His knee was mangled, but the deepest lingering impact New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz feels from the injury might be in his head. He's afraid of getting hurt again.
"Just building confidence running routes again," Cruz says of the most difficult chapter of his journey back to the field. "Mentally, you just have to tell yourself the knee is healed, you can run these routes, your body is able to do these things, and you want to take it one day at a time. But that confidence has definitely been a struggle."
Cruz tore up his patellar tendon a year ago in Philadelphia, spent three months off his feet following surgery, and another six months going through rehabilitation exercises that bend and jerk and twist the knee into a stronger, healthier hinge than it was before.
"It is common to have a fear of injury associated with injury," says David Reavy, a Chicago-based physical therapist and Men's Journal columnist. "You know, and can feel, that your body isn't working like it used to. These new feelings limit your movement and turn into another injury leading to more things that you 'can't' do. You limit yourself."
Patellar tendons stretch vertically across the kneecap area, connecting the quads to the shin. Cruz's road to recovery hit all the standard stops along the way, including what he calls "good, old fashioned" exercises including a lot of leg lifts, extensions, and strength-building moves.
"It was a very tedious journey," Cruz says during a promotional tour for Snickers. "The rehab was definitely gruesome. I wish there was some great technology I can tell you I used to get better, but I didn't. It was just strengthening the muscles around it again as I was able to be a little more functional and a little bit more physical when I was moving my knee around."
Once Cruz thought he was finally ready to return, he suffered another setback with a calf strain. Cruz has missed the entire preseason and the first few weeks (and counting) of this season with the injury he feels is directly related to overcompensating for his knee.
"The calf is part of that hinge joint," Reavy explains. "It becomes injured because of compensatory tactics. There is a calf muscle that crosses your knee joint called your gastrocnemius, which is designed to protect your knee. If your gastroc isn't working properly then not only is your patella compromised, your entire calf and your gastroc are as well.
"You're out of balance. You're a step slower and feel your limitations."
To regain that step, you have to stop thinking about the knee so your body does "what comes natural, and you react," Reavy says. Then you're finally ready to step on the field.
The Giants are hoping that Cruz resembles the player who once scored a 99-yard TD against the Jets and sparked a Super Bowl run, the salsa-dancing touchdown maker who averaged 73 catches and 1,200 yards per season for three years before he got hurt. He'll have less pressure now running alongside Giants sensation Odell Beckham Jr., but Cruz plans to perform at the same level as always, but with a experienced veteran's understanding of football.
"Mentally, I approach the game a little differently," he says. "You truly never know if you'll get it again. You never know if you'll be able to run again after facing an injury that severe. I'm just happy to be out there again."
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