For Katie Burks, forgoing her senior season of basketball just isn’t an option, even with an injury that sidelines most players.
ACL injuries are one of the most common knee injuries among athletes. According to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, about 150,000 ACL injuries occur in the United States every year. Athletes who play high-intensity sports commonly injure their ACLs through either contact with another player or other non-contact actions.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, about 70 percent of ACL injuries in athletes happen through actions such as pivoting, cutting, sidestepping, out-of-control play or awkward landings, while about 30 percent of ACL injuries occur from contact with other players.
Red Bay Lady Tiger starter Katie Burks didn’t think at the beginning of the season she would be one of those statistics, especially this year – her senior year.
Normally an ACL tear would be the end of a senior player’s high school basketball career because of the six-plus months recovery time needed following surgery.
Not Katie. She’s a fighter.
Despite her doctor’s advice to set her up for a surgery date, Katie elected to try to brace her left knee and play with not only an ACL tear but a meniscus tear as well.
The ACL is one of the two major ligaments located within the knee and helps to stabilize the knee. The meniscus keeps your knee steady by balancing your weight across the knee. A torn meniscus can prevent your knee from working right.
“She’s the first one I’ve ever coached that has played with a torn ACL,” said Lady Tiger head coach Donnie Roberts. In fact I didn’t even know you could do that until her injury and we’ve learned since that players have done it in football and basketball.
“Hats off to Katie, she didn’t have to do that,” Roberts said. “That’s just goes to show how bad she wants to play. She played in the state championship win last year and she wanted to have a chance to do that again this year.”
The news she feared the most
Katie’s injury came early in the season during the Lady Tigers’ 50-41 win over Pontotoc, Miss. on Nov. 20, her second game of the new season.
It was not until a week and a half later, after she had a MRI and other x-rays, that she heard what she had feared the most.
“Having to wait to find out the results of the MRI was the worst,” Burks said. “That’s what really got me: just the worry. I know I’m not supposed to worry, but I was worried about it.”
As she awaited the news, she was readying herself for what the doctors would tell her.
“I had prepared for the worst news and I was fine, but my parents were really upset, more upset than I was,” Burks said. “In the back of my mind I’m saying I’m going to get through this. God’s going to get me through this. I’m going to be able to play again. If I wasn’t able to, then that’s God’s plan for me. I can’t change that, it’s already happened.”
Burks said she has the support of her parents and had talked to them several times, but the talk she had with her dad the day the doctor was going to give her the results was the one that helped prepare her the most.
“My dad and I talked on the way to my appointment with Dr. Hovater and he told me I just needed to be prepared for the worst and that’s all we can do,” Burks said. “So I was mentality prepared for an ACL tear or something like that.
“I go in there and I’m thinking an ACL tear, but in the back of my mind I’m sitting there thinking it’s something minor. The swelling will go down and I’ll get the fluid drained off and I’ll be able to go.”
Burks said when Dr. Hovater came in the room, what she saw on his face said it all.
“He didn’t have a good look on his face, and he just told me point blank that my ACL was torn and I had a tear of my meniscus as well and he would fix that when we go in and do my surgery,” Burks said. “He said, ‘alright, let’s get you fixed up for a surgery date.’ I just looked at him and said ‘what about basketball?’
Hovater recommended Katie schedule surgery sooner rather than later.
“His physician’s assistant told me that he had torn his ACL his senior year in high school playing football,” Burks said. “He also told me that in his opinion I needed to go ahead and have this surgery done because there’s no way I’m going to be able to play because it’s going to hurt so bad.”
Burks said she knew there was a difference between playing football and basketball and it seems like football would be easier because you’re just moving in a straight line most of the time.
“I know Josh Wilson at Red Bay played in a couple of football games with a torn ACL,” she said. “To me, it seems like it would be harder to play on a basketball court, so that kind of scared me. I was just freaking out. I know other people at the college level who had played basketball on a torn ACL. I’ve heard of it before, but no one around here has done it.”
She told the doctor she thought other athletes had played with torn ACLs, and she was considering doing so herself.
“I just told him I have heard of other people that have played injured and that was he telling me that I couldn’t,” Burks said. “He said you can, but there’s just a risk it might hurt you or you may not be able to handle it.
“I told him that’s a risk that I wanted to take, so he got me fitted for a brace that day and they put it on rush shipping,” she said.
Burks asked the doctor what he would do if it were his kid who was injured, and he said that if they went through physical therapy and were confident about playing on it, then he would say yes.
Hovater told Burks the worst part about playing with an injury like hers is not being confident in the knee, because you’re more likely to get hurt because you’re worried all the time.
Battling to get back
“I went home that night and I was still feeling fine. I sent a text to some of my teammates and told them about the results because they had been asking about me,” she said. “My friend Brooklyn called me and she was really upset, but I kept telling her everything’s going to be alright, I’m coming back.
“I don’t think it hit me until a week later. I was sitting in my room and I kind of broke down about it,” Burks said.
A brace would not be the only thing Katie would need to start back playing, she had to go through weeks of physical therapy wearing the brace. In fact, she didn’t play again until Red Bay’s game with Sulligent on Jan. 5, 2016.
“After I got the brace, I started therapy and it went really well,” she said. “My therapy experience was good.”
Burks said the first game she came back at Sulligent she was nervous when she went out on the court.
“I’m sure everyone could tell that when I got out there because I hadn’t fallen since my previous fall at Pontotoc,” she said. “A girl came up to me during the game and I went to screen her, she lowered her shoulder and went into me and I fell backward. It scared me more than it hurt. So it’s just getting past the fear. I think if you just have confidence it’s easier.”
Roberts said any concerns the knee injury would compromise her ability and drive to play have been put to rest.
“She’s played a lot better than I thought she would,” Roberts said. “Since she came back she has already taken five or six charge calls, so apparently she’s not afraid of it.”
Burks said the damage to the ACL is done, so it doesn’t really hurt.
“When I’m falling backward and the knee bends just a little it might hurt some, but it not excruciating pain,” she said.
60 awful seconds
She recalls moments before she was injured in the game. The Lady Tigers had broken a press by Pontotoc and Darby Madden threw her the ball on a fast break. It was after she went up for the left-handed layup that she came down and her left leg turned in.
“I was told that when you tear your ACL it’s like 60 seconds of intense pain. That comes when your nerve is dying from being torn away,” she said. “That’s what hurt me so much. It was in that 60 seconds. It felt like my leg was broken.
“All I can remember after that is that it felt so weird, I could feel my knee cap move.”
Burks said that when her injury happened she felt like everything was okay, so her emotions were in check because she thought she was coming back for the following Monday’s game.
“I remember that after I fell and got back up I felt fine. I’m sitting on the sideline with my leg propped up and I said, ‘I’m ready to go back in.’ They said no, I don’t think you’re ready to go back in. Then I was worried about if I had made the basket,” she said.
Because of her injury, Burks has constantly had to deal with swelling of her injured knee.
She said she did get some relief when her doctor drew off some of the fluid just after her injury, but other than that she must use ice packs after practice and following each game.
“After each game it still swells up,” said Burks. I walk out of the locker room with two big bags of ice on my leg and people ask me if got hurt during the game. The doctor said it will continue to do that as long as I keep playing basketball and until I have surgery.”
Although Burks’ injury is the worst for the Lady Tigers, the team as a whole has also had other injuries this season, including knee and ankle problems.
Burks added that Red Bay has had to overcome some adversities this year and has been beat up some from playing a tough schedule.
As the Lady Tigers’ regular season is coming to a close, the postseason is just days away, starting with area tournaments Feb. 8th-13th.
Roberts has always said that winning the state 2A championship is the goal for every one of his teams, but he knows that they can’t look too far ahead.
As the reigning Class 2A State Champions, winning a two-peat in 2016 is something that is on the minds of every player, but they must first win the Regional Championship at Wallace State to advance to the finals, as they did in 2015.
Burks said the Lady Tigers play their best when the level of competition is high, just like they did at the Northwest Regionals last year.
Red Bay defeated Tanner 39-28 and beat Cold Springs in overtime 59-49 in the regional championship final.
“As long as we work as a team and play smart it’s all going to come together. That’s what I’m hoping for,” Burks said.
In those final seconds of their 34-29 state championship win over Geneva County, spectators could tell by the look on the team members’ faces that winning the AHSAA 2A state championship was finally sinking in.
That feeling is one of the primary drivers behind Burks desire to finish her senior season, and help her teammates on their quest for another state title.
“Winning a state championship is something you can’t describe,” Burks said. It’s a moment in your life that you’ll never feel again unless you win again.”
Burks recalls the events and emotions at the end of last year’s game.
“It was amazing,” she said. “I remember just standing there in the last seconds. Darby was shooting foul shots and we were ahead. I was looking at Allie and saying, ‘We’re about to win the state championship.’ She and I both just started bawling. It was very emotional.
“Being at Wallace and then at Birmingham is something you want to work hard for so you can go back there every year,” Burks said. Our goal is to again win everything,”