Bye Bye Love: An ode to my ACL

I sometimes tell people I blew out my knee playing football in college, which, while technically accurate, isn’t quite in keeping with the spirit of how my injury did actually occur; not in a packed stadium amidst the pageantry of major inter-collegiate sports but on a verdant campus quad during a Friday afternoon practice for fraternity touch-football. Still, you remember certain details vividly when a once-flourishing intramural career implodes in a cruel instant. One of them is that the whole soul-crushing, life-altering episode took place soundtracked, seemingly song by song, by The Cars incredible and unforgettable debut album, “The Cars.”

Emerging out of Boston from the new wave scene of the late-‘70’s, The Cars deftly blended guitar-centered rock with synthesizer-oriented pop to forge a newly contemporary sound pervasive to early-‘80’s campus life and unsurprisingly blaring out of some unidentified dorm room when I stepped out onto Tulane’s Butler quad. Team practices were typically in far more spacious areas, the nearby U.C. or Newcomb quads, for instance. But for whatever scheduling or field availability reasons, fate had dictated that on this day we’d be on the tighter, dorm-adjacent Butler space. Which brought one very key distinction: girls. Plus, the early-fall muggy swelter of New Orleans climate meant something else about those girls: bathing suits. Laid out on a grouping of beach towels at the far end of the field from where we’d set up were a gaggle of young gals quietly sunning themselves in the late afternoon heat, entirely uninterested in us or our activities. I recall that The Cars’ triumphant Good Times Roll was playing as we merrily settled into a huddle to commence practice.

“Let’s run the Bikini and Go,” our quarterback, Mark, declared excitedly while looking straight at me. “You run out toward the girls and I’ll lead you!” Mark had been a state-champion QB at Joliet Catholic Academy outside Chicago, had a cannon for an arm, and a bushy moustache that afforded him an added air of authority. Who was I to differ. His spontaneously named shrewd idea was basically for me to dash a fly pattern and then make a diving catch exhibiting my obviously extraordinary athletic abilities. Or more likely, to fail spectacularly and cause some kind of ridiculous ruckus in front of the unsuspecting ladies. Either way, a warm-up jog and a juvenile stunt was Just What I Needed, I thought, as I got into my crouch at the scrimmage line.

The ball snapped to Mark and I took off, running about three-quarters speed at first. But glancing back after a few strides I quickly detected that he had overzealously heaved an absolute rainbow, a mile high and well beyond my reach at the current pace. I shifted my gait to a higher gear tracking the ball’s arc well above me while Don’t Cha Stop, Don’t Cha Stop raced through my Cars-obsessed head. Now into a full-out sprint I sensed I finally had the toss measured and mentally envisioned myself in a stunning slow-motion sequence, the football and me Moving In Stereo in a stately manner to rival Phoebe Cates’ own infamous sashay to the same tune in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (fellas, you damn well know the scene).

Then, as the tightly spiraling ball gracefully began its descent I glimpsed forward once more, espying the intended bikinis destination still safely away, but alarmingly noticing a sudden interloper. Lori, not exactly My Best Friend’s Girl but someone with whom I was familiar from a business school class, was aimlessly strolling across the quad, utterly oblivious, immediately in my path, and at only a step’s distance removed, perilously close to disaster. I knew instantly that if I continued running at full speed I’d hit her like a freight train and leave parts of her scattered around the grass. With the ball now nearly upon me, I slammed on the brakes, forcibly planting one leg and attempting to pivot away from my still completely unwitting quarry. Predictably, my left knee stayed one place and the rest of me went another. And I bid an unceremonious Bye Bye Love to my anterior cruciate ligament.

The ball caromed off Lori’s left shoulder with a dull thud. Mark’s 50-yard marksman launch and my lengthy scamper upfield would’ve been perfection. Instead, I lay writhing on the ground in agony, searing pain and instantaneous swelling enveloping my joint, the victim of my own violent, split-second contortion, but aware that I likely saved a bystander from serious injury. Lori stared intently down at me, and I peered up awaiting her certain expression of everlasting gratitude. Apparently I was All Mixed Up. “You asshole!,” she screamed, “That ball hit me!” And with that she turned and hurried away. Never have I so immediately regretted a snap decision. In my next life, Lori, you’ll be flattened like a stone under a steamroller.

Modern ACL reconstructions are rather run-of-the-mill, even humdrum; a tiny incision, an arthroscopic procedure, and stationary bike exercise beginning in just a few days. That wasn’t quite the case in the dark ages of my injury, as the foot-long zipper scar across my kneecap would signal, and the never-to-be-fully-recovered mobility following a two-month stretch in a hip to ankle plaster cast would demonstrate. That’s okay, I wasn’t exactly going pro anyway. And I was eventually able to move on to a highly respectable post-graduate career in slow-pitch softball. All the same, I do, at times, allow myself to think back to the circumstances of that consequential “Bikini and Go” call. A different field assignment…the pass being only a few yards shorter or longer…the decisive actions taking place a few precious seconds earlier or later…a less clueless (or at a minimum, less unappreciative) passer-by…not so much of an instinctual urge to act like a jackass in front of girls…maybe even just skipping practice entirely to get an early start on the TGIF kegs already pouring on campus. Yeah, mostly that one. These all seem like valid questions, ones I’ve long pondered wondering what might’ve happened differently to save me whilst preserving my surely more auspicious sporting destiny. Alas, I’ve got this buffet of regrets for having had no such fateful interventions, and, of course, for not pulverizing Lori to bits. And thus, as I sat with these dogged old memories on a recent cold winter’s evening, I was left only with the solace of my creaky, but still functioning knee. Faintly, I might even have imagined hearing The Cars serenading it with You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.

A witless play and lousy injury, sure. But if the scars are everlasting, at least so is the album “The Cars.”