Yes, he has a funny last name. His position doesn’t exactly help.
Sophomore tight end Jake Butt has heard the jokes all his life. One look at his Twitter handle, @JBooty_88, shows that he embraces the humor.
Reporters asked him about it Monday, and he acted like he hadn’t heard the question hundreds of times before. Instead, he chuckled, then offered an answer about loving the name.
Maybe the cheeriness didn’t come from the jokes but from last Saturday, when, against expectations, he played against Notre Dame despite anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction in February.
Things fall apart
Thirty years ago, Butt might not have gotten a second chance at football at all.
In another time, an ACL tear used to threaten an athletic career. It’s not hard to understand why.
The knee is held together by several ligaments. Besides providing internal stability, the ACL helps prevent the tibia from sliding in front of the femur.
Before modern surgical procedures more closely approximated the structure of the ligament with a graft and prior to improvements in rehabilitation, ACL tears could mean a lifetime of instability and difficulty returning to activities involving sharp movements.
One look at Mario Manningham, the former Michigan receiver whose career is in flux after such an injury, demonstrates possible implications of knee damage.
Even today, the recovery process is tabbed at seven months or longer, though athletes can sometimes return faster because of world-class support staff. The procedure itself takes about an hour, but even the most dedicated rehab process can’t eliminate the risk of chronic stiffness or recurring pain. And, like Butt’s injury, ACL tears are often accompanied by secondary ligament damage.
Butt said he also tore his medial meniscus, which can lead to more discomfort and sometimes causes an inability to fully extend the knee.
So when Butt felt his knee give out while running a corner route on Feb. 13, he didn’t need a medical professional to explain that he’d suffered significant damage.
“I knew it right away though, once I went down,” Butt said. “Like ‘Oh, man, I probably tore my ACL.’ ”
Doctors confirmed the diagnosis, and the tight end underwent surgery at the end of the month.
At the time, Michigan announced the sophomore was out indefinitely. After the operation, Butt said, doctors explained that, in a best-case scenario, he could be back by the first Big Ten game but that his season might be in jeopardy.
By mid-summer, though, Butt was progressing ahead of schedule, surprising coaches and doctors, but not himself.
“I used to tell the trainers, … ‘I’m going to have to start paying rent,’ ” Butt said. “They would have to kick me out. I’d always be in here doing extra stuff.”
Ann Arbor pandemic?
In the year before Butt’s surgery, linebacker Jake Ryan, defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins, offensive lineman Joey Burzynski, quarterback Russell Bellomy and running back Drake Johnson all suffered the same injury.
That’s a worrisome trend, but not entirely unprecedented. After all, ACL tears are common in sports, and only about 30 percent are due to contact with another player. The rest, like Butt’s, occur when the body undergoes rapid directional changes.
Still, the plethora of knee injuries has impacted Michigan. The Wolverines were surprisingly thin at the quarterback position in 2013, forcing then-freshman Shane Morris away from a potential redshirt year. And Burzynski, who had cracked the starting lineup last fall, missed crucial time for improvement.
ACL injury prevention focuses on avoiding compromising positions, but that’s not always possible in football. In Butt’s case, he was cutting in the same way that he had hundreds of times before, making the break for the sideline while going one-on-one with a linebacker.
Athletes can also focus on improving flexibility, increasing leg strength, practicing plyometric exercises to build explosiveness and proprioception drills to improve reactions to sudden changes.
However, Johanna Innes, a doctor and contributor to The Sporting News, explained that overtraining can be a factor in knee injuries. Additionally, she said, artificial turf causes an “increased incidence” in ACL tears.
Besides the number of ACL injuries, nothing indicates Michigan isn’t taking proper action to guard against knee injuries.
Butt’s recovery time suggests that they know how to react to one.
A helping hand
Jake Ryan was man-to-man with Butt when the tight end tore his ACL.
The linebacker knew Butt’s pain all too well. Ryan went through a similar recovery process the year before.
Ryan tore his ACL in March 2013 under comparable circumstances.
“I took a cut and went out to my right and just tore it,” Ryan told MLive.com last August. “I knew it. I knew when it happened.”
The linebacker made his return in early October, and though he struggled to adjust to mid-season speed, he provided a welcome boost to Michigan’s defense in the second half of the year.
And this fall, perhaps Ryan saw some of himself in Butt. Both were coming off breakout years and hurt themselves in the offseason. And both had suffered their injuries with enough time to feasibly return during the upcoming fall.
So Ryan offered Butt plenty of advice on how to avoid aggravating his injury.
In one of his first practices back, Butt celebrated a touchdown with a jump and twist, but Ryan advised him not to do it again lest he risk causing more damage.
Butt has since been cleared to play, but returning to the gridiron carries significant risk. According to Innes, once you’ve torn your ACL, you’re more likely to re-injure it, especially in the first year following the injury. Long-term, reconstructed knees have a higher probability to develop arthritis.
Predictably, though, Butt was eager to rush his progression.
“I really think of myself as a hard worker, (and) I went above and beyond whatever they did in treatment,” Butt said. “I would always do it on my own, whether it’s in my dorm room just coming back trying to make sure I got an edge on anyone else who’d had an ACL surgery before. I just wanted to put myself in the best position possible.”
Play like a champion
The moment Butt felt his knee give out, he vowed to return for Michigan’s game against Notre Dame on Sept. 6 in South Bend, Indiana.
Never mind that a traditional timetable might have him returning about three weeks later and that coach Brady Hoke estimated a best-case-scenario return for Michigan’s conference opener against Minnesota on Sept. 27.
That goal wasn’t because of the national implications of the game or the allure of the last meeting between two storied rivals, though neither hurt. Rather, Butt’s drive to come back stemmed from a childhood connection: His grandfather had won two national titles with the Fighting Irish.
In fact, as ESPN’s Jared Shanker wrote in 2012, Butt often wore his grandfather’s rings and dreamed of playing in the domed helmet at Notre Dame Stadium.
But the Irish never offered him a scholarship, and neither did Ohio State, Butt’s childhood team. Some programs even preferred him as the generic athlete or as a defensive player.
And when Michigan offered, Butt had no qualms committing to the rival program, Shanker remembers.
So Butt made his unlikely return against Notre Dame, playing four snaps in the final game of one of football’s most iconic rivalries. Now healthy, he expects to start in the Wolverines’ biggest game of every season — against Ohio State.
After his progress the past six months, who would doubt him?