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Getting Hurt Is Painful, but So Is Not Playing : Attitude Is a Big Hurdle in Recovery

Times Staff Writer

Richard Lucas, Katella High School basketball player, had never experienced the kind of physical pain he suffered last year while rehabilitating a broken leg.

Part of his recovery program was a stretching exercise in which a therapist would bend his knee back as far as it would go while he was lying on his stomach.

“It hurt so bad it brought tears to my eyes,” Lucas recalled. “I was ready to give up. I told the therapist, ‘Forget it, I’ll walk with a limp for the rest of my life.’ ”

But oddly enough, Lucas said the physical pain wasn’t even the worst part about the injury, which he sustained in the first game of the 1984-85 season when he slipped on a wet spot and fell.

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The most difficult thing was missing his entire sophomore season, having to watch the games and take statistics on the sidelines, not being able to earn a varsity letter, and coping with the boredom of inactivity.

“To see the other guys play and know I couldn’t do anything but write down who scored was incredibly frustrating,” said Lucas, who returned to become the Knights’ starting center this past season. “The hardest part was sitting there and watching them play.”

It’s like that for most high school athletes who suffer serious injuries. Because they are young and most are in good physical condition, they usually can recover physically from broken bones, torn ligaments and sprains.

But they must also overcome the mental anguish that accompanies such injuries--mainly, the frustration of not being able to play and the fear of re-injuring themselves when they return.

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“I think the psychological factors of coming back from an injury are just as difficult to overcome as the physical ones,” said Dr. Dick Lister, a Costa Mesa-based clinical and sports psychologist.

“Having to watch others play is (a) severe (problem), because the athlete’s clock is ticking--it’s like a taxi with the meter running--he only has so many games before he gets to the college level. There are no redshirt years in high school.

“There are some high school athletes who won’t be superstars in college and their only glory days will be in high school sports. Losing a season can be disastrous, and the later it is in his high school career, the worse.”

Disaster struck Eric Zeno, La Quinta High School quarterback, last fall when, on the last play of the Aztecs’ second game (against Foothill), he broke his left leg in a freak accident.

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With about 30 seconds remaining, he took the snap and dropped to one knee to run out the clock, but one of his linemen was pushed and fell on his leg. Zeno was able to shake hands with his opponents and walk to the team bus, but he knew something was wrong.

X-rays later that night showed the break and two steel pins were inserted in Zeno’s leg, which then was placed in a cast. He would be out for at least six weeks.

Zeno was devastated. He had transferred from Fountain Valley to La Quinta for his senior season so he could play under his father, Aztec Coach Joe Zeno. He had lost the quarterback job as a junior at Fountain Valley, and this was his chance to show the college scouts that he could play.

“I wanted to prove I was capable of being recruited as a major-college prospect, but I couldn’t do that on the bench,” he said. “My senior year was vital to me. If I wasn’t able to return, I wouldn’t know where I’d stand college-wise. They’re not gonna recruit someone who is injured.”

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The fear of losing a potential scholarship motivated Zeno during his rehabilitation. He swam for an hour before school, lifted weights for a few hours after school and worked out in the pool at night.

Except for game nights. Then, he was too depressed to do anything.

“It was tough going to the games and sitting on the sidelines,” Zeno said. “You can contribute by talking, but when it gets right down to it, it really hurts not to be out there with your teammates.”

Zeno eventually returned for La Quinta’s last Garden Grove League game, but not as quarterback. With the help of an air cast that protected his lower left leg, he played tight end and linebacker and helped the Aztecs advance to the Central Conference championship game.

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Although Zeno earned a football scholarship to UCLA, one sports psychologist, Bruce Ogilvie, of San Jose State, sees potential problems for a recovering athlete who is obsessed with his sport.

“The young people who are too identified through sports are the young men and women who write the post painful letters to me when they get injured,” he said. “They say, ‘What do I do with my life now?’ The more self-esteem they invest in being an athlete, the greater the danger (of psychological damage).”

These are the times when an athlete, who is undergoing the stress of an injury, most needs understanding and encouragement. Another athlete who has recovered from a similar injury is good to talk to. Friends and family need to lend their support.

“The first month is when they tend to be down the most,” said Sherry Zembik, a physical therapist for the CIGNA Health Plan in Fullerton who worked with Lucas. “Sometimes, they need a little counseling, but most people, whatever their situation is, eventually come around.

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“Encouragement from other patients helps, too, because they can relate to what the person is going through.”

As for coping with inactivity, therapists and psychologists recommend that athletes find some kind of an outlet for their frustrations.

Chris Yoxtheimer, Cypress High School basketball player who missed half of his junior season and several games in his senior year because of a broken leg, channeled his energies toward school.

“I did a lot more studying while I was injured,” he said. “I missed school for about eight weeks and had a home tutor who helped me out a lot. I usually get C’s, but I got B’s in every class last semester.”

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Yoxtheimer said that it is important to keep a positive attitude but not to rush the comeback.

“Players should think about their bodies and prevent re-injuring them for life,” he said. “You can’t just think basketball. There are other things. If you injure yourself for life, you’re gonna wish you didn’t (rush the comeback).”

Added Zeno: “I’ve known some kids who have cut their casts off their arms and gone back and played, but that’s not a good idea at all.”

Lister said that some athletes, when they return to action, fear being hurt again more than they did originally. The pain’s memory is fresh.

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It was for Lucas. Katella opened last season against Rancho Alamitos in the Valencia tournament at Valencia High. It was the same tournament, the same opponent and the same gym where Lucas slipped the year before.

“That was the only game I really thought about the injury, but once I started playing, it really didn’t faze me,” he said. “Nothing happened in the game. I didn’t play too well, but nothing happened.”

Zeno’s desire to play helped him overcome the fear of re-injuring his leg.

“It hurt to walk, but I wanted to play so badly, that once I got into the game and got hit, I didn’t even think about it,” he said. “I just had to grin and bear it.”

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