How Modern Medicine Saved Three Quarterbacks’ Careers

Modern medicine has enabled football players to come back from injuries in a way they never could have before.

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“I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’m not aware of anyone [who’s] done it.”

This is what Dr. Bruce Levy, an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, told McKenzie Milton in November 2018 on his chances of playing football again. Milton, the starting quarterback for the University of Central Florida at the time, had just suffered a severe knee injury while being tackled. It was at first thought to be a serious dislocation, but it turned out to be much worse. Doctors discovered extensive damage in the knee that was stopping blood flow to the whole lower leg. They had to remove Milton’s left saphenous vein and put it into his right leg to create a new place for blood to flow. Somehow, the procedure was successful, and the leg was saved. At that point, saving the leg was the only goal. But Milton had other plans. Over the next two years, he underwent more surgeries and rehab. In the spring, he started to walk without crutches, and slowly but surely he started jogging, then running, then throwing, and then playing football. This arduous journey culminated on September 4 of this year, when Milton, now the backup at Florida State (FSU), finally got his opportunity to return to the field. Milton came into a game against Notre Dame with Florida State down two possessions. He effectively led two scoring drives to force overtime, when FSU lost by a field goal.

Though the comeback game didn’t result in a win, Milton’s return is nothing short of miraculous and represents the strides both medicine and the sport have taken over time. Consider the injury of Bo Jackson, who many considered the most athletic man on the globe at the time. Jackson dislocated his hip, and slow treatment led to avascular necrosis, meaning the tissue in his hip died, immediately ending his career. Tua Tagovailoa suffered the same dislocation in 2019, but quick and effective treatment saw him back on the field before the end of the season with no necrosis to be found.

When Milton first got hurt, he was often compared to Joe Theisman. Theisman suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula while being sacked by Lawrence Taylor in 1985. In other words, his whole lower leg splintered, and it was immediately clear he was never going to play again. In a similar accident, Alex Smith suffered a compound fracture in both bones in 2018. Smith’s injury became worse than Theisman’s when flesh-eating bacteria infected his leg. This bacteria made him septic, a condition that for a while was thought to be fatal. In order to clear away the bacteria, doctors removed so much of his leg that only his bones and calf muscle remained. Everything else was gone. They then went back in and replaced the missing tissue with tissue from his left quad, saving his leg. Smith’s journey also culminated in a comeback, when he returned to the Washington Football Team and led them to a playoff spot. The fact that the technology exists to pull off something so improbable is awe-inspiring and a testament to the power of both modern medicine and the will of Smith.

One of the more recent comeback stories revolves around Cowboys QB Dak Prescott. If you watch the NFL, chances are you remember the image: Prescott being carted off the field, tears streaming down his face as he entered the locker room. Those tears were both of pain—his ankle had just been crushed beneath him, shattering his bone and leaving his foot pointing perpendicular to his leg—and the sorrow of the clear fact that his season was over. At the time of the injury, Prescott had been having an MVP-caliber season, leading the league in passing yards and on pace to threaten the all-time record. But one freak play took both that season and nearly his entire career. Prescott suffered a compound right ankle fracture and dislocation, which meant doctors had to completely rebuild the area. This procedure is very complicated, and it has only recently become viable. However, doctors successfully fixed the ankle, and Prescott was ready to return for Thursday Night Football against the Buccaneers.

Right from the first drive, it was clear Prescott looked good, with former NFL quarterback and the games announcer Cris Collinsworth repeatedly marveling at how comfortable Prescott was in the pocket. The Cowboys flew down the field time and time again, with Prescott racking up over 400 yards and three touchdowns. The team scored 29 points and lost the game 31-29. However, if not for key missed kicks by Greg Zuerlein and several drops, the Cowboys could have scored 40 points and won easily. As the season progresses, it will become clear just how good Prescott is, but based on this game, it seems like he has returned to an elite level, the kind that is only possible now.