Monday, March 19, 2012

No Country For Old Legs

I’ve put off telling this story for long enough. Here is a tale of love and physics.

In January of 2011 the Green Bay Packers clinched a playoff berth, beating the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. What a dramatic season it had been for the Packers, losing so many players but remaining in the hunt. A preseason favorite to win it all that quickly went awry with injuries, concussions, and retching overtime losses. Then, the low point, losing to the Detroit Lions in the midst of a wild card race without scoring a touchdown. Aaron Rodgers takes concussion number two. Goodbye daylight.

Though what felt like a tragedy of a season was not yet hopeless. The following weekend Matt Flynn proved his grit in a tense loss to the Patriots, while a stunning Eagles comeback in New York helped to keep The Pack alive. Green Bay had control of their destiny, needing to win out against the Giants and Bears to secure a playoff berth. I had to watch the first half of the Giants game at Reagan National on a tiny screen with no sound, waiting for a delayed flight to Milwaukee. By the time we got in the air, in-flight wireless confirmed Green Bay was up several scores, about to seal the deal. High fives rang through the cabin. A week later a man named Lovie tried to hate on The Pack, leaving his playoff-bound starters in the game all day. Chicago’s efforts were to no avail, and a banged up Green Bay team prepared to hit the road as a six seed.

The Packers showed up in Philadelphia and ended Vick’s dream season. I think Michael owes Clay Matthews a thank you card anyway for concussing Kevin Kolb in week one, effectively throwing Vick a bone. The Packers showed up in Atlanta and completely dismantled the Falcons. It was one of the most gratifying football games I have ever watched, complete with aged cheddar brat burgers. I wanted to high five everything I saw after that game. Aaron Rodgers went 31 for 36 and Green Bay lit up an excellent football team for 48 points. And so there we sat, one game away from the Super Bowl. And nothing standing in the way but the Chicago Fucking Bears.

This was a Really Big Game, and I knew people would be getting together somewhere for this one. The Packers and Bears make up one of the oldest sports rivalries in American history and this would be just their second meeting in the playoffs, the first happening during World War Two. For a few million frozen Americans in Wisconsin and Illinois, this felt like World War Three. I have several friends that are Bears fans and soon enough Nate announced that he and Sarah would host an NFC title game party in Saint Paul.

This worried me for a couple of reasons. First, with the stakes so high against a rival so worthy, I knew that my anxiety and enthusiasm could reach disaster levels during the game. Sometimes in the heat of competition I can say horrible things, fantastic other-worldly mean things, and this NFC championship game would really test my filter. Second, with so many impassioned fans gathered to watch such a huge game, I knew there would be a colossal amount of drinking. The Packers are playing the Bears for a spot in the Super Bowl. It’s never happened before. No amount of pickle wraps nor taco dip would stand to temper the nerve of any true fan in the house. No, there would be drinking, and it would be the heavy sort.

I woke up early on January 23rd, eager to get a few things done around the house and then soak in pregame coverage. Afterward I had a bagel and began slandering the Chicago Bears on Facebook. Kate prepared some sort of vegetarian dish to share at Nate’s house. I informed Kate we had to get to there a good hour before kickoff to ensure no chance of having to sit on the floor. I threw on my Matthews jersey and we were off to Saint Paul. I think I made the twenty minute drive in just under four minutes. 

Nate answered the door in a Matt Forte jersey and we shared some unpleasantries about each other’s outfit. The girls gathered in the kitchen and finished assembling some top shelf snacks. We sat around watching the pregame coverage while people showed up. All in all there ended up being about ten fans of each team there. Lots of spirit. Lots of mesh. Lots of tortilla chips and ice cubes. People started making drinks and eyeing the clock, the biggest game in the world just minutes away. I got situated on the couch on the Green Bay side of Nate’s living room and nervously ate celery and sipped a Jameson and ginger ale. Kate ended up sitting in a bay window on part of a Chicago Bears blanket that Kolby brought. I asked her to stop sitting on a Bears blanket but she dismissed my suggestion quickly.

Some fans settle in before the carnage.

After a few high fives and some yelling everyone got settled in. The Bears kicked off and an electric hush fell over us. Win or lose, a historic football game was about to happen. Rodgers looked great in Green Bay’s opening drive, connecting big with Jennings and Nelson to put the Packers up 7-0. Starks ran in another touchdown in the second quarter, giving Green Bay a two score lead going into the half. It still didn’t feel like anywhere near enough of a buffer, as the game was tensely contested and Chicago always remained within striking distance. During halftime we mingled nervously and dipped chips, everyone feeling the nausea of being so close to the ultimate goal. The Packers hadn’t won a Super Bowl since the ‘90s, the Bears since the ‘80s. So close to having another shot. Green Bay defense, please just hold on. I remember making deals with the Packers in my mind.

“You guys, if you do this, I will be a nicer person.”
“Rodgers, if you throw two more TDs, I will save a kitten.”
“Grant, if you promise not to fumble, I will do some volunteer work in your town.”

The Packers kicked off the second half and it became evident Jay Cutler was hurt. Lovie Smith benched him and put Todd Collins in, though for some reason people trashed Cutler for days. Didn’t make a lot of sense, he wasn’t faking an MCL injury in the biggest game of his life. Collins went 0 for 4 and in went Caleb Haine who stunned everyone, throwing for 153 yards and setting up two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Rodgers got picked off by Urlacher but then tackled him and saved a score. I’d call that the play of the day except a few minutes later 338-pound BJ Raji picked off Haine and ran it back for a score punctuated by a thrilling end zone dance. Green Bay led 21-14 when Chicago got the ball back with just under three minutes left. Haine drove the Bears down to the Green Bay 29-yard line and I wanted to puke the entire time. I shut my eyes and then looked at the score again, secretly hoping it changed and we were really up ten points. It was right around this moment that everyone was as ‘into’ the game as humanly possible. The stakes don’t get much higher in the world of sports. Here we all sat, one score apart, a trip to Super Bowl XLV on the line, with around forty seconds on the clock.

Haine dropped back and released the ball over middle and directly to Sam Shields. He caught it. Green Bay won. Elation. Chaos. The next few moments are blurred in my memory, and they precede about a four minute stretch where I don’t remember anything. Not because I fainted or blacked out from drinking or anything like that, but because my brain truly erased the trauma from my memory. Most solid favor my brain ever did me.

As soon as Shields intercepted the ball, I leapt into the air with the rest of the Green Bay fans at Nate’s place. “The Packers are going to the Super Bowl!” I was a tornado of adrenaline and high fives. I grabbed Bowman and lifted him into the air. I bear hugged Jesse and picked him up as well. By the time I got to Andrea I felt like I could lift a thousand pounds, though Andrea weighs much less than Nick or Jesse and a lot less than a thousand pounds. Right at that moment is where my memory stops. The next thing I remember is being on the floor at Nate’s place. But I can help fill in some blanks for you with the witness accounts I’ve heard over the last year.

When I lifted Andrea up, I lost my balance and came down on my right leg at a bad angle, with Andrea on top of me. At that instant Justen says he heard “a loud noise like someone slapping a pair of boxing gloves together.” Apparently I laid there on the floor for a couple minutes, still softly cheering for the Packers. While I was down there, Nate and Kolby kicked me a few times and pulled my jersey over my head. I don’t blame those guys though, I have no idea what I would have done to them if Haine had scored and the Bears won in overtime. I started to try to gather myself and resume jumping around cheering with my friends, but something wasn’t right. Someone put their hand out to help me back up, but when I took it and started moving, I noticed that my right foot was staying put. I sat back down.

It is right around then that my memory comes back. I looked at my shoe and thought, “That is not pointing in the right direction.” Teresa, a nurse, told Kate, “I think there might be something wrong with Mike.” A few people near me started to get that something happened and they cleared a little space around me. Justen got down next to me and lifted my pant leg to see what was going on. He found himself staring at a blood red sock with something pitched up under it like a tent. That was my tibia. Yes, when I fell, I broke my leg in three places and compound fractured my tibia right through the front of my shin. The noise Justen heard was my bones snapping. I didn’t feel much pain or scream or anything, I think I was in shock to some degree. It didn’t really bleed a lot either as the trauma was so sudden. I was just laying there on Nate’s floor with my bone sticking out of my leg.

The mood in the room changed real fast. Nate was already on the phone with 911 and Teresa was telling people not to touch me. The vibe switched from spirited celebration to stark horror. A bunch of people left the room and I sat there with the rest waiting for the ambulance. I never looked directly at the bone and I think that helped me maintain a decent attitude through the whole thing. I continued high fiving people from the ground and talking about the Super Bowl. Brent and Kolby sat on the floor with me keeping me calm, but I think they may have been more freaked out than I was at that moment. Kate worked out logistics. Everyone stayed cool, but I always imagined that if I had a bone sticking out of me that I would be doing a good amount of complaining and hollering. Didn’t feel anything like that. I was surely feeling some level of shock. I just felt happy about the Packers more than anything else right then. And kind of embarrassed to be such a horrific center of attention. I do recall remarking that my leg felt like a bag of bones. I could feel the broken pieces grinding against each other any time I shifted.

The ambulance showed up and the EMTs strapped me to a gurney. My friends said their goodbyes and wished me luck in surgery, still a little slack-jawed at what was going on. I hope they resumed having a good time after I left, at least. The EMTs got me into the ambulance and Kate jumped in behind us. The drive to Regions Hospital in downtown Saint Paul was only about two miles long, but it proved to be the most painful aspect of the entire experience. See, all of Saint Paul is really hilly with lots of potholes, and this ambulance driver hit a lot of them. They strapped me in pretty tight but my leg was bouncing around constantly. The broken bones were jostling and grinding—that is a really disgusting feeling. I yelped for most of the short ride, and spent the rest of the time asking the EMTs who would be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.

I begin my journey through pain and regret.

We got to Regions Hospital and they took some x-rays. Two breaks to the fibula and then the obvious compound fracture of the tibia. By the time we started talking about the x-rays I was feeling really fabulous from the painkillers they were pumping into me. A small crew of doctors and nurses rushed me to different parts of the hospital asking me questions, but I had a hard time staying focused.

“Mr. Ricketts, do you have any allergies?”
“Yes. No. Can you believe what Raji did? Did you see that little dance?”

“Mr. Ricketts, do you consent to the surgery we have just discussed?”
“Do you accept the Packers as the greatest football team of all time?”

“Michael, can you tell me how the pain is on a scale of one to ten?”
“Can you give me a high five, right now?”

Some of the staff were amused by these antics while others were not. Sorry, hospital, but my bone is sticking out of my leg and you just filled me with drugs. Don’t take anything I say too seriously. At one point they were prepping me for surgery when I asked everyone in the room to stop.

“Is anyone in here a Vikings fan?”
“I’m a Vikings fan,” sighed one young doctor.
“Can we get this guy out of here?”

Probably a poor decision to deride anyone about to help me walk again. The surgeon went over some information with Kate and I and they prepared to put me out for surgery. We signed the papers, they wheeled me off, and the lights went out.

That is broken.

I woke up the next morning, catheterized. The sun was bright and my eyes barely worked. I felt really weak. I looked around and remembered where I was. Kate was there and started telling me about the surgery. Everything went well. The surgeon made an incision in my knee through which they reamed a slot inside my tibia for a titanium rod. The rod was secured with five screws near my knee and ankle. It will all stay in there forever. I’m a little bit like a cyborg now.

My leg was propped up on some pillows and wrapped in a lot of gauze. No hard cast. It felt like a truck was parked directly on top of it. That is the best way I can describe the pain I felt for the first couple days. Any time the medications began to wear off, it felt like there was a truck parked on my shin. Not a real sharp or aggressive pain, but just a “hey, ha ha, please move the truck off my leg” kind of pain. Some doctors filtered in and out of my room throughout the day to talk with me about different stuff. They had me on a lot of painkillers—Percocet, Oxycodone, Dilaudid and a couple muscle relaxants that I forget the names of. I was feelin’ pretty irie for a couple days in that hospital.

Kate brought me my laptop and I logged into Facebook. I had something like 70 notifications. I spent a little while confirming to friends and family the sordid details they’d been learning online, then went back to sleep. Turns out my mom and her friends called me right after the game, Kate answered and told them why I could not come to the phone. “Mike can’t talk, his bone is sticking out of his leg. Go Packers?” I talked to some people on the phone on Monday but I don’t remember much of it. I barely ate for a couple days and had to stay in the hospital a third night because they couldn’t take me off of the Dilaudid. I needed it to sleep.

Finally on Wednesday afternoon they let me go home. We took my crutches, walker, and dozen bottles of pills across the river back to Minneapolis. Naturally we don’t have railings on any entrances to our house and all of the steps were caked with ice so just getting inside was pretty thrilling. Marlo was excited to see me again after three days but was wary of my leg. He gave it a few sniffs and then just sat around watching me. He gave my leg a couple of concerned growls before he called it a night.

For about seven weeks I could not walk. I spent a lot of time in our living room. I saw a lot of movies. I caught a lot of Super Bowl XLV pregame coverage. I elevated my leg a lot and got a real good sense about the goings on of our street. Felt a lot like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Rear Window,’ but the most exciting thing I witnessed was a dog walker slip on some ice. I watched some new people move in across the street and I secretly hoped one of them would be a clown or a giant or something new and interesting to look at. I attended a lot of physical therapy appointments. Kate was amazing during these weeks, basically taking care of every dinner and every errand we had. Her grandma was a big help, too, taking me to different appointments during the day. Taking that first shower was a real challenge, getting a plastic bag over my leg and sitting on a chair in the tub. I thoroughly enjoyed cruising around grocery stores on those little motorized carts. I got a lot of fun visitors and help from friends. Nate and Sarah dropped off gift baskets for Kate and I. If you are going to try and break your leg off, do it at Nate’s place. He will have 911 on the phone before you hit the ground and two weeks later you get a giant basket of snacks.

A couple days after the Super Bowl we met with the surgeon and he removed all of the bandages. I assumed I would get some sort of cast after that, but no, just a boot to wear during the day. Just two weeks after the incident I was sleeping with absolutely nothing on my leg. Was kind of gross, my leg looked like Frankenstein. I kept up with my physical therapy and could eventually start putting weight on the leg. I started walking again around mid-March. It wasn’t pretty, but I could get around without crutches. Each morning Marlo would give my bad leg a couple licks. On May 28th, just about three months after the break, I played tennis. I definitely did not think that would be possible that quickly and I feel pretty lucky that I was able to recover so well. I also owe a big thanks to my surgeon, Dr. Li. If this had happened 100 years ago, I would have been hobbled for life. I am really glad that I was born into a more advanced era of medicine. I bet when my great-grandson does this same thing he will be able to fix it right away with his iPhone and continue drinking. And it will probably cost a lot less than fifty grand.

Two weeks after the horror.

As for the Packers, we all know what happened there. They battled through as a six seed missing nearly a third of the roster and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Texas. I watched the game from the safety of my couch with a few friends. When Roethlisberger threw that last incompletion and the Packers sealed the deal, my leg felt a lot better. I’d seen my team win it all one other time, in high school, but this felt so much sweeter. I had a much deeper appreciation for it. Had they lost, every time I felt a pain in my leg for the rest of my life I would have to remember how Green Bay ended that magic run with a loss. I would also probably remember that jihad provocation of halftime show. RIP Slash. Instead of all that green and gold depression, I get to enjoy the contrary. The timeless and irreversible satisfaction of your favorite team winning a title. If I am playing tennis and can’t get to a ball because of my leg in thirty years, half a second later I will think of the Green Bay Packers’ 2010 playoff run and giggle a little bit. It hurts so good.

I was a lot more careful watching games during the 2011 season. It was hard to not get too excited sometimes because we didn’t lose a game for a year and Rodgers had an MVP season. One of my friends started a Facebook group dedicated to getting me into the Packers Fan Hall of Fame (which actually exists) but I think you have to do a lot more than fall down to win that honor. Kate and I attended our first home game at Lambeau last October with some friends—the whole experience only made me love the Packers that much more. I love Packer Nation so much I can’t even stand it sometimes. As for my leg, it feels great today. I barely even have a scar. I still wish the whole ordeal never happened and I’m certainly not proud of it, but, at least it makes for a decent story. I will occasionally meet a friend of a friend and after a few minutes they make the connection and ask, “Are YOU the guy who popped his tibia out during a football game!?” I got a gym membership last summer to continue rehabbing my leg and the guy that signed me up had already heard about what happened to me. Never met the guy in my life.

And so I press forth, being the guy that broke his leg celebrating a Green Bay win, blindly believing with all my heart that the Packers will win the next five Super Bowls in a row.

And I’m drinkin’ milk to get ready.