Road to recovery a slow one for Hummel

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Still bleary eyed from a surgery he had exited only 45 minutes earlier, Robbie Hummel stared at the nurse in his room.

She told him the doctor wanted him to move his very recently repaired knee and that she would be bending back his leg.

Hummel agreed, expecting Florence Nightingale.

He got Nurse Ratched.

"I thought it would be slow and easy,'' Hummel said. "She just sort of slammed it back. It didn't hurt, but it made this disgusting squishy sound.''

And so began the arduous road back for Hummel, not with a bang or a whimper but with a noise that still makes him shiver four months later.

But the important part: That squishy noise signaled the beginning of a journey that is nearing its last curve. Hummel, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament Feb. 24, is progressing well and expects to be ready to go when Purdue's season begins.

And that is manna for a Boilermakers team still pining over an endgame that got away.

Purdue was rolling toward a possible No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament before Hummel went down, racking up nine wins in a row to improve to 23-3. But without him, the Boilers struggled to find their identity.

An ugly loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament -- Purdue managed all of 11 points in the first half -- pushed the Boilermakers all the way to a 4-seed. Although they did more than almost anyone expected in the NCAA tournament, their Sweet 16 exodus was a weekend earlier than many people expected before Hummel's injury.

"On the court he completes us as a team,'' coach Matt Painter said. "He really facilitates what we do. Sometimes you can't put into words what he does, but when he's not there, you can see it.''

Before each season, the Purdue basketball team has to run the mile. The goal is to finish in less than 5 minutes, 30 seconds. For two years in a row, Hummel -- an 800-meter runner in high school -- won the race with ease. But just to make sure he was in game shape, last summer he went home to his high school track and trained.

He ran the mile in 4:49.

A week ago, Hummel stepped on a treadmill for the first time since Feb. 24 and ran a mile.

It took him 10 minutes.

"It wasn't good,'' Hummel said.

There is perhaps nothing more mentally exhausting and physically belittling for an athlete than coming back from a major injury. For us normal couch potatoes, rehab is a Molotov cocktail of fear, pain and boredom. For an athlete, it is all of that with a heaping dose of miserable frustration to boot.

Each rehab of Hummel's Groundhog Day hell begins the same way: He steps up and down on a block of wood no bigger than a riser on a stair.

Down and up. Up and down. Left foot. Right foot. Right foot. Left foot.
"Welcome to my glamorous life,'' Hummel deadpans.

From there it is on to the court. While his teammates work independently, he works with athletic trainer Jeff Stein on gentle shooting drills. When the rest of the Boilermakers drag weighted sleds across the indoor football facility and sweat through other conditioning drills designed by strength and conditioning coach (and torture master) Greg Lehman, Hummel and Stein work on toned-down agility drills.

It is mind-numbingly boring to the point that when Stein has Hummel stand on top of a balance ball in a deep squat and catch a basketball, Hummel nearly turns giddy with the excitement of something different.

"He's always challenging me -- when can I do the next step,'' Stein said. "But it's just a gradual process. It has to be. You can't walk before you can crawl in this situation.''

While he's been waiting to walk, Hummel has been pumping the iron, putting himself in the strangest of crossroads. At 230 pounds, he is the biggest and the strongest he's ever been -- "I'm so tired of lifting weights,'' he said between sets late on a Tuesday afternoon.

But he's also the most out of shape.

He huffed and puffed his way through his on-court and conditioning sessions, watching with half-admiration and half-jealousy as his teammates did more rigorous exercises with considerably more ease.

"They aren't tired,'' he said while watching his teammates work out with Lehman, "but I am.''

When it happened, when his knee gave way in the first half of a regular-season game at Minnesota (a game, by the way, at which 27 family members on his father's side sat in the stands -- "They got to see me tear my ACL,'' Hummel said. "Great, huh?"), Hummel insisted he had broken his leg.

And then after a few minutes in the training room, he insisted he could play.

Hummel was wrong on both counts.

The bone-on-bone sound Hummel heard isn't unusual with an ACL tear. The ferocious injury is so cataclysmic that bones collide.

The fact that Hummel thought he could play not long after isn't strange, either. When the ligament shreds, the nerve dies so the pain subsides, masking the damage to the knee.

But his athletic trainer knew the truth, even if he didn't share it with Hummel immediately.

Hummel flew home with his team, fairly certain something was wrong but not completely sure how serious.

He got back to the room he shared with former teammate Chris Reid, who stayed on to work with the coaching staff last season.

"I actually tricked him into telling me,'' Hummel said. "He said, 'I'm really sorry to hear about your knee.' He thought I knew I had torn it, and I just asked, 'So what did Jeff tell the coaches?' and he said, 'That it's torn.' I just said, 'Thanks. I didn't know that.' He felt horrible.''

Not nearly as horrible as Hummel soon would feel.

On March 8, he turned 21.

Instead of celebrating with a toast, he was at an Indianapolis hospital having season-ending surgery.

Dr. K. Donald Shelbourne, considered one of the country's lead researchers on ACL injuries, performed the surgery. Instead of using a graft from Hummel's injured right knee to repair the ACL, Shelbourne took the patellar tendon, the strongest tendon in the body, from Hummel's good (left) knee.

The unique procedure stems from research 16 years in the making.

"Having a good leg and a bad leg, you end up playing at the level of the bad leg,'' Shelbourne said. "It doesn't make sense to take it from the already damaged leg. It just makes the knee weaker and makes it tougher to get back to normal. When you take it from the opposite knee, you rehab them both together, and our research has found people tend to recover more quickly and productively.''

The twin surgeries left Hummel with his and hers matching scars but the ability to delve into rehab immediately.

After surgery he spent a week at a hotel attached to the hospital where physical therapists and nurses had him rehabbing as much as three times a day.

"They're always surprised at how much they can do,'' Shelbourne said. "They hear all these horror stories from their friends. We want to show them they can lift their leg, bend their leg and have them start positive.''

Now Hummel is up to 90 minutes of rehab a day, four days a week, to go along with 60 minutes of strength and conditioning work and another hour's worth of weight lifting.

There have been predictable and frustrating hills and valleys, but Hummel has weathered most fairly well.

He's always challenging me -- when can I do the next step. But it's just a gradual process. It has to be. You can't walk before you can crawl in this situation.

-- Athletic trainer Jeff Stein

"He's such a mentally tough kid and so positive,'' Painter said. "He sees the big picture. I actually think he got over more quickly than everyone else did. He just moved forward and started his rehab.''

That was the first hurdle.

Enduring mundane rehab has been the second.

Now comes the third and most difficult -- convincing himself that he's OK. Hummel is currently working out with a brace, but when the season rolls around, it will be his choice. Some athletes, Stein said, like the mental security of the brace; others set it aside, seeing it as a reminder of their injury.

Hummel hopes to play without one but first needs to believe everything is OK. He could be cleared for full-contact basketball as early as next month, although with August just days away, Stein isn't in favor of putting out a timeline.

Regardless, one day Hummel will take the court, go up for a rebound and …

And what?

"I'm a little nervous because I hurt it doing something so simple,'' said Hummel, whose injury came when he slipped while driving the lane. "It's not like I was doing anything crazy, so I'm a little apprehensive. I want to fall down and get back up again.''

And finally get rid of that squishy feeling.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.