Zion Williamson and I have the same injury

Fan Voices, New Orleans Pelicans

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You can learn a lot recovering from a serious injury. A lot about yourself. Your body. And about Zion Williamson.

Zion Williamson broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot this summer. So did I.

A lot of rumor and speculation have surrounded the basketball phenom’s absence from the court this season. As his team struggles at the bottom of the standings and his organization tries to figure out what their immediate future direction should be, there is a lot of anticipation for Zion’s return to the game. For my part, about three guys await my return to a basketball court.

The New Orleans Pelicans have been pretty quiet about the specifics of their would-be superstar’s injury and his recovery process. Let me tell you about mine.

But first: Zion Williamson went to high school in Upstate South Carolina. So did I. Zion is left-handed. So am I. Zion was a McDonald’s All-American in high school. I worked at McDonald’s in high school. Zion attended Duke University. I used to go to games at Duke University with my friend and his dad when I was a kid. Zion’s first game with Duke was a pre-season game against Ryerson University. I worked as a Teaching Assistant at Ryerson University. That’s where the similarities stop.

Zion Williamson is 21 years old. I am 43. Zion stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 284 pounds. I’m about 5-foot-10 and about 170. Zion went from scholarships in college to a $10 million contract with the Pelicans and another $75 million with the Jordan shoe brand. I’ve barely made a dent in my student loans and have a much … much … smaller continuing contract to teach at Miami Dade College.

No doubt there is a lot more money, attention, and expertise devoted to Williamson’s recuperation than there is to mine (No offense to Chris, my doctor at UM Orthopedic and Sports Medicine, or Claudio, my physical therapist at Care360). Still, our injuries are the same so I have some insight into his recovery.

Unlike Zion’s, my injury was caused by a poorly designed restaurant and a misplaced chair. What my fracture undoubtedly had in common with his, however, was how much it hurt. I mean, it hurt. Not only the moment it happened but also after, as I sat there coming to terms with the realization that it was broken. And after that, when my friends dropped me at the ER. And after that, when I left the ER without seeing a doctor. And the next day, when my friend took me to an orthopedic clinic. It was painful and debilitating. Like, ‘almost throw up or pass out if I accidentally put even a little weight on it’ painful and debilitating.

Photo Credit: M.M. Sang

I got a boot and a knee scooter. I couldn’t really walk on it, but I could put my heel down and stand on it. Physically, I wasn’t that bad off. I just had to roll and hobble and wait. Recovery was just a matter of time.

But it wasn’t just the physical that needed attention, mentally the injury was just so depressing. And irritating.

You don’t know how much you take your foot for granted, how much you do with it without thinking, until you can’t anymore. I fell more than once, unable to put weight on my foot to catch myself. I hopped and hobbled around the apartment – every trip to the bathroom, the kitchen, the balcony a burden and a chore. Load or empty the dishwasher? Too low and awkward. Change the sheets on the bed? You push with your feet to stretch the fitted sheet over the corner at the headboard. Get in and take a shower? I put a chair in there, to serve as a walker as well as a seat. The scooter derailed at every bump and crack on the sidewalk, had to be lifted over thresholds, had to be put in the backs of Ubers (because, without a functioning right foot, I couldn’t drive).

Recovering from an injury like Zion Williamson’s and mine is not just about getting better physically

It wasn’t just the irritations either, it was the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. That’s hard on a 43-year-old professor. I can only imagine how much harder it is on a 21-year-old athlete. A young man who is known for how physically powerful he is. And, with that money and fame now rolling in, how socially powerful he had become. That powerlessness is depressing.

The fifth metatarsal is the long bone leading from the heel to the pinky toe. It is not the toe. A metatarsal fracture is not a broken toe. It is a broken foot. That is not the same as a broken leg. In some ways, it might be worse. Your foot is what grounds you. Without it you are ungrounded.

Like Zion, I spent months in one of those aircast boots. I did not work out because, I discovered, I push on and curl up my foot even when I do upper body exercises in a way I never realized until it became painful. I spent a lot of time on the sofa. I watched a lot of movies. I read a lot. I drank. I ate. I moped. I invented a basketball board game.

It was only after six weeks that I was able to begin physical therapy with a pitiful routine of band and towel exercises and foot massages. I’d been going to a personal trainer prior to the injury and to go from weights and bear crawls before my injury and birthday to laying on a table or sitting in a chair doing tiny, painful movements with my toes left me feeling like I’d suddenly turned 73, not 43.

After eight weeks, I was given a smaller shoe version of the boot but told to transition to it slowly. It was like a Birkenstock with an unbending sole. The thing is, not only had my calf and thigh atrophied, my ankle weakened, my hip tightened in the boot, I’d also become comfortable in it. Safe. It protected me from carelessly causing myself pain. It told people that I was injured so that I didn’t have to. Velcroing it up had become a routine when my usual thoughtless habits of standing and walking and turning and crouching had become impossible.

Walking on crutches is the worst. Your hands are never free. The scooter had that problem too, so I got a cup holder for the handlebars, but I’d spill whatever drink I put in there. I was eventually able to walk with a cane. I can get away with that. I’m a bald, bearded professor. I’m average height and I don’t weigh a lot. Zion, on the other hand — even if it isn’t weird for a 21-year-old athlete to walk around like an 80-year-old man — at his size, would probably break it.

I’d been taking vitamin D and calcium and feeling much better so, when I went in for my fourth set of x-rays, I expected good news. It wasn’t bad news, but it was less than I’d hoped. The bone still wasn’t fully recovered. It had grown together, but that new growth was still soft. I’d have to wait for my next x-rays to be released to run, jump, do anything with my foot involving impact. That next x-ray will be almost five months after my initial injury.

Now three and a half months after breaking my foot, I am walking pretty normally. I have a special insert for my shoe, which keeps my foot stiffer than a shoe normally does, but I can put full weight on it. The twice-weekly therapy helps. But my foot pops and cracks when I do calf raises, cramps up when I ride an exercise bike and sometimes suffers random dull aches and shooting pains. I went bowling recently and, with the insert in the bowling shoe, made it through five frames before I had to switch from a dipping spin shot to a standing chuck down the lane.

Bowling. Three and a half months into my injury and I couldn’t fully return to regular bowling. It wasn’t just the physical discomfort either, it was the mental unease. I’m nervous about it. Anxious about doing new damage, about having to go backward in the recovery process. From bowling.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Zion has been on the court, playing basketball. I tried shooting a few weeks ago and was surprised at how the pressure and strain on my foot felt uncomfortable, even without jumping. And indeed, recent reports say that Zion has had to back off his court time, that it is impeding his recovery. A lot can be done by the medical profession but ultimately bones don’t care how rich you are. They heal on their own schedule.

I can imagine how hard it has been on Zion because it has been hard on me and I don’t have the pressure, the scrutiny, the expectations to deal with that he does. I can teach sitting down. There’s nobody blogging or tweeting about how I’m too lazy, too unprofessional, too fat.

That’s got to be hard on what seems to me to be a sweet, sensitive, and a maybe slightly naive young man who has just started living his childhood dream. Living your childhood dream means you don’t have to go through the standard disappointments of life in the same way, so you probably remain a little childish. At 21, having already faced more disappointment than Zion probably has, I struggled with the responsibilities of college, a job, a girlfriend. I certainly didn’t have the weight on my shoulders (literally or figuratively) that Zion does.

But I’ve matured a little bit over the 22 years since. Twenty-two years during which Zion was conceived, born, raised, drafted, and voted an All-Star. I’ve hardened a bit. And now my bone is hardening too. Both take time. There is no substitute for time when it comes to growing, maturing, and hardening. Zion is maturing too. He and his fifth metatarsal are hardening. Perhaps not on the timeline that NBA fans or the Pelican faithful want them to, but it’s happening. He’ll be fine.

Hopefully one day he’ll be great.

Speaking of great, I am working on a basketball board game called “Choose Your G.O.A.T.” and I’m really excited about it. Follow Choose Your Goat on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @chooseyourgoat, and hopefully, you’ll get excited about it too. 

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