Jan 29, 2015Max Baumann
St. Xavier High School, Cincinnati, Ohio
By R.J. Anderson
R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. To nominate a comeback athlete, please e-mail him at:[email protected].
After his team was blown out in the 2006 Ohio Division I football regional finals by archrival Colerain High School, St. Xavier High School junior right guard Max Baumann was as low as he’d ever been. With both knees and a shoulder wrapped in large bags of ice, Baumann struggled to understand how his season had ended in the worst possible way: The team’s dream of defending its state title was dead and his left knee was shredded.
While pulling on a blocking assignment five minutes into the fourth quarter, the 6-foot-2, 275-pound Baumann was blindsided. His left knee buckled awkwardly, and he heard a pop. Later, an MRI revealed he had torn the ACL, MCL, and medial meniscus–arguably the most feared triad of knee injuries.
There’s an old saying that “bad things come in threes.” For Baumann, that turned out to be a very unfortunate reality. In addition to the injuries to his left knee, Baumann tore his right posterior labrum in the fourth game of the season, and two games after that he tore the medial meniscus in his right knee. St. Xavier Team Physician Robert Heidt, Jr., MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Wellington Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine, told Baumann that by limiting his practice reps and managing the injuries properly he could play through them. But Heidt, also the Team Physician for the Cincinnati Bengals, told him the injuries would require surgery at season’s end.
“He was mentally prepared to go through surgery for the first two injuries, but the third one, which turned out to be the most serious, left him in a state of shock,” says Michael Gordon, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at St. Xavier. “My heart broke for him because I knew how hard he had worked to play through all the pain from his previous injuries. To have another surgery added to the lineup was very tough on him.”
Baumann’s rehab began as he sat in the locker room draped in ice and disappointment. Seeing that he was hurting emotionally as well as physically, Gordon put on his “sports psychologist” and “motivator” caps and sat down next to him. “I prayed with him and told him we were going to help him get through it,” Gordon says. “I told him it wasn’t going to be easy, but that everything happens for a reason. I said, ‘You have to work your tail off to get back out there for your boys next season.'”
It didn’t take long for Baumann to set his sights on the long road that lay ahead. With a goal of returning for the first game of the 2007 season, he prepared for his first surgical procedure. “We wanted to get him ready mentally and physically because he was facing some long, hard months,” Gordon says. “So we prehabbed him and had him do a lot of quad strengthening work to minimize atrophy before the surgery.”
The surgery on his left knee took place Dec. 7, three weeks after St. Xavier’s last game, with Heidt performing an autograft procedure using a piece of Baumann’s patellar tendon to reconstruct the torn ACL. During the first four weeks after surgery, Baumann was on crutches and followed what Gordon describes as a typical ACL rehab, doing continuous passive motion work and quad tightening, as well as increasing his knee’s range of motion and overall flexibility. At the same time, Baumann prehabbed for his upcoming shoulder surgery using the strengthening program he had begun during the season, which included band work, internal and external rotations, front raises, and some light shrugging.
Baumann did his initial physical therapy at Wellington with John Brehm, MEd, ATC, an athletic trainer at the clinic and an Assistant Athletic Trainer at St. Xavier. During his school lunch periods, Baumann visited Gordon in the athletic training room to complete many of his home exercises for getting range of motion back. There, his work included using a continuous passive motion machine with polar care and performing heel slides, wall slides, hamstring and calf stretching, and quad strengthening exercises.
By Jan. 25, 2007, having learned to ambulate on one crutch, Baumann underwent the procedure to repair the torn labrum. At this point in his rehab, the hobbled high schooler was a walking medical supply closet. “For a couple weeks he was in the sling and on one crutch, with braces on both knees,” Gordon says. “If it wasn’t so sad, it would have been comical.”
On Feb. 9, Heidt performed the medial meniscus procedure on Baumann’s right knee, putting him back on two crutches. By mid-February, with the surgeries behind him, Baumann was rehabbing three body parts, working three hours a day for three days a week.
In addition to physical therapy at the clinic for his knees and shoulder, Baumann was also working with Gordon after school. During those sessions, he concentrated on core strength. “We worked really hard on his core because that was all we could really do then, strength-wise,” Gordon says. “We knew strengthening his abs, low back, and hip flexors would help get the ball rolling for when he could ratchet up his other strengthening work down the road, like leg extensions and curls.”
By April, Baumann had completed his work at Wellington and was doing all his rehab with Gordon and Brehm at St. Xavier. To keep the sessions lively, Gordon implemented sport-specific exercises whenever possible. “It’s not always interesting or fun to continually do straight-leg raises or ride the bike,” he says. “For instance, when we did balance exercises that incorporated tosses, we used a football. Also, we put him in his lineman’s stance whenever we could and utilized a lot of ladders and foot-high hurdles that trained him to chop his feet like linemen do in their position drills.”
The hours, days, and months of repetitive rehab often left Baumann drained–physically and mentally. To keep him focused, Gordon introduced visualization exercises. “We’d say, ‘Imagine yourself on the podium, holding up that state championship trophy,'” Gordon explains. “Or, ‘Imagine making a pancake block against Colerain, and putting your arms around your teammates knowing you worked your tail off to get there.’
“It was amazing to watch him stay motivated,” Gordon adds. “I wouldn’t say every day was a great day, but every day was definitely a progressive day.”
One of the more unusual aspects of Baumann’s recovery was not what he gained, but what he lost during the rehab process. With Baumann weighing 270 pounds at season’s end, Gordon knew the hulking lineman had to drop some weight in order to reduce the stress on his surgically repaired knees.
“Usually, when bigger guys undergo surgery–and I’ve seen this at the high school, college, and professional levels–they gain weight because they’re not active and they don’t really watch what they eat,” Gordon says. “I didn’t want that to happen with Max, so we spent a lot of time talking about the importance of a proper diet after his surgeries.”
Baumann heard the message loud and clear. “Right away, Max was really proactive about changing his eating habits, and he actually lost weight during his rehab,” Gordon says. “His parents were great about changing the family’s meals. They cut out fatty, fried foods and concentrated on eating salads, lean meats, and other proteins.”
Throughout the rehab, Gordon watched as Baumann’s body became more and more lean. By the start of the team’s summer strength and conditioning sessions, he was down to 240 pounds. “He didn’t lose it all at once–it was a slow progression,” Gordon says. “I monitored him to make sure he wasn’t losing more than two pounds a week. I didn’t want him to eventually put it all back on.”
In the spring, when Baumann’s rehab began to include functional training, Gordon and Carlo Alvarez, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at St. Xavier, worked together to design a program that addressed his weaknesses and improved strength imbalances without interfering with his progress. They incorporated a lot of proprioception and balance work and used the school’s swimming pool for low-impact hydrotherapy exercises. They also kept Baumann away from heavy upper- and lower-body presses.
“We never put him on the bench press or leg press and challenged him to max out to gauge how strong he was,” Gordon says. “Instead, we wanted to see how he looked bilaterally–was he as strong on his left side as he was on his right?”
When football practices rolled around, Baumann was back on the field, and 236 days after his ACL surgery he participated in the team’s first scrimmage. Despite adding five pounds of lean muscle over the summer, he was still 25 pounds under his 2006 playing weight. Freed from the extra weight as well as the knee and shoulder injuries that dogged him during his junior season, he felt quicker and stronger.
Baumann was named a team captain and started every game of the 2007 season. Though he was able to play–and play well–he had significant soreness after most games. “He was still only eight months removed from an ACL surgery, which can take a year or two to fully recover from,” Gordon says. “Max basically lived in the athletic training room and got treatment every single day–sometimes four, five, or six times. But week after week, he toughed it out.”
To reduce the pounding on Baumann’s repaired knees and shoulder, Gordon kept his practice load light. “Max was able to do some hitting in a controlled environment, but we kept him out of most contact drills,” Gordon says. “And if he was really sore, I told the coaches, ‘You might not get him for even one day this week. Let’s take him to the pool and stay away from pounding his body.'”
Baumann says his comeback was complete when his team capped an undefeated 2007 season by winning the Ohio Division I championship game. Standing on the awards podium afterward, one of the visualization exercises from the early days of his rehab came to life. “I was standing on that stage holding the trophy with the other captains,” says Baumann, who was named to the 2007 all-Ohio Division I first team. “As I looked out at my teammates and our screaming fans, I knew that all my hard work had paid off.”
Since graduating from St. Xavier, Baumann has lost 25 additional pounds, bringing him down to 220. A freshman studying finance at the University of Cincinnati, he turned down several offers to play college football. “I talked to scouts who said he could have gotten a full ride at a mid-level to major NCAA Division I program,” Gordon says. “It’s not that he lost the desire to play football, I think he was just physically worn out and realized it would be very tough to keep playing week after week for another four or five years. I also think he was completely fulfilled by his experience playing with his friends and teammates at St. Xavier and didn’t need to keep playing just so he could say he played college ball.”
But that doesn’t mean Baumann is ready to retire to a life on the couch. “Through this process, Max has seen the benefits of healthy eating and being smart about his body,” Gordon says. “He really appreciates how good it feels to be physically fit and healthy and realizes he has a long life ahead of him.”
Baumann concurs. “I will definitely miss playing football,” he says. “But I’ll also be grateful when I’m 40 years old and can walk without limping.