “I asked him, ‘Do you want to play basketball or football next season?'” says Frye. “He said football, so I told him his goal was to get back on the football field, not the basketball court, and that’s what he needed to focus on.”
Looking back, Frye says he now realizes that younger athletes, especially those who have never been injured before, can have a hard time understanding that trying to speed up the rehab process too much can actually make the rehab last longer. “I learned that you really need to throw everything about overdoing it on the table right away,” says Frye. “As athletic trainers, we need to get it into their heads that just because they’re feeling good, it doesn’t mean they can do all the things they used to do.”
By late spring it was clear Selwa would not be the same player he was prior to the injury. Selwa’s speed would likely not return to its original level, nor would his ankle’s range of motion. Recognizing this, Frye met with Head Football Coach Mark Scisly and explained his expectations for Selwa’s recovery. “We decided that since Lucasz wouldn’t be able to do all the things that he did in 2004, Coach Scisly should adjust Lucasz’s role,” says Frye.
To reduce the pounding that comes with being tackled, Selwa was taken off the kick-return unit and moved to wide receiver with spot duty as a running back. He was also moved from strong safety to middle linebacker, where he would have less ground to cover and fewer pass coverage assignments.
The switch to linebacker meant Selwa needed to build up his body, especially since he would no longer be able to take advantage of superior speed. With that in mind, Selwa re-focused his weight-lifting efforts and set about gaining nearly 20 pounds of muscle. Standing 5-foot-8 and now weighing 180 pounds, Selwa was starting to see the fruits of his lifting labor. “My bench press went up drastically,” says Selwa. “I could press 185 pounds 23 times as opposed to only 12 times the year before.”
But that wasn’t the only improvement. Four months post-injury, Selwa was cleared to begin lower-body lifting, and the strength gains came quickly. So quickly, that at the Colonial League Weightlifting Competition, held in April, Selwa finished first in his weight class with a squat of 405 pounds.
Heading into summer, Frye was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to keep as close an eye on his over-motivated patient as he would like. However, Selwa enrolled in a speed-development camp held Fry’s clinic, where for six weeks, the athletic trainer had access to Selwa’s routine and was able to monitor his progress.
“They did a lot of resistance running using bungee cords, pushing against sleds, and those kinds of things,” says Frye. “And by that time he knew that if he got sore, he should take a day off. He really learned from his previous setbacks.”
However, as summer wound down, Selwa experienced soreness in his right leg and began to limp. An MRI revealed that the articular cartilage on the superior aspect of his talus was not fully healed. Christopher Hawkins, MD, a physician at Orthopaedic Associates of Allentown, presented Selwa with two options: sit out the season and let the cartilage heal, or rest a few weeks before preseason then play, deal with the discomfort, and address it when the season was over. After hearing that he wouldn’t further damage the cartilage, Selwa chose to play.
When preseason two-a-days finally rolled around, Selwa was ecstatic about rejoining his teammates. His excitement, however, was tempered by a dose of reality. “Before I broke my leg, I was one of the fastest guys on the team and my 40-yard dash time was well under five seconds,” says Selwa. “But in preseason I only ran a 5.2 and during passing drills I had no separation from defenders. Knowing what I used to be able to do, then not being able to do it, was easily the worst part of the whole experience.”
By the time the season began, Selwa had grown into his middle linebacker position. He was clogging the middle on defense and ended up as the team’s third-leading tackler. Selwa also blocked a team-high four field goals, two of which were returned for touchdowns. On offense, he caught 23 passes and rushed for a touchdown.
But for all his impact on the field, Frye says Selwa’s biggest contributions were his leadership and work ethic. “Lucasz’s courage and bravery to work as hard as he possibly could to play the sport he loved motivated our whole team,” says Frye. “Lucasz was not the same athlete he once was, but his heart proved valuable in helping his team improve.”
And improve they did. After failing to register a single win in 2004, the team improved to 3-7 during Selwa’s senior season. But for Selwa, the season’s success couldn’t be measured by wins and losses.
“We had very good team unity, and I think guys learned what it takes to be successful,” says Selwa, who will likely attend West Virginia University, the University of Delaware, or Old Dominion University, but not play football. “And I hope I opened up some eyes that an injury can happen to anybody. You really do need to play every play like it could be your last.”
PROFILE: Lucasz Selwa
- Injury: Mid-shaft fracture of the right tibia and spiral fracture running to the medial malleoli.
- Rehab Hurdle: Overcoming multiple setbacks and his own efforts to speed the rehab.
- Quote from ATC: “I asked him, ‘Do you want to play basketball or football next season?’ He said football, so I told him his goal was to get back on the football field, not the basketball court, and that’s what he needed to focus on.”
- Result: Returned to play every football game of senior season.