It was supposed to be one simple play. A forgettable moment in a lifetime spent together as teammates on football fields from tiny Warren, Ark., to the mighty Southeastern Conference to the National Football League.
It began simple enough near the end of a long intrasquad scrimmage a summer ago. George Stewart, Vikings receivers coach, turned to the sideline long enough to holler a command that already was familiar as the first week of training camp ticked into its final seconds.
“He’d always say, ‘Put my Arkansas guys in the game!’ ” said Jarius Wright, one of those two former Razorbacks. “So we went in, like we always do.”
Wright lined up to the right. Wide left was Greg Childs, Wright’s sworn third-grade enemy turned inseparable friend. Wright was the small, quiet rookie fourth-round draft pick. Childs was the big, gregarious rookie fourth-round draft pick.
Two plays were all that remained of a Saturday night scrimmage at a packed and purple-clad Blakeslee Stadium in Mankato. Just two more plays until Wright hopped in Childs’ car, or vice versa, for a high-tailed escape up Hwy. 169 to the Twin Cities to enjoy a Sunday off.
Unfortunately, only one of them would survive those two snaps without having to face the likelihood that his once-promising NFL career has for all intents and purposes ended before it ever began.
Sneak preview goes awry
The ball was snapped. Christian Ponder dropped back, looked left and delivered a high-arcing pass. Perhaps it would be Childs’ six-point reward for a solid first week of camp. Perhaps it would be remembered as a harbinger of what the 6-3, 217-pound receiver would bring to an anemic passing offense when he runs a go-route fade into the corner of the end zone against a smaller defender.
“I got a good release, I’m in front by 7 or 8 yards and the ball came,” Childs said. “I adjusted to it and went to jump to go up and get it. Should have been a routine catch.”
On the other side of the field, Wright noticed something unusual. And haunting.
“I’ve been with Greg my whole life and he didn’t jump as high as I knew he could,” Wright said. “I thought to myself, ‘What’s wrong?’ Then I could hear the screaming from the other side of the field. That was tough because I was with him at Arkansas when I heard him scream like that the first time.”
That was 2010, their junior year at Arkansas, when Childs ruptured his right patellar tendon, which controls the four quadriceps muscles and extends to below the kneecap, where it is attached to the shinbone.
This time, the scream and the injury would be twice as bad. Literally. Both patellar tendons ruptured.
“This time, I didn’t even get off the ground on my jump before I heard a pop and felt both pull apart,” said Childs, who lost both knees on a play in which he wasn’t even touched. “You go into shock, but first it’s a terrible pain. And then you can’t move your legs because there’s nothing connecting them together anymore.”
Don’t compare injuries
Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman was among the first to assist Childs that Aug. 4 evening. Nineteen years earlier, Sugarman was an intern with the Chicago Bears when receiver Wendell Davis ruptured both patellar tendons when he got his feet stuck in the notoriously bad Astroturf at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
“From our research, there have been two or three other guys who have ruptured both on the same play,” Sugarman said. “But I don’t think you can predict what’s going to happen because the science is changing all the time. Surgical techniques get better, the athletes are different, the rehab techniques are different. You can use the history to give you an idea of the success rate, but you can’t make a determination on that because it’s not fair to the athlete, the physician, the club, the athletic trainer.”
Davis missed the 1994 season and tried to make a comeback with the Indianapolis Colts in 1995. He never played another down in an NFL game.
In 2006, Cleveland Browns cornerback Gary Baxter suffered the same injury. He tried to come back in 2007 but was released and never played another down in an NFL game.
In fact, as far as anyone can tell, no one has ever played in an NFL game after suffering this injury. But Childs seems unfazed.
“I’m the kind of guy who is going to make this believable,” Childs said. “People are going to be like, ‘OK, we believe now.’ ”
‘I broke down’
Wright ran that final snap of the scrimmage, stayed for the post-scrimmage huddle around Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and then beelined it to the trainer’s room.
“When I tried to go into the room, they said they were still inspecting him,” Wright said. “I took my shoulder pads off and waited. About 30 minutes later, someone came out and said he tore both this time. I broke down. Words can’t explain how bad I felt.”
Childs’ surgery with team physician Joel Boyd was scheduled for the following Monday night. Sunday would be spent back in the Twin Cities, mostly in pain, staring at grotesquely puffy knees “the size of cantaloupes” as his mother, Carla Gregory, and father, Greg Sr., tended to him after a morning flight from Arkansas.
Saturday night would be spent in a Mankato hospital getting a magnetic resonance imaging exam and returning to his dorm room for a long night of thinking about what had just happened. Naturally, Wright was his roommate.
“I’ll be honest, he didn’t take it that well,” Wright said. “But who would? I kept telling him God has a plan. To his credit, it only took a day or two before he came to me and said, ‘It’s over with, man. I’m ready to do what I got to do to get back on the field.’ ”
Since then, the combination of Childs’ upbeat attitude, relentless work ethic and eternal smile in the face of what could be depressing, retirement-inducing odds has been one of the wonders of Winter Park.
Same thing, day in, day out
From the time he was injured until about a month and a half after his surgery, Childs had to keep his legs perfectly straight. He spent two days in a hospital bed and then wore braces to ensure that his knees didn’t bend while recovering at home.
“Even going to the bathroom, it’s terrible,” he said. “When you stand up, the blood rushes to your calf muscles and feet. And you have the swelling in the knees. It’s painful just to stand up. It takes a lot of focus to tell yourself it’s only temporary.”
When Childs was a little too stir crazy, you-know-who was there to play a video game, to talk or offer a ride.
“He couldn’t drive, so getting him out in the car the first time was like the happiest day of his life,” Wright said. “We couldn’t go to the mall because he couldn’t walk that much. But we did go to Walmart for something.”
Childs’ pain medicine also made him nauseated, which didn’t help as his weight plummeted to 180. But nothing compared to the pain that arrived when it was time to start bending his knees again.
“It’s not like you just wake up and start bending your knees all at once,” Childs said. “Normal range of motion is 135 degrees. I’m at 145 now, which is great. But you spend an entire week trying to get just another 10 degrees of range back.
“And I can’t even describe the pain. Breaking down that scar tissue is the most pain I’ve ever felt, including the injury itself. It’s crazy because it feels like you can’t bend your leg no matter how hard you push. But I’m on like a military schedule. Work out. Eat. Sleep. Get up and do it again. Same thing. Day in, day out.”
Playing piano can wait
If he didn’t play football, Childs isn’t sure what he’d do. But that’s only because he can’t decide on just one thing.
“I like to work out, so I could be a fitness coach,” he says. “I like to play my piano for the church, so I could play the piano. I like to build things. When I was younger, I used to remodel houses, so I can put up shingles, do insulation, sheet rock, paint, make you a porch. I might even become a police officer.”
But that will have to wait. Today, Childs is up to 225 pounds and “lifting crazy weight, like lineman weight.” His single-leg press has gone from 45 pounds in December to 225. His double-leg press is over 500 pounds, up from 135 in December. He is running and cutting, although he still hasn’t been cleared to participate in team practices and probably won’t be for some time.
That hasn’t deterred Childs. He works out and rehabs at Winter Park about 5½ hours a day. While teammates, coaches and just about everyone else escaped the harsh winter at some point, Childs stayed. In fact, there were times when the only two people in the building were Childs and team assistant trainer Matt Duhamel.
“Greg could have just went off into never-never land and never been seen again,” Sugarman said. “It happens. But this guy is the complete opposite. He has said since Day 1, ‘Here’s the research, no one’s ever come back from it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t.’ He does everything we ask and exceeds it. How can you not root for the kid?”
Sugarman is careful not to discuss specific benchmarks for Childs or when he might be allowed to return to the practice field. The Vikings have prepared their roster as though Childs will never play another meaningful down, but General Manager Rick Spielman did make a point to tell Childs the night of his injury that the team will exercise patience with him.
“Just like all of our guys, we’re not going to put him on the field until he’s safe and able to protect himself and not be in harm’s way,” Sugarman said. “We don’t know when that’s going to be. But we do know that he’s met all the protocol benchmarks to date and is doing probably as well or better than we had expected to this point. We’ll just keep following the protocol and hope that he has a great result.”
Childs says he is confident that it will be better than great. A man of deep faith, he is expecting historically great because, as he says, he isn’t ready to be Wright’s ex-teammate anytime soon.
“One day, when this happens to other guys, they’ll have a guideline to go by,” Childs said. “They’ll be able to say, ‘OK, just because I tore both of mine, look at that guy Greg Childs. He worked his butt off and did what they said couldn’t be done.’ ”