From 'impossible' to the 'process,' understanding Isaiah Oliver's ACL recovery

Isaiah Oliver (with ball) is flanked by Erik Harris, who lent him advice after his own recovery from a torn ACL. John Bazemore/Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Isaiah Oliver stood beyond the end zone inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in June, the place where eight months earlier so much of his career and future appeared altered. Where the Atlanta Falcons' cornerback went from having a breakout 2021 season in a contract year to having everything become an unknown.

It was there, not far from where he was talking, that he was carted off the field after a season-ending, surgery-requiring torn right ACL against the Washington Commanders.

The path from Oct. 3, 2021, to June 3, 2022, when Oliver was in the stadium participating in an organized team activity, was long and arduous. For a while, Oliver wasn’t sure what to believe in terms of his own health, confidence and future.

“It was a lot to really understand, a lot to really grasp at the time,” Oliver said. “And it just seemed like it was going to be impossible to get back to where I was at.”

The impact of a torn ACL on future career prospects has changed over the years, thanks to advancements in science, medicine and training regimens. But when it happens to a player in the moment, he doesn't necessarily think in those terms. It takes processing.

Oliver, once he knew the diagnosis, went to Los Angeles and had his surgery performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, one of the preeminent orthopedic surgeons in the country. Going to ElAttrache was Oliver’s first piece of confidence, because he knew how others had recovered following his work.

After the surgery, Oliver chose to return to Atlanta. Struggling to cope with the injury lessened because he put himself around his teammates during his rehab.

Those same teammates who realized Oliver is invaluable to Atlanta’s defense.

“Sometimes you don’t recognize how good things are until you lose it, right?” safety Erik Harris said. “It was one of those situations. I wouldn’t say we took him for granted.

“But it was one of those things where everything is flowing well, he’s in there, he’s making calls, he’s getting people lined up and all of a sudden he’s gone.”

Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees tried to replace Oliver with a multitude of situational-dependent players: Harris and rookies Darren Hall, Richie Grant and Avery Williams. None played slot corner as efficiently or completely as Oliver, a spot at which he still was learning the nuances when he tore his knee.

Harris understood Oliver’s situation. In 2016, Harris tore his ACL midway through the season. So he dealt with the same rehab and the same questions. Oliver and Harris spoke often -- Harris, then in his first season with the Falcons, had developed into a team leader -- and Harris opened up to him about his own struggles going through recovery and rehabilitation.

He offered advice about how things might feel, like if Oliver didn’t trust some give in his knee or if the knee wasn’t loading correctly for certain exercises. He suggested Oliver watch highlights from the first three-plus games of the season, where he had 11 tackles, three passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Use that to remember the player he was pre-injury and would become again.

Oliver’s wife, Drianna, did “a lot” and was a constant supporter and caretaker. Teammates sent consistent text messages.

They’d ask him for advice, kept him in the group text messages and told him they missed him. Those little things helped a lot. Even hurt, Oliver texted "Let’s Go Boys" or "Let’s turn up" before games. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins would respond telling him, "Wish you was out here, we’re going to do this for you."

“Just make sure you’re keeping him right and in a good head space,” cornerback A.J. Terrell said. “And just letting him know that we got him and just taking care of his body and get back as soon as possible.”

For six weeks, Oliver was on crutches. Coming off them was another issue, another small step of having to re-believe in himself.

“Those first few weeks, just imagining running at that time was, like, impossible,” Oliver said. “So to play football was just a whole other level. Then you slowly get your confidence back, the knee starts to feel more normal, things like that.”

Three-and-a-half months post-surgery, Oliver started running. It felt different because he hadn’t done much of anything on the leg for months. But slowly, recovery happened. Teammates continued keeping him involved.

As he rehabbed, Oliver started to think of the future. Initially, he viewed the injury as a missed opportunity in a contract year. Atlanta, knowing how integral he was to the defense last season, remained interested.

They gave him a chance to return -- one Oliver wanted because of how he played pre-injury.

“I essentially get, like, a redo,” Oliver said. “That’s kind of how I look at it. I get that year over again, being in the same system with the same team and the same guys.”

He’s slowly getting back to where he was. He participated in some individual drills during offseason workouts and continued his rehabilitation. Terrell said Oliver appears confident planting on his leg.

Running and movement, Oliver said, felt more natural in May. Falcons secondary coach Jon Hoke, who has seen multiple players over his four-decade career come back from injury, said Oliver’s footwork has been encouraging. While he’s not fully back yet, Hoke “can see the significant growth” every week.

Oliver still is working on trusting everything, but he understands now it’s not impossible, merely a process. June inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium was a step. Another will come in July when training camp starts, and yet another when he plays in a game, makes a cut, a tackle. Each milestone will move him closer to the player he was before and believes he can be again.

“There’s no secret sauce to make it heal faster. It just takes time,” Oliver said. “But then at some point it’s going to be healed.

“It’s understanding the way our bodies work.”