COLUMBIA — It looked so effortless for Jeremy Maclin on Saturday. His touchdown return seemed as routine as kicking an extra point.
Sprint forward. Catch the punt at full speed. Gallop through the gap opened by blockers. Stop when you reach the end zone.
But Maclin was aware of the danger. Returners usually field the ball and then start running. They don’t catch it in stride like a wide receiver.
“That was probably almost committing suicide,” Maclin said after Missouri’s victory against Illinois State.
But Maclin did it anyway, taking the punt back 64 yards for a score. The play mirrored his performance so far this year. He has defied convention with a confident smile and supreme speed.
Maclin wasn’t supposed to play this well as a redshirt freshman. He wasn’t supposed to lead the nation in all-purpose yards after four games. He wasn’t supposed to be this elusive and electric after tearing up his knee last July.
“A lot of people didn’t think I’d ever be the same,” Maclin said. “But with the help that I had and the effort I put into my rehab, I’m back where I am.”
Just ask head team physician Dr. Patrick Smith.
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Smith rushed to the athletic complex when he found out about Maclin’s injury. When he first examined the knee, the devastation was shocking.
“I was really concerned whether he was ever going to play college football,” he said.
Smith is trim with short, dark brown hair. He’s soft-spoken, and his manner is direct and thorough. Sports and medicine are two of his passions. He knew he wanted to be a doctor in sports medicine after injuring his knee playing basketball in high school.
He has worked with some of the pioneers of sports medicine. After graduating from medical school and completing his residency at the University of Michigan, Smith had a one-year fellowship at the Hughston Clinic, founded by Dr. Jack Hughston, the Knute Rockne of sports medicine. Hughston was one of the first doctors to attend to athletes on the sideline, invented the protective mouthpiece and standardized many medical procedures. Smith also studied under Dr. Jimmy Andrews, who performed surgeries on such athletes as Bo Jackson, Roger Clemens and Drew Brees.
Like high school star athletes, Smith was recruited to come to Columbia. Dr. Glenn McElroy, longtime MU head physician, had his eye on Smith, who moved here in 1986 and began work at the Columbia Orthopaedic Group. In 1991, he replaced McElroy and started treating athletes and watching MU games from the sideline.
Like Maclin, his skills are highly valued.
“He’s as good as there is,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “I wouldn’t want anyone else operating on my players or my family from an orthopedic standpoint.”
With all those years of experience, Smith sized up Maclin’s injury.
“It was a significant one. I’ve seen a couple worse,” he said.
Maclin had a partial knee dislocation, more serious than an ACL tear. When Smith raised Maclin’s foot, his knee didn’t stay straight. It was loose, bending backward and curving like a banana. Smith knew this hyperextension was bad news.
But Smith was quickly reassured. With the severity of the injury, Smith thought Maclin’s nerves might have been damaged, making it difficult for him to move his toes and foot upward. But his fear subsided when Maclin was able to move his foot. Maclin’s nerves were intact. Smith was grateful.
Now, he thought he could fix the knee, and Maclin could recover.
The surgery would be tricky. Maclin hadn’t just torn his ACL, but had also torn supportive structures on both the outside and back of his knee. Smith had to fix both areas.
Several weeks later, Smith cut open Maclin’s knee, and two hours later, it was fixed.
But the ordeal wasn’t over. Maclin had plenty of work to do before he could step on the field again.
* * *
Maclin’s smile after Saturday’s game suddenly vanished. All the TV cameras had captured their sound bites and cornered other players. He was alone with a reporter who wasn’t interested in the thrills of the present but in the shadows of the past. The reporter wanted to know about the intense days Maclin spent strengthening his knee in rehab, when he was like a sick kid whose mom wouldn’t let him go outside and play with all of his friends.
Maclin grew serious and contemplated the question.
“I mean, the first day was so hard for me,” he said.
Then he paused and let out a laugh.
“I actually cried the first day, man, that’s how bad it hurt. But I’m glad I stuck with it. The first couple weeks were rough. The knee was real tender, real sore. But after that it was pretty much smooth sailing,” he said.
While his teammates ran through monotonous drills for the upcoming season, Maclin spent hours every day with head trainer Rex Sharp. Since classes hadn’t started, Sharp and Maclin were able to focus on one subject: his knee. They went through pounds of ice and series of therapeutic exercises.
Sharp understood what Maclin was going through.
“I know there were days when it wasn’t very much fun for him,” he said, “but I’m not here to make it fun. But I try.”
Maclin persevered through the first grueling days. His work ethic and attitude impressed both Sharp and Smith. He never got down or asked, “Why me?”. He had faith. The trainers, doctors and his family, coaches and teammates were behind him. He knew he would run again one day.
* * *
That day came Sept. 1. It took Maclin less than 10 seconds to show the countless hours of rehab had paid off.
The Tigers were playing against Illinois in St. Louis, his hometown. His family and friends, and the doctor, were watching.
Maclin fielded a punt and darted up the field. With a tackler approaching, he cut back off his right leg to his left. He froze the Illini defender and zipped by. The crowd roared as Maclin reached the end zone for a 66-yard score.
Smith got chills watching the play unfold. He had a perfect angle on the sidelines. When he saw Maclin make a cut as precise as one of his incisions, he knew the knee was sound.
“He absolutely came back better than I would have ever expected,” he said.
Maclin is even faster than before he wrecked his knee. He cut his 40-yard dash time from 4.4 to 4.3. Smith was amazed when Maclin told him.
“I said, ‘Jeremy, I don’t want people thinking if they hurt their knee and we fix them, they’ll end up faster. That’s not the norm,’” he said with a laugh.
While Maclin racks up all-purpose yardage and makes more trips to the end zone, his greatest achievement might be his rapid recovery.
“He’s a great young man and the way he handled the injury and the maturity he showed, he made my life a lot easier,” Smith said.