Alabama football’s open week last November gave sports medicine director Jeff Allen a quiet Friday at home.
The peace of the day came to an end when Allen, one of the more recognizable faces around the Tide’s program over the past 15 seasons, received a call from the North Florida area code. It was an emergency room doctor who informed Allen that she was treating the sophomore running behind Trey Sanders after a car accident.
“We think he’s going to make it,” the doctor began.
The way the conversation was framed was thrown to Allen, who had previously received calls about the player’s injuries, but not one where the player’s life was in question.
“I remember it clearly,” Allen said this week. “It started with a completely different tone, and I knew right away that this was a huge situation we had to deal with.”
Sanders had traveled home for the weekend when a car driven by his brother Umstead, a defensive end at Jacksonville State, collided with the side while crossing an intersection. When Sanders arrived at the hospital, doctors determined the extent of his injuries.
“He had multiple fractures and soft tissue damage,” Allen said. “And also internal injuries. Without diving into what they specifically were, I think this sort of thing stands for itself. “
Coach Nick Saban later revealed that Sanders broke his hip. Both Sanders and the team initially questioned whether he would be able to return to playing football, but Alabama’s 44-13 win over Miami in months of rehabilitation put an end to those doubts.
6 nationally among all prospects in his class by 247 Sports, Sanders saw his first play in more than 10 months and a 20-yard, third-quarter run by a five-star recruit. Made his first college touchdown in .
Tide’s director of football rehabilitation Jeremy Gesell couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. He met Sanders on the field for a hug which was caught on camera And made a long journey back.
“I thought Jeremy was really going to get a flag,” Allen recalled. “He was about five yards on the field and I actually yelled, I said, ‘Jeremy, they’re kicking extra point! Get off the field!’
Given the circumstance, Saban would have let the flag pass. The coach went on to rehabilitate Sanders without prompting during his radio show two days before the game, saying, “He’s really wagged his tail, and no one on our team would be more likely to see me succeed.” would be happy.”
Success came quickly for Sanders, whose first three carries of the game on consecutive plays went for 9 yards, 9 yards, and then 20-yard scores. He ran five more times for a total of three yards in the fourth quarter as Miami countered Alabama’s attempt to finish the clock.
Saban’s opening statement at his postgame press conference included a tribute to Sanders, “the one thing that was really good there.”
Added Saban: “I was as happy as everyone turned out to see him score a touchdown today. Most people don’t know how hard this guy has worked to come back as a football player.”
Gsell and Allen this week shed light on the process that involved Sanders recovering from his internal damage, first while in a wheelchair and later on a scooter.
“You have to let non-orthopedic injuries take care of themselves first,” Gesell said. “We had to take a step back and let his body recover before we could even think about rehabilitation.”
After being transferred from Florida to UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Sanders was treated by hip trauma specialist Dr. Clay Spitler. Another hip specialist at Dr. Benton Emblem at Andrews Sports Medicine joined him along with team doctor Lyle Cain.
“It was something that if he didn’t come back, we would all understand,” Gesell said. “It was something that even the doctor who fixed him said, ‘I don’t really see that in athletes.’ … none of us really knew what to expect.”
But once Sanders went through the first few days of his recovery, Allen said, it was clear he wanted to play football again. That means Gesell, who has been on the school’s training staff since 2006, is coming up with a plan to get him back on the field. Unlike a torn ACL or more common injury, there was not a general program to follow.
“There was no script for it,” Gesell said. “We just had to hit a milestone and then regroup and then say, ‘What do we do now?’ Just had to keep climbing that ladder.
“It was not an easy task for him. It was not a painless thing for him.”
This meant starting with simple movements like standing up from a chair. Gsell used the school’s special pool at its recently expanded sports science center to walk underwater without the same force on his body as on dry land.
“Getting up and running, firing his core muscles — you can imagine how painful it is after a broken pelvis,” Gassell said. “Starting running, starting lifting weights. Those were milestones that hurt but were necessary, and they had to trust that what you’re telling me is right and what you’re telling me is better.” Will happen. “
Alabama staff treated former quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for fractures to his hip and back wall in 2019, but Saban noted early in Sanders’ rehab that the two players’ injuries were not identical.
At the NFL level, pelvic fractures are rare but not unprecedented. Among the more serious of the last 20 years was Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Chad Clifton, who suffered pelvic injuries on a blind hit from Warren Sapp, which doctors compared to car accident injuries.
In this case, Sanders had to recover from an actual car accident to subject his body to the rigors of SEC football.
“[Given] Demanding a person in that position not only to play, but to play it here – it would have been fine if he hadn’t come back,” said Gesell. [get back] with flying colors.”
Sanders’ weight room performance is better than at any time in his three-year tenure in Alabama, while his speed and explosiveness metrics tracked by the school’s sports science department have returned to pre-injury levels.
Saban said Sanders is not 100 percent back on the field yet, but Gassell saw Saturday’s touchdown and sideline embrace as a recognition of Sanders’ desire to play again and the work he has done.
Some of those works were repeated. As a freshman in 2019, Sanders was in a position to get playing time when, in the final game of a fall camp practice, Lisfranc fractured his leg. He missed his entire first season and was about to fall in full force for the last time when the car was wrecked.
Sanders said it was his first season he missed playing football since he started playing the sport at the age of five.
“It was really tough mentally not being able to play football,” he said of missing most of the last two seasons. “At times I just wanted to leave football because I’ve never been there before, but that’s where Jeremy helped me. There were days I didn’t want to come in and go to rehab because I was in so much pain He always encouraged me, but also made sure I got into my rehab.”
But Gesell and Allen insist that the outcome of rehabilitation is ultimately a reflection of how badly the athlete wants to return to normal.
“He found a way to do it, every day,” Gesell said. “You have to give him credit for it. Whether it’s the doctor or me or anyone else who treated him or helped him recover. If he doesn’t have the right attitude and comes with his lunch pail, he can’t go to work everyday. is ready for, then he is not where he is.”
After scoring a touchdown on Saturday, Sanders said he wanted to cry when he saw Gassel on the sidelines but “had to keep [his] composer” because he was on television.
“He’s not my blood family, but he’s family to me,” Sanders said. “The fact that he stuck with me over the last two years, even though there were times I wanted to lose, means a lot. I really can’t put into words what he meant to me, but his Meaning much more than one might imagine.”
Mike Rodk is an Alabama Beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. follow him on twitter @ Mikrodak.