Louisville guard Kevin Ware (Getty Images)
Former Texas A&M guard Derrick Roland and former Michigan State cornerback Tyrell Dortch didn't have to watch any replays of Kevin Ware crumpling to the floor on Sunday afternoon to diagnose the injury the Louisville sophomore sustained.
All they needed to see were Ware's teammates wiping tears from their eyes and burying their faces in their hands to realize the Louisville guard had broken his right leg.
The horrified expressions of the Cardinals resembled the ones Dortch recalls seeing on the faces of his Michigan State teammates when he fractured his lower right leg in two places during a football game against Wisconsin in Oct. 2001. Roland witnessed similar anguish and nausea from his Texas A&M teammates when he snapped his tibia and fibula at a 90-degree angle attempting a layup at Washington in Dec. 2009.
"Yesterday was kind of like déjà vu for me," Roland said Monday. "I didn't know how bad my injury was until I saw my teammates' faces and the reaction of the fans in the stands. When I saw everyone on the Louisville bench covering their eyes, that was one of the same things I saw when it happened to me."
If Ware needs reassurance that he can recover enough to return to the court and regain his former speed and explosiveness, the career arcs of both Roland and Dortch may provide some hope.
Doctors weren't sure Roland would ever play again before he underwent surgery, but he was healthy enough to play in pick-up games eight months after his injury and has since played professionally in South America and Europe. Dortch said doctors told him he was risking ending up in a wheelchair if he played football again, but he refused to give up hope, sitting out the 2002 season before becoming a co-captain and key contributor the following two years.
"I knew right away I was playing again," Dortch said. "I wasn't going out like that. When you're young and you're strong, you don't want to hear that. The only thing I knew at that time was football and I bet the only thing Kevin knows is basketball. He's going to have a lot of doubts, a lot of 'why me's' and a lot of feeling sorry for himself, but if he's mentally tough, he can get back to his playing form."
For Ware, the injury comes early in his college career. For Roland, it spelled the end of his playing days at Texas A&M.
A senior starter for the Aggies during the 2009-10 season, Roland had to force himself to watch the rest of the year as his team contended in the Big 12, made the NCAA tournament and lost in overtime to Purdue in the Round of 32. He was so frustrated not being able to play that he actually cried when Texas A&M squandered a late lead in a loss to top-ranked Kansas because he knew he might have made the difference.
"Every game, I forced myself to be unselfish and watch," Roland said. "I didn't want to watch basketball, but I did it for my teammates, the fans and the coaches. I didn't want to watch basketball, but they wanted me there, so I had to be there."
Thousands of supportive emails and letters from friends, fans and complete strangers helped inspire Roland to persevere through the rehab process, as did the possibility of playing one more season for Texas A&M. Unfortunately for Roland, the NCAA denied his request for an extra season of eligibility, ruling that the 12 games Roland played as a senior were one more than the 30 percent of a season that traditionally is the threshold for a medical redshirt.
The NCAA's ruling frustrated Roland so much that he gave up watching college basketball for two years after he left Texas A&M, only picking it up again this season to follow former coaches Mark Turgeon and Buzz Williams. Since the NCAA didn't make its decision until July 2010, Roland didn't have the chance to work out for NBA teams to get on a summer-league roster and had to head overseas instead.
"It pretty much changed my life," Roland said. "I definitely wanted to be back in school. I understand the NCAA has rules, but at the same time they've also made decisions in similar circumstances in other people's favor. I didn't like it at all."
Dortch at least had the chance to wear a Michigan State jersey again on the football field, but his recovery process included plenty of challenges. Not only was the rehab process taxing, the metal rod in his leg also made his leg throb like a toothache after every hard tackle until he had it removed and he had to convince himself the leg had healed enough to even absorb a jarring hit.
"When I got back on the field and got permission to go full contact, I was scared out of my mind," Dortch said. "The night before practices or games, it was really hard. I couldn't really express it because football players are supposed to be tough, but even in my first couple games, I was jumping over contact and flinching anytime someone came close to my leg. I wasn't the same player at all."
Although Dortch and Roland admit their injured legs still don't feel quite as strong as they once did, they also insist they aren't hindered anymore.
The biggest advice Dortch had for Ware was to find people who will push him to his limits during the rehab process yet not force him to return to the court until he is certain the leg is fully healed. Roland suggested Ware dedicate himself to rehabbing, surround himself with positive people and not worry too much if his recovery process plateaus for a few days or even weeks at a time.
Both Dortch and Roland were happy to learn Ware is walking on crutches, is in good spirits and even got to hoist the Midwest Regional trophy in his hospital bed late Sunday night. Neither of them has spoken with Ware since his injury, but Roland is planning to try to connect with the Louisville guard in the coming weeks.
"I just want to give him a couple words of encouragement," Roland said. "I want him to know there are other people who have been in his shoes and come out of it OK."
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