Surrounded by a backdrop of Y2K hysteria, much of the rest of the country was celebrating on Christmas Eve.
In the dark of a camper shell, Stephanie Brown Trafton was riding on the bed of her dad’s pickup, trying to keep her new surgically repaired knee from banging around too much on the pain-filled way to her aunt’s house in San Jose.
“I remember the year 2000,” said Trafton, who had just torn her ACL at the start of her sophomore basketball season at Cal Poly. “When everybody else was partying, I was sitting on the couch with my crutches, just hanging out. I couldn’t party.”
The 6-foot-4 future Olympian was dealing with a common, yet troublesome, experience for athletes, one that can be just as destructive mentally as it is physically.
The long-term injury
For Trafton, her torn knee ligament was the impetus for the gut-wrenching decision to quit playing basketball — a sport she calls her first love — in order to focus more on track and field.
Her performance in Beijing in 2008, where she became the first American woman to win an Olympic discus gold medal since 1932, certainly validated that decision.
But at the time, it couldn’t ease what is often a grueling process for athletes.
“It was very traumatic,” said Trafton, who feared basketball injuries would jeopardize her throwing future. “I spent nights awake not able to sleep. I dealt with a lot of crying.
“At the time, I thought that was my identity. All through high school and even through college, people would ask me, ‘How’s basketball going?’ It was just part of who I was, and it was hard for me to stop being the person who people thought I was, the basketball player.”
A sudden ending
Whether or not a fall-back sport is an option like it was for Trafton, dealing with the sudden reality that an athlete’s season, and perhaps his or her career, has come to a screeching halt can be a harsh ordeal.
Whether a leg is broken on the football field or the track, whether the ligament replacement occurs in the knee or the pitching elbow, though the sports may differ, the psychology does not.
Renowned sports psychologist Jeff Troesch counsels Cal Poly athletes in nearly every sport on campus as well as a clientele of other college, professional and elite amateur athletes.
Tasked with easing performance anxieties, Troesch is adamant that long-term injuries are his biggest challenge as a mental health counselor in the sports field.
“Without hesitation, it is the most difficult thing for me to deal with as a professional,” Troesch said, “because so much of what’s going on with the player is out of their control. Also, much of what gives them stress relief and satisfaction is taken away from them.
“It’s really challenging for them to find peace in their world until they can get their sport back.”
Questions about coming back
Three years removed from having Tommy John surgery to replace a ligament in his pitching elbow, Cal Poly left-hander Frankie Reed missed all of two seasons recovering from the procedure, and neither one was easy on the psyche.
The Mustangs struggled to a 24-32 overall record in 2008, the team’s worst win-loss mark in nearly a decade. One year later, Reed missed out on the program’s first-ever trip to a Division I NCAA Regional.
“Not seeing the field, not going to the mound, everything,” Reed said. “It was difficult.
“Sitting out a game, watching your team lose or be successful, it’s hard because you can’t do anything. You’re just sitting there. It sucks.”
With a 3.90 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 30 innings this season, Reed has been Cal Poly’s second-most effective reliever and was head coach Larry Lee’s go-to arm after closer Jeff Johnson went down with elbow tendinitis nearly a month ago.
Reed was perfect over the final 1 2⁄3 innings in a victory over nationally ranked Fresno State last month to earn his second career victory. He has one save and sealed another April win over Cal State Northridge by striking out the side in the ninth.
One of the tougher aspects to his comeback was wondering if he’d get his stuff back. How long, if ever, would it take before he would he be able to throw as hard? Would he also still have the same sharpness on his breaking pitch?
Reed underestimated the angst that goes along with those questions when he first found out he was a candidate for surgery.
“It was only my sophomore year, so it was not a big deal,” Reed said, “but if I had to do it again, I’d be devastated. I might just hang it up because of the whole process.”
Last month, Cal Poly sprinter Antwain Miller broke his fibula while tumbling to the track in the 100-meter dash at the Cal Poly Invitational, Cal Poly’s annual marquee event with attendance estimates numbering in the thousands.
The team’s leading sprinter, Miller was honored by the Big West Conference in March after posting what was a conference-leading 10.64-second time in the 100 and a leg on Cal Poly’s conference-leading 400-meter relay team.
The sophomore was on his way to helping the Mustangs to a potential top-three men’s team finish at the Big West Championships.
Now, he has a minimum yearlong wait to find out whether he will be able to achieve those marks again.
Cal Poly football tackle Art Munoz suffered a similar fracture during the second game of the season at Ohio in 2009.
A preseason honors candidate as a junior, Munoz was blocking when a Bobcats blitzer tackled quarterback Tony Smith and rolled into the tackle’s lower leg.
In a particularly gruesome twist, Munoz’s fibula broke into four pieces, and he left the field for the emergency room.
“I saw my leg, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play again,” Munoz said.
“Those memories, you can’t just get them anywhere else. Once you’re done with football, you can’t go do a pick-up game on the weekend. You can go do basketball, but once you’re done with football, you’re done.”
Munoz’s comeback effort included a second surgery when the injury failed to heal properly, but after an intense rehab he was back on the field for Cal Poly’s third game in 2010.
In December, the NCAA granted him a sixth season of eligibility to return for the 2011 season. He said he’s feeling better than ever.
“Injuries are always going to be a part of sports,” Munoz said. “If something does happen to you, you just have to be mentally prepared that this has happened to others before.
“The love of the game is going to bring you back.”