Sept. 25, 2013
RUSTON, La. - It was Sept. 24, 2011. The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs were facing the `other' Bulldogs of Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss. at Davis Wade Stadium.
LA Tech's first offensive drive sputtered to a three-and-out on their own 10-yard line, forcing deep snapper Josh Cuthbert and the special teams unit to try to flip the field position.
Cuthbert flicked a perfect ball to all-world punter Ryan Allen who boomed a punt 72 yards out of his own end zone. Unfortunately, the Mississippi State player gathered the ball, danced to his right and weaved his way down the field for the score.
That punt return was not the worst thing that happened on that play though. The worst came when Cuthbert tried to plant his knee in order to fight off a blocker and his knee just caved.
"It was kind of a dark spot," Cuthbert admitted. "I was a little devastated. They told me on the sidelines that it feels like an LCL or maybe a PCL. They told me two weeks and I'd be in there, but all of a sudden they called me in and said you tore your ACL - out for the year. I said `out for the year? I don't want to be out for the year. What else can I do?'"
An ACL injury may not be the most common injury in football, but it is arguably the most commonly known. In medical talk, it is a ligament inside your knee that prevents the lower part of your leg, the tibula, from sliding forward and internally rotating.
With so much contact involved in football, a player can easily be tackled low or on the outside of their knee forcing it to shift and rotate inward and tearing the ligament. Other times, a player's own body weight could work against him, and when they go to cut, there may not be enough muscle around the hip and knee to stabilize that area also causing a tear.
Without an ACL, there was no way Cuthbert could play anymore that season. Keith Bunch, the head athletic trainer for football and the sports medicine department at LA Tech, said he had never seen anybody play through that injury. There was just no way any average athlete could rebound. But Cuthbert was not the average athlete and he certainly was not the average ACL patient.
There was no doubt in Cuthbert's mind that he could push through the pain and the mental block that often comes with the setback. He was already walking on it three days later, and with a little stability, the deep snapper had hope he could play through the injury.
At the time, the Bulldogs didn't have a backup deep snapper. Defensive end Christian Lacy was thrown into a position to take over, and was adequate, but he was also a starter on the defensive line and would get worn down - resulting in potential bad snaps.
Cuthbert was sitting in the stands one day during practice and saw firsthand how much his team needed him. That is when he ultimately made the decision - pain or no pain.
"I rehabbed at 6:30 a.m. every morning the next nine weeks," Josh said. "I just tried to strengthen it to keep that quad strong to try to keep it in place. It was pretty painful throughout the year. There were times where I'd be running down the field and forget that [the ACL] wasn't there and try to use it."
The 'Dogs suffered a heartbreaking home loss at the hands of Hawai'i the next weekend, but then went on an unforgettable seven-game winning streak to win the WAC championship, its first title since 2001, and earned a berth to the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, Calif.
Over the course of the season, Cuthbert never once had a bad snap.
"It was a great experience because I look back and if I wouldn't have come back and been a part of the whole situation - it wouldn't have meant the same," he admitted. "The fact that I was playing and what I had to play through just made it that much better. It was awesome."
He was appropriately voted as Most Inspirational Player on the team by his peers, and on Jan. 6, 2012, shortly after the bowl game and Christmas break, Cuthbert finally had surgery to repair his knee.
He rehabbed tirelessly once more, averaging his usual 100 snaps a practice, and was all set for the 2012 season, a season where he played all 12 games as the deep snapper and never recorded a bad snap.
"For him to be able to go out and do that...you are looking at other damage without an ACL," Bunch said. "It sounds easy, yes, just being a long snapper and being able to reach down and snap a ball through your legs, but when you take in the mental concerns of what happens if someone hits him late, what happens if someone takes a shot at the knee.
"Josh was the first long snapper I had ever seen tear an ACL. You really need to be able to cut side to side, start and stop on a dime, and without the ACL, that's tough to do. You've seen some athletes throughout history that have done it, but those are special individuals."
Josh Cuthbert is one of those special individuals.
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