Four years later, former Wolverine offensive tackle Grant Newsome reflects on the injury that almost lost him his leg – and how he found a way to keep his passion in his life after recovering.
On an October Saturday in 2016, Grant Newsome was hoping he'd sprained his MCL.
Newsome, then the starting left tackle for the University of Michigan Wolverines, had had a weird feeling about a second-quarter play at the Big House. Instead of diving through the legs of his opponent, as planned, he realized there might not be enough space. Instead, Newsome stayed standing.
He got hit below the kneecap, his cleat caught in the turf and he found himself lying on the field on his stomach.
Something wasn't right. Around halftime, he was told he needed more tests, and headed to Michigan Medicine.
Newsome was frustrated, preparing himself to miss a couple of weeks.
"I was doing the math, I thought I'd be back by the Michigan State game…" he remembers. He still had his uniform on, watching the second half of the Michigan vs. Wisconsin game from his hospital room.
He did walk off the field after getting hit, so he was even hoping he'd get to go back to watch his teammates finish the game in person.
A 'high stakes situation'
That's until the physical exam continued and the doctors asked Newsome if his leg or foot was tingling. It was, and it was numb too. This started a whole battery of vascular tests.
"You get a sinking feeling, 'This isn't as routine as I initially thought,'" Newsome remembers.
Upon realizing Newsome might be experiencing a dangerous lack of blood flow, physicians paged the vascular surgeon on call. Matthew Corriere, M.D., an associate professor of surgery at the Michigan Medicine Frankel Cardiovascular Center, flipped off the U-M game on his TV at home, just a few miles away, and got in his truck.
"They were concerned he had a posterior knee dislocation, which is when the artery gets pinched between the femur and tibia bones," Corriere says. "There's a very real risk of leg amputation when this happens so it's a high stakes situation."
Corriere and his colleagues inspected Newsome's leg, confirmed the diagnosis, and Corriere told him he needed emergency surgery. Newsome would later learn he was only able to walk off the field into the tunnel because his knee, the real problem, had limited motion and was partially stabilized from all of the swelling.
"He told me the bottom of my leg was getting around half of the blood it needed to survive," Newsome says. "I was dumbfounded and shocked. I didn't even know that was in the realm of possibility."
Newsome looked at Corriere and asked him, "Am I going to have a leg coming out of this?"
"We're going to do our best," the surgeon answered.
Into the operating room
Corriere transferred a piece of the vein from Newsome's other leg to his injured leg, allowing the blood to bypass the closed-off artery and flow through the newly-placed vein. Newsome also needed to be fitted with a device on his leg to keep the bones from pressing on the artery and stopping the blood flow again, until his knee joint could become more stable on its own.
These kinds of injuries can require multiple procedures, Corriere says.
"I've seen a posterior knee dislocation before in other football players and in a couple of other situations like a sledding accident or a big step off of a curb," he says.
In Newsome's case, he also needed to perform a fasciotomy for compartment syndrome. Newsome's calf muscles were trying to expand once they started receiving blood again, but those muscles sit inside sleeves of connective tissue without much extra room.
"The pressure caused by muscle swelling can kill the muscle and cause nerve damage," Corriere explains, so he had to make a relaxing cut to allow the muscle to swell without causing collateral damage.
Some of Newsome's leg muscle did end up dying, so he also had to have that part removed.
"It was intense and challenging, undoubtedly the most challenging thing I've ever gone through," Newsome remembers. He'd spend 10 days in the intensive care unit, followed by a regular hospital room for a couple of weeks and then some time in inpatient rehabilitation.
"Being an athlete, you're supposed to be this image of strength and power. To go from that to not being able to leave the hospital bed for a month was tough," Newsome says. He says he realized it's OK not to be OK, and to talk to people about how you're feeling and what you're struggling with. He leaned on his family and his now-fiancé through it all, and continued setting goals for his recovery.
"Grant has a remarkable perspective and it would be easy for someone in his circumstance to be mad or bitter," Corriere says. "But he was so mature, brave, and courteous, and took everything in stride the whole time."
'Intense and challenging' recovery
Newsome says rehab, though, was really humbling.
"A month ago I was this big athlete playing in front of 100,000 people, on ESPN, and then I was in inpatient rehabilitation with people who had suffered strokes and heart attacks. We were all learning to use a wheelchair and pick up things with a grabber."
Newsome would take what he calls his second first steps two months after the injury.
"It was probably the ugliest walk you've ever seen, but for me it was a big deal," he says. His muscles had shrunk; he remembers his thigh looking like what his calf used to be. Just walking was exhausting, but he still wanted to return to the football field for the next season.
After around six months, he was jogging again. "It was awesome," he says. When people asked him if he was retiring, assuming he'd say yes, he worked harder.
"It's hard to describe to people who don't play sports or haven't played at that level," he says. "Even after an injury like that that was objectively bad and scary and could've had worse outcomes, it's hard to justify why you go back to something, but it becomes a part of you and it's hard to suddenly give up on that piece of you."
Newsome realized he had to push his return date back a season, hoping instead to get on the field for 2018.
During the summer, he was up to running full speed and joining his teammates in the regular workouts and weight lifting.
He was at 80%, he thought, but then he hit a wall. No matter how hard he worked, he wasn't able to get past 80%.
"It was going to be hard for me to go back and not be the player I was before," Newsome says. "I also talked with my surgical team, doctors and trainers, who told me they weren't comfortable with the ability of the leg to hold up to the violent nature of football."
He decided not to take that final step of practicing with pads on.
Corriere and the rest of the medical team who'd taken care of him admitted their relief, along with joining in Newsome's sadness.
"What an inspiring story it would be if he got back out there," Corriere says. "I admired his determination. But I was just amazed that we'd saved his leg and I worried about him re-injuring himself."
It was still hard to walk away.
Ultimately, he wouldn't have to: he was able to rejoin his teammates in a different role as a student assistant coach. He earned his master's degree at U-M, and then transitioned into this season's role in January: graduate assistant coach.
Newsome used to think he'd never be a coach; he'd move on when he was done playing. But when he actually had to make that decision, it was an easy one.
"It's crazy to think back – in some ways, it feels like the injury was forever ago, but in other ways it's like it was yesterday," he says.
It took a couple of years but the feeling he'd lost in his leg is almost completely back now. Today, he has very few limitations, just a stiff right ankle sometimes. And, surprisingly enough, "I have less knee pain now than back when I was playing," he says.
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