Christian Karl has spent the last year thinking about this Saturday. It keeps the Westfield senior up at night contemplating another Virginia state football title. He stares at the ceiling trying to hear the final whistle, imagining the last seconds ticking down.
Sometimes he catches himself watching “the play,” the one that shredded almost every major ligament in his knee. He still wonders how it all happened.
Saturday night in Hampton, Karl, who plays on the offensive line for the Bulldogs, will compete against Oscar Smith for the second straight year in the Virginia 6A state championship. This time, Karl wants to walk off the field with his Westfield teammates after defending their title — emphasis on walk.
The Bulldogs defeated Oscar Smith in a triple-overtime thriller in 2015, and after the celebration, Karl limped to midfield on crutches to get his medal. On the bus ride home with gleeful teammates, he sat with his left leg propped up, gazing at the medal he held close to his face. Waves of pain washed over him.
He didn’t care. He was a state champion, and trainers on the sideline told him his knee couldn’t been in that bad of shape.
In the third quarter, Karl, the left tackle, went to throw a block on a linebacker on a routine run play: twins open, 26 read. He and left guard Rodrigo Cordova Dominguez pulled across the formation as the quarterback and running back ran behind them.
Karl hit the nose guard. A running lane opened up. He moved on to the linebacker, chopping his feet in a staccato approach, arms outstretched, ready for contact. Then he heard what sounded like a firecracker go off, he said.
His left leg buckled. He fell to the ground.
“I knew just from that sound something bad had happened,” he said.
Karl looked down at his leg. His knee was pointed directly inward, almost perpendicular to the other. Trainers helped him hobble off the field. They told him it could be a bone bruise, that he’d be back in a couple of weeks in time for wrestling season.
After a goal-line stand ended the game, Bulldogs players poured onto the field. Coaches hugged. Karl sat on the bench in a mixture of awe and pain.
“I’ve only cried a few times in my life, but as soon as the whistle blew after that final play, I just lost it,” he said. “Even though the worst thing to happen to me in my life was my knee, it didn’t even put a dent in the best thing of my life, which was the state championship.”
When the pain didn’t go away, Karl finally got an MRI in January. It revealed ruptures to almost every ligament stabilizing his left knee.
His anterior cruciate ligament, the sinew that keeps the shin bone in place under the thigh bone, was torn. So was his lateral collateral ligament, which keeps the outside of the knee stable, and his medial collateral ligament, which stops the knee from over extending inward.
After surgery in February, Karl attacked physical therapy. It turned into his winter and spring sport. Instead of competing with teammates in the weight room, he measured himself against his exercises from the previous day. When trainers cut him off after a certain number of reps, he doubled them on his own when he got home or at the gym at school.
Doctors told him he’d be back on the field by the beginning of the season, maybe a couple games into his senior year. Physical therapists told him he may never play again.
The heck with that, he told them. By the start of summer training camp, seven months after a total knee reconstruction, he was cleared to play football.
ACL tears used to take close to a year after surgery to heal, said Ellen Smith, director of sports medicine at Emergency Medicine Associates and the team physician for Damascus High School.
But in the last two years, new, less invasive surgery techniques have cut rehab times by more than one third, she said, especially among athletes who have muscular strength around the torn ligaments.
Karl, though, had lost significant muscle mass during his recovery. He was out of shape when camp started and ached through two-a-days. He worried during drills his knee would give out again. Weeks before the first game, he wondered aloud to teammates about the worth of playing his senior season.
“My knee cost $60,000,” he told them. “Do I really want to risk it again?”
The next day, defensive lineman Zach Jewell pulled him out of the locker room before practice with more members of the senior class. Together they weighed the merits of returning to the field.
“We know its hard, but this is our last season together,” Jewell told him. The two have been friends since the fifth grade. “This is our last ride. If you can play through this, if you can do it, come back.”
Offensive line coach Dan Keating brought it up in the middle of practice.
“What does the trainer say?” Keating said.
“He says I’m fine,” Karl told him.
“Well then you need to trust yourself,” Keating said.
They spent the rest of practice discussing that trust, both in how sturdy Karl’s knee felt and the confidence he had that he could return to playing form.
After practice, head coach Kyle Simmons chatted with him in the parking lot.
“I noticed you looked a little down today,” Simmons said.
“I just need to get after it tomorrow,” Karl told him.
That moment, Karl said, was when he chose to play out the year. The next day, Keating moved him from tackle to guard, a less demanding position on the line. It boosted Karl’s confidence. He hasn’t missed a game this season, and after a rocky start to the year, the Bulldogs have won eight in a row heading into a second straight title game. The offensive line’s play has been critical to the team’s offensive surge in the playoffs.
Saturday marks two days shy of a year since Karl’s injury. He tries not to think about it anymore. All he can think about is walking off the field one last time, on his own terms.