East Davidson High School senior Jose Romero was in the best shape of his life when a football injury last August came out of nowhere to sideline him.
Not only was he in pain, but early on after the injury it seemed like the three-sport athlete who was also a track and soccer standout for the Thomasville, North Carolina school might not have the chance to compete again for his high school. It was his final year of eligibility.
Romero, a linebacker in football for the Eagles, was running at full speed to tackle a punt returner when he smashed into an opponent and felt his left knee pop. It hurt so much he thought his leg was broken.
He punched the ground in frustration before being wheeled away on a golf cart. “I was like, oh no, this can’t be happening to me at my peak,” Romero said.
Romero said he was initially told in an emergency room visit at a non-Novant Health facility that it was just a sprain and not to worry about it. But weeks went by and nothing got better. Romero was left to cheer on his football and soccer teammates for the first few weeks of the fall semester on crutches in hopes more rest might do the work.
A change of plans
In what would be a lucky twist for Romero, Tierra Webster, a certified athletic trainer with Novant Health and part of a relatively new program where Novant Health athletic trainers are embedded in all Davidson County Schools high schools, was assigned to East Davidson a few weeks after Romero’s injury. She quickly realized he had ligament damage.
Webster helped make Romero an appointment with Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Thomasville, North Carolina , where he received an MRI that proved Romero had an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear along with injuries to both menisci in the injured leg.
Dr. George Azar , an orthopedic surgeon with the clinic, performed a successful ACL reconstruction surgery, along with a meniscectomy to remove meniscus cartilage on Romero. That was done just next door at Novant Health Thomasville Medical Center.
“Once we found out the full extent of the ACL injury my gut instinct was that his athletic career was over considering the normal time it takes for an ACL to heal after surgery,” said David McClamrock, East Davidson’s co-athletic director. He’d seen the injury take place as an assistant coach with the Eagles’ football team.
ACL injuries vary and so do recovery times, but the injury is well-known for carrying a frustrating recovery process for both male and female athletes. Some players are not able to compete at full strength after they return.
Many athletes would have given up on the school year after an October ACL surgery, but not Romero. He told Webster his goal was to still get cleared to run track for East Davidson in the spring so he could finish out his high school career on a high note and help the school’s strong relay teams. With a lot of hard work and the help of Webster, Romero made would make that happen.
“We would set up for football an hour before the game started and Jose would be there,” Webster said. “I started throwing him on the treatment table right there on the sideline and we’d do rehab. He was really adamant about getting better and working hard. That’s why I really admire him. Every day it was like, ‘What can I do?‘ That kind of attitude. He’s a really good kid.”
Romero and Webster had one big disadvantage going into the rehab because Romero’s muscles had weakened. But the two of them found a way to clear that hurdle.
Initially after surgery, Webster led Romero through table exercises like quad sets and glute sets and straight leg raises, which can all be boring especially to athletic sprinters like Romero, said Webster. But they’re key early on in rehab. Even during the first weeks after surgery, Webster had Romero up and walking.
They moved on to standing exercises that included moving with bands around ankles or knees to strengthen the muscles. Romero worked up to jogging 2 or 3 miles without pain, swelling or instability.
After about four and a half months of rehab, Romero met again with Azar, his surgeon, and was cleared to compete in noncontact sports. He would just have to wear a brace on his leg as a precaution.
Back on track
Not only did Romero make it back for the spring, but he set personal records for 100 meter (12.24 seconds) and 200 meter (24.34 seconds). The achievement that was most noticed most, however, was Romero was able to join his previously successful 4X100 and 4X200 relay teams, which both came within a second of school records and finished in first place at one point in three straight meets.
“Jose didn’t skip a beat,” McClamrock said. “It is pretty amazing that he was able to run and not show any signs of the injury. I think that Novant Health allowing athletic trainers like Tierra (Webster) to come to our schools on a full-time basis is truly a blessing.”
Romero and Webster formed a close bond, too. This was her first school and one of her best success stories so far early in her career. She recalls Romero coming over after his first home track meet and comparing video of his run with his running during rehab.
“She’s the person I’ll remember for my senior year,” Romero said. “Without her, I wouldn’t have fully healed for track.”
The outlook is still bright for Romero. He’s a talented artist. He recently received the Willie Bradshaw Memorial Endowed Scholarship from the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, along with other scholarship awards. He’ll be the first in his family to attend college this fall when he begins studies at Western Carolina University. And now he’s also back to running at full speed.