When N.F.L. Stopped, Leonhard Kept Going

New York Times
Published: August 6, 2011

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — On March 12, the N.F.L. awoke to grave uncertainty amid its first work stoppage in 22 years. That morning in Madison, Wis., Jim Leonhard, the Jets’ do-everything safety, rolled out of bed and continued his recovery from a broken right leg, as if nothing in his life had changed.

The week before the league plunged into a lockout that banned communication between players and coaches, Leonhard coordinated his rehabilitation with the Jets’ training staff. Bracing for months of silence, he mapped out every aspect of his schedule.

“We had to make sure I was going to have everything that I needed,” Leonhard said. “We didn’t want to take any chances.”

Leonhard knew precisely when he would receive soft-tissue treatment, just as he knew when he could expect to resume football-related activities. Some days, he would focus on improving flexibility and regaining his natural gait. Others, he would concentrate on balance and mobility. When the lockout ended on July 25, less than eight months after he fractured his shin in a freak practice collision, Leonhard felt stronger than ever.

Within the next week, Leonhard is expected to join his teammates in full-contact practices, and his imminent return will serve as a testament to the collaborative effort among the organization, his surgeons and a slew of people in Madison that minimized the effects of the work stoppage. When the Jets open their season against Dallas on Sept. 11, Coach Rex Ryan says, Leonhard will start once again.

“The one thing I never worried about — and I don’t think anybody here worried about as far as Jim Leonhard was concerned — was that he was going to come back in great shape, and he has,” said Dennis Thurman, who coaches the Jets’ secondary. “Just look at him out there. He’s ready to go.”

Leonhard approached his convalescence with the same fervor and perseverance that have distinguished his career, defining his rise from walk-on at the University of Wisconsin to a hard-hitting, 5-foot-8 dynamo entrusted with conveying defensive signals to his teammates. He credited part of his swift recovery to the AlterG antigravity treadmill, a machine that allowed him to walk and run without inflicting severe pressure on the bone as it healed. Leonhard started using it at the Jets’ facility, and athletic trainers at Wisconsin put him in touch with David Nissenbaum, who had one at his Sport & Spine Clinic in Madison.

Through a provision in the lockout restrictions, Leonhard was able to consult with the Jets’ team doctors because they performed his surgery. But over time, Nissenbaum acted as an intermediary, providing the Jets’ head trainer, John Mellody, with weekly progress reports.

“Jim obviously had a relationship with the Jets’ trainers, so it was a little challenging relaying exactly how he felt to them,” Nissenbaum said. “But we never had a problem. We were always thinking the same.”

Leonhard sustained his injury at a most inopportune time, three days before a crucial game at New England. On the afternoon of Dec. 3, Leonhard and receiver Patrick Turner converged on a pass during seven-on-seven drills.

Turner’s knee smacked into Leonhard’s leg. Both men fell. Turner got up. Leonhard did not. He lay on the field grabbing his shin. The trainers rushed over. He was carted away and taken to Morristown Memorial Hospital.

“Just a freak accident,” Turner said. “My knee had to hit him just right for something like that to happen.”

The next day, Leonhard had surgery. Doctors inserted a rod to stabilize the bone. His season — with five games remaining, and three more in the playoffs — was over. Ryan, who lured Leonhard from the Baltimore Ravens after taking over the Jets in 2009, described his absence as devastating, and not just from a football perspective. Eric Smith, who started in place of Leonhard, called it an “emotional letdown.”

Cornerback Darrelle Revis said of Leonhard: “He’s our quarterback out there. He’s the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady of our defense. When he got hurt, I know I felt like we were going to have a problem back there.”

Tom Brady exploited a disorganized secondary in the Patriots’ 45-3 thrashing, shredding the Jets for 326 yards and 4 touchdowns. As his teammates regrouped, Leonhard cruised around the facility in a motorized cart bearing an improvised Wisconsin license plate that read, “Jim 36.” He studied videotape and assisted coaches, but after the A.F.C. championship game loss in Pittsburgh, he flew home to continue his therapy.

When Leonhard visited the clinic for the first time, on Feb. 1, he had recently gotten off crutches, so Nissenbaum started him on a treadmill-based program intended to normalize his walking mechanics. Leonhard put on a pair of spandex shorts and zipped himself into a harness as compressed air lifted him, a sensation he likened to floating.

“You get all these cardiovascular benefits, but with so much less stress on the bone,” Leonhard said. “Essentially, I was able to run about a month sooner than I would have without it.”

Three days a week for four months, Nissenbaum supervised his rehabilitation. Leonhard had a willing training partner in his younger brother, Tyler, a freshman walk-on for the Badgers.

By late March, he was walking backwards and crouching, mimicking his defensive stance. By late April, he was running outside again. By June, he was performing functional drills, sprinting, cutting and backpedaling, all of which he now does at full speed. Soon, Leonhard will be cleared for team drills, but one more limitation awaits. Ryan will not let him return punts this season, a concession to his injury. Leonhard said he would believe it when it actually happened.

“One thing about Jim Leonhard,” Thurman said. “Never underestimate him.”

... {a note from the wife: "fractured his shin" just doesn't sound as bad as the actual injury, a broken tibia... and, he was in surgery the same afternoon as the injury, not the next day. The team doctors as well as the doctors and staff at Morristown hospital did an amazing job! Thank you!} ...

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