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After the injury: Student athletes face more than just physical recovery

Tyler Mellick gives two thumbs up before going into knee surgery for a torn ACL. (Submitted photo)

As a sophomore, Tyler Mellick had a bright couple years ahead of him. He was one of the few sophomores called up to play on the varsity hockey team. He was a varsity track runner and on the bubble of making the varsity tennis team. He was going into his junior year as the football team's top tailback.

"He was looking outstanding in our first week of practice," said Tyler's football coach, Dana Strain.

Before his first official football game as a junior, all that got taken away. During the Blue and Gold Scrimmage late last August, Tyler switched positions. He moved to defense, and on the first play got tangled up when he went to make a tackle. Now he remembers laying on the ground, his knee full of the worst pain he's felt, he said.

"I thought I wasn't going to play again," he said.

As much pain as he was in, the hit itself didn't immediately show how serious the injury was.

"When it actually happened, it wasn't anything that stood out as a gruesome hit," Strain said.

He tried to get up, but his leg collapsed. From the sidelines, photographers were snapping picture after picture, and Tyler didn't want the attention on his injury. So he made his way to the sidelines, where an athletic trainer checked him over. He passed all the sideline tests, and even got back out on the field to run a couple plays as running back.

It's not so uncommon that a serious injury doesn't show serious symptoms, Strain said. And when the symptoms aren't clear, it's possible for athletic trainers on the sidelines to think it's not so serious. What Strain noticed was Tyler's attitude.

"You almost got a sense that he knew something was wrong," he said.

After that, Tyler went to practices for about two weeks before he had a doctor look at the injury. It wasn't until then that he found out he had torn his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament).

"His first question to the doctor was, 'Can I play Friday night,'" said Mari Mellick, Tyler's mother.

The doctor told him he would be an idiot to play, and that it would be a full year before he would be able to play again. The doctor's attitude and lack of empathy for Tyler's situation led Mari to go looking for a new doctor. They ended up with Dr. Aimee Klapach at Sports and Ortho-paedic Specialists. An athlete herself, Dr. Klapach knew just how important sports were to Tyler, and her treatment of Tyler's injury reflected it. She put a high priority on seeing Tyler healed and back in the game, Mari said.

Empathy was a big deal to Mellick and his family. The physical pain and recover was tough enough, but it was the mental challenges that Tyler didn't expect to face.

"I didn't really think about all the emotional issues," he said.

It wasn't just that he had to sit out much of his junior season. It was watching his teammates - his younger brother among them - go out on the field or on the ice without being able to help them. It was the sense that he had somehow failed his teammates. It was having to tell his football coach he wouldn't be able to play for the whole season.

"That was, I think, one of the toughest things he had to do," Mari said.

"The hardest part is the fact that you put a lot of hard work in, and you don't get to play," Strain said. "And I know it's difficult, having been an athlete myself, when you get injured. You've got to stop playing, but nobody else does. So the team has to carry on. There's nothing you can do to change that."

Sophomore Nick Schweich knows exactly what Tyler went through. Six games into the J.V. hockey season, an East Ridge player hit him from behind and he hit the boards hard. His story was much the same as Tyler's.

"I couldn't get up. I tried, but it just wasn't happening," Nick said.

His MRI showed he had also torn his ACL, and the tear completely severed the ligament. He had heard of Tyler's injury, heard that the recovery was a terrible process. And he got to experience first-hand the alienation that comes from such a serious injury. First there's the gap caused by the experience itself.

"The first week is just brutal," Nick said. "You're in so much pain. No one really understands unless you've been through it."

Tyler did understand, and was one of the first of Nick's classmates to drop in for a visit. Others, however, weren't so encouraging. His team had chemistry on the ice, but for him it didn't extend off the ice.

"When you get hurt they just don't treat you the same," Nick said.

He felt like he lost some of his teammates respect because he wasn't able to play. And of all the people he thought were his friends, only six bothered to ask him how he was doing after surgery. Two of those were Tyler and his younger brother, Zach.

"You really find out who your true friends are," Nick said.

Even though they were injured, Tyler and Nick were still members of their teams. They still went to practice whenever physical therapy allowed, performed other tasks for the team and learned as much as they could watching from the sidelines, so when the time comes, they can bring their full strength their first day back.

That's exactly what Tyler did last Thursday, less than five months after his surgery. Having just received clearance from his doctor to play again, he hit the ice with his teammates in the game against Roseville.

"It went well," Tyler said of the game. "It didn't really hurt at all."

He only wishes he had been able to play more, he said.

Nick has a few more months to go before he'll be able to rejoin his team. But he's got his sights set on the same path Tyler took.

"I'm going to try to follow Tyler, come back strong," he said.

The experience has led both boys to adjust their outlook on sports a bit. Their injuries forced them to look elsewhere, at least for a time, for goals to meet.

"You set those goals for the season and all of the sudden those are out the door," Mari said.

Lately, Nick's goal had been simply to get rid of his crutches so he could regain some of his independence.

"You just take some things for granted," he said. "My goal was to get faster and stronger. I guess I can't be faster, but I can be stronger."

They had to realize that even though they had made sports their life up to this point, their athletic achievements aren't what define them.

"(Tyler) had to really learn that the hard way," Mari said.

Now she sees her son paying more attention to other things as well - especially other people who are going through a hard time and might need someone to talk to. Nick sees himself going through the same change in perspective.

"It softened me up," he said.

"It teaches you how to respect others, put yourself in their shoes."