October 7, 2001 — You probably knew about Jamal Anderson’s season-ending knee injury before Atlanta Falcons starting center Todd McClure did. In the heat of battle, such information doesn’t always make it to the trenches.
Todd thought Anderson — the Pro Bowl running back who tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee during the opening drive of Atlanta’s 34-14 win in Arizona last Sunday — was just tired.
Perhaps, Todd thought, he had the wind knocked out of him.
But in the huddle during the Falcons’ next offensive series, Todd learned his team’s leading rusher might be in trouble. Quarterback Chris Chandler told him so.
“Chris was like, ‘C’mon guys, we gotta pick it up right here. Jamal might be out for a while,’” Todd told me over the phone Thursday evening. “I still thought he meant just for a couple of series or so.”
But possessions passed, and Jamal didn’t return. He headed straight for the Falcons locker room. And, on the sidelines, Todd headed straight for one of the team’s trainers to find out what had happened.
He was told that Jamal likely had torn an ACL for the second time in three years. Same injury. Different knee.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Todd who, like Jamal, suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in 1999. “Knowing how tough that rehab is, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody to do it one time. But to have to do it twice?”
At halftime, Todd approached Jamal.
“You could tell he was upset,” Todd said. “He still really didn’t know for sure at that point.”
None of the Falcons knew — for sure — the severity of Jamal’s injury at that point. They feared the worst. They hoped for the best.
Their fears were confirmed Monday.
“I tried to call him the day after, and I think he was pretty much screening phone calls from anybody,” Todd said. “I saw him in the locker room on Wednesday after he did his press conference and I gave him a hard time about not answering his phone.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been in a hole, just not wanting to talk to anybody.’ So I’m going to give him a little time.”
Todd and Jamal grew close in the rehab room back in 1999.
They were players at different points in their careers. Jamal was a veteran, an outspoken team leader who, in 1998, posted the best rushing season in Falcons history and helped lead Atlanta to the Super Bowl. Todd was a rookie yet to play in his first NFL game, a late-round draft choice who was simply happy the Falcons didn’t release him after he injured himself on just the second day of summer camp.
But the odd couple had at least one thing in common — surgically-repaired right knees.
“We’d come in at the same time every day and do our rehab,” Todd said. “We were doing all of that together. It helped to have somebody doing it with you, somebody who knew the pain that you’re going through.”
“So it was the Pro Bowler and the, the …,” I said, struggling to find the least-insulting descriptor.
“… nobody,” Todd said, finishing my sentence for me. “He kind of took me under his wing, kind of showed me the ropes.”
That offseason, Todd and his wife Heidi joined Jamal and his wife Anna on a vacation to the Cayman Islands. Like Todd and Jamal, Heidi and Anna remain friends, and gave birth just one week apart over the summer.
There are those who say Jamal’s career is over now, that the human body just can’t handle two torn ACLs. To the naysayers, Todd says, “Not so fast.”
“I have no question that you can come back from two injuries, especially a guy like him,” Todd said. “His right knee hasn’t given him any problems this year. That knee is fine. So why can’t he get his other knee fine? I think he’ll do it, just the type of competitor that he is. He’ll be back, just to show people. He will be back.”
It took Todd more than a full calendar year to recover from his knee injury — “It’s just a long, slow process,” he said — but only three months after that, he earned a starting job.
“God really blessed me,” Todd said. “He was watching over me the whole time. They say He puts you in situations that you can handle. He guided me through it.”
Todd’s knee is completely healthy now. He tries not to think about his injury at all. But sometimes — like last week, for example — it’s hard not to.
Todd was blocking back on a counter play during practice on July 30, 1999. One of his teammates got knocked down, and rolled into the side of Todd’s right knee.
Todd’s knee burned, but he got back up and finished practice — with a torn ACL. It was only his second day with the team, and he didn’t want to appear soft.
“I could tell my knee was a little loose,” Todd said. “I thought I might have just sprained it or something. But the next day, it swelled up really big.”
Todd learned early the impermanence of his chosen profession, the random reality that seasons — sometimes careers — can end in an instant.
“I guess everybody thinks about that,” Todd said. “You don’t really want to think about it. I guess everybody’s ideal thing would be to play for 10 years or so, but it just doesn’t happen like that.”
Injuries are part of Todd’s job description. He is an NFL lineman, after all. Often they are mere nuisances, things to be taped over and forgotten until the end of the day.
“Well, there’s turf toe,” Todd said, listing his maladies. “And your fingers and hands always take a beating. I jacked my thumb up a couple of weeks ago. You get elbow tendinitis from constantly punching up against that much weight. Neck is always jammed up. Back’s always sore.
“The day after a game is pretty rough.”
But some pain — like torn ACLs — can’t be played through. So players have contingency plans.
Jamal, for example, owns Jam Entertainment, which promotes parties and concerts and has a client list that includes Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. Offensive tackle Bob Whitfield is founder of PatchWerk Recordings, which boasts music groups like Outkast and TLC.
Todd still has a few more hours of work left on his business degree from LSU. He hopes to finish up this summer.
“I’ll be ready to go from there,” Todd said.
But hopefully that diploma will have time to gather some dust. Todd’s happy being an NFL lineman for now.
On Jamal Anderson: “Jamal doesn’t make many mistakes. You know where he’s going to be as far as the running game and the blitz pick-up. Sometimes he can set the tone of the game just by the way he runs the ball. We’ll come in and he’ll run over two or three people early and that makes them not want to tackle. One of the biggest things we’ll miss, he’s a vocal leader on the field. He’ll let you know when you mess up. He’ll come and tell you. He’ll get on you. He won’t hold anything back.”
On Maurice Smith: “Maurice is a good runner. He runs hard. I thought he did a really good job stepping in there in that type of role, in a moment’s notice, and running the ball. Hopefully, we can keep blocking for him and Rodney (Thomas) and have a good running game this week.”
On the offensive line: “It doesn’t change one bit for us. We still have to do what we were doing before. We’ve still got to make the same blocks. It doesn’t matter to us who is back there. “