As ACL Rehabs Evolve, Mike Hughes Faces Less Daunting Task Than He Once Might Have

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

For the second straight season, the Minnesota Vikings first selection in the draft will have his rookie season cut short due to a left ACL tear.

Head coach Mike Zimmer confirmed Monday that Mike Hughes, the promising rookie cornerback and special teamer from Central Florida, will miss the rest of the 2018 season, as the team reportedly feared following his injury in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win.

“He was learning and continuing to learn,” Zimmer said Monday, “and he’s got a lot of great attributes and toughness, and his skillset is really good, but he’s gonna come back and he’s gonna be great. We’ve got great doctors here and great trainers.”

If there’s a bright side, however, to losing a contributor for the final 10 games of the regular season, it’s that the Vikings have never been better equipped to handle ACL rehabilitation. Thanks to evolving medical technology, improved resources at their new TCO Performance Center and a training staff that’s gotten all too familiar with the process, Vikings players no longer need to fear that ACL injuries are going to halt their career in its tracks.

While the rehab process can be arduous, ACL tears are beginning to lose the once-held stigma of a career-altering ailment.

“I think the surgeries are a lot better now,” Zimmer said earlier in the season. “The advancement in all that stuff that they’re doing, I think people have a better understanding how to rehab than they would 20 years ago for sure.”

Hughes has just under 11 months until next regular season begins — roughly the same timeframe as running back Dalvin Cook, last year’s second-round pick who tore his ACL on Oct. 1, 2017.

Cook recovered ahead of schedule and wound up participating in OTAs and training camp while playing well in Minnesota’s Week 1 win over the San Francisco 49ers.

He got to see firsthand the difference in resources between the Vikings old Winter Park facility, which they vacated on March 1, and their new 277,000 square foot palace in Eagan.

“We got massage people here. We’ve got chiropractors here. All the doctors here,” Cook told Zone Coverage. “They’ve got their own rooms to do stuff, so they’re with you more hands on. At Winter Park it was kind of smaller and everything. Here, all the resources are here.”

State of the art

The TCO Performance Center training room is four times larger than the Vikings had at Winter Park, giving rehabbing players a few more tools to use. Players coming off knee surgeries start by using the underwater treadmills in the 1,750 square foot hydrotherapy room.

Then they graduate to the AlterG, an anti-gravity treadmill that allows players to run or walk without using their full body weight.

“I’m using 80 percent of my body weight on that AlterG now,” said defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa, who tore his ACL in June, “but I started off at 60 [percent] two weeks ago, so I should be running by next week.”

Mata’afa is also lifting again in Minnesota’s state-of-the-art weight room adjacent to the team’s practice fields. He is one of three Vikings in the building working to heal a torn knee ligament — all are rookies. Mata’afa is joined by Ade Aruna, who was injured in the third preseason game, and now Hughes.

“As of now, I’m feeling pretty good about my knee,” Mata’afa said. “I feel like I’m ahead of the game. I think it’s definitely evolved medically, and with rehab procedures I think they just figured it out so people can rehab faster and get back to the field faster.”

Running back Latavius Murray is nearly a decade removed from undergoing ACL surgery in Orlando after he hurt his knee in a pickup basketball game while attending Central Florida. He set a career high in rushing yards Sunday with 155 against the Cardinals.

Murray believes those playing at the highest levels shouldn’t have to be afraid of ACL injuries anymore, citing the St. Louis Rams’ willingness to draft Todd Gurley just five months after his left knee tear in college.

“That’s big,” said Murray. “I think that shows now that teams –everybody — understand that ACLs are fixable, curable, rehab-able.”

The 28-year-old has had a fine pro career after his setback in college. While he concedes that many knee injuries can heal differently, he believed several keys to his successful recovery were stretching, strengthening and “pre-hab.”

“There’s a lot of things that you can do before getting to surgery, building strength up before you get the procedure done, and obviously directly after surgery,” Murray said.

The Vikings have a strong track record of rehabbing ACL injuries. Aside from Cook, Adrian Peterson’s amazing recovery in just over eight months — and subsequent rushing title — is athletic trainer Eric Sugarman’s crown jewel. He’s also been credited with helping preserve Teddy Bridgewater’s leg and give him a chance to extend his career following a gruesome 2016 injury that involved significant knee damage.

Hughes should be in good hands.

“Sug has done an unbelievable job with every one of our guys that have had ACLs,” Zimmer said.

‘Will I be the same player?’

Each player’s unique circumstances can dictate how an ACL injury affects their career. As challenging as the rehab process can be, the inability to participate as teammates step in to fill an open roster spot can be frustrating for some. Though the process has sped up over the years, it is still based on hitting benchmarks and waiting for the knee to strengthen.

In the sport of football, where employment often hinges on health, the time away can be as scary as the injury itself. For Murray, back in 2009, the unknown was the most disconcerting.

“I think when I tore my ACL back in college, it’s the unknown of how will I bounce back? How will I recover? Will I be the same player?” he told Zone Coverage. “So that’s that doubt that goes into your head, but I definitely just think over the years it’s become an injury that maybe the higher-ups aren’t as afraid of anymore.”

Another rookie, linebacker Devante Downs, just finished rehabbing his second career knee injury. He had previously torn his ACL during his high school career in 2013. Not only did he experience a vast improvement in resources from high school to pro, but he felt more optimistic about bouncing back.

“Before it was kind of bad. Like really bad,” he told Zone Coverage. “Now it’s bad, but you can come back from it, come back stronger. I think just going in with a good mindset with it, you come out with greater results.”

With doctors on campus, teammates who’ve gone through it — or are going through it currently — and a practice facility designed with players’ health in mind, there’s never been a safer time for a Vikings player to embark on one of the most formidable rehabs in sports. As long as they’re willing to put in the hours.

“When you want to come back, you have to put in a lot of work too,” said Downs. “That’s expected.”

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