Guys who tear their ACL will get encouragement from others who’ve dealt with similar injuries themselves. I was fortunate enough to be able to give advice to myself; after all, I had been there twice before.
It all started my freshman year playing ball for IU.
It was one of our first summer workouts and my very first one-on-one drill of the day. I ran a 10-yard out route around the 30-yard line, jumped for the ball and came down with it. I made the catch, but my leg felt funny. I looked down and it wasn’t bent the way it normally is after you fall.
All I knew was something hurt.
Then boom, I felt a huge rush of pain in my knee. I only felt it for a couple of seconds, but something felt very wrong. One of our trainers came over immediately. He saw me grabbing my leg, and that’s when I first heard the three letters no athlete ever wants to hear:
I didn’t know much about ACLs at the time. Honestly, who really ever thinks about the way their body works right?
I thought it happened every so often to someone, maybe once in a blue moon. Little did I know how aware I would become…
I came into college fresh as a daisy, no leg injuries, no ailments, nothing holding me back. I’d been returning punts since I was 11 years old, now I was doing it in the Big Ten, playing for the state I called home.
I’ll admit, it took me a while to get used to the intense crowds and the bigger players.
But I’d come a long way since my first return as a high school freshmen, where much to my coaching staff’s dismay, I had signaled for a fair catch almost before the ball had left the punter’s foot.
I try to take a positive approach to everything. When I was finally back in action after a long rehab I took things with a grain of salt.
Those fortunate enough to play the game for as long as I have will get injured. I felt a little bit of relief knowing I’d got my big injury out of the way.
Time to ball.
But God had other plans for me. Now I was playing with a knee brace on. It’s funny to think I sort of felt like that was my armor against another injury. Then it happened again, this time my other knee.
The second time around my mindset was a little different.
Before I’d treated the injury as just a growing pain, part of my process as a football player. Now I was starting to think more skeptically. I started to think about everything I had already accomplished and how much more I had left.
Was it a sign, I’d think to myself?
Do I even want to come back?
I came to the conclusion that I had a chance, so why not take it. I played in seven games the next season, returning two punts and one kickoff for three touchdowns—then it happened again—my third ACL tear in four years.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Like my mindset had changed from my first ACL to my second, it was totally different the third time around. Everything had been going so smooth, but I could only control what I could control.
A lot of people thought my career was over. I may have had some really bad luck, but I still had my talent, and my mindset, which I always keep positive.
I graduated with a management degree from Indiana in May and got back on the field by summer workouts.
I told myself I’m not going to worry about my ACLs, because whether you worry or don’t worry about it, that doesn’t change the odds of it happening again.
So why stress about it?
Now in my final season for the Hoosiers, I’m playing freer than I ever have before. I have nothing to lose and after all, I love making people miss.
From little league to high school I always enjoyed returning the most.
As a returner, we know what we do is dangerous, but if you can make a few guys miss and dance into the end zone with your whole team at your back, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.
I’d tell myself, all you’ve got to do is catch the ball J-Shun. The rest is all ability.
Thankfully I’ve had some success as a returner, but it’s not just my mindset. There are ten other guys on the field that always have my back, running a scheme that my coaches set up for me to score and for us to win.
It’s that feeling.
As I go in it gets louder and then louder.
When I run I don’t think at all, as strange as it may sound. I just focus on getting to that level where it’s you and one man to beat, that’s when the crowd’s the loudest.
If it’s the punter, I tell myself I’m scoring every time.
After all, when a kicker tackles me I never hear the end of it—so I try to avoid it at all costs.
I never take any of it for granted, what I’ve done on the football field or in life.
I’ve never had something I loved so much been taken away. It was like without any control it was almost gone in a blink, and at times it felt like it really was gone forever.
I couldn’t do anything but grow from it. That’s why my mindset behind playing is what it is today. I always want to eliminate any future regrets and I’ve taken that with me in life as well.
My mom and biological father aren’t together. The way I hear him speak about letting my mom get away—I take that with me in the relationships in my own life.
I look at my elders and the paths they’re on. I think to myself, what decisions have they made to put them in the situation they’re in right now? I try to learn from that.
I’ve saved myself from a lot of situations that could’ve haunted me, just by listening to their advice. And I couldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that.
At some point, you have to figure out that you don’t have all the answers.
You only know what you know. I only have 22 years of life I can learn from. I’ve always been attuned to what someone older is saying, with a yes sir or yes ma’am regardless.
I know my coaches or parents are heated in the moment not because they don’t like me, but because they care so much about me, and only want me to be the best I can be.
I’m so grateful through all my trials I never folded when it felt really easy to at times. They say that great things come to those who wait. I give all the thanks to God, my teammates, parents, and coaches.
I’ve always believed in my own abilities but there were times when I questioned if I’d ever be able to truly play without a setback.
The question was and still is always there, but there’s no use entertaining it because that changes nothing.
I’ve learned so much since coming to Indiana, and the type of person I am. I’ve always believed in my strength but I never knew the type of person I am until I faced that adversity.
You’ll face hardships, it’s just a part of life, it might not be tearing your ACL three times, it might not even be sports related.
What got me through it was remembering who I am. Don’t let life steer you off the road, even when it throws you off course.
Always believe in yourself, especially when it’s hardest to do so.
J-Shun Harris II | Contributor
Indiana University, Wide Receiver/Returner