May 6, 2016

Blog: The Long Road to Recovery

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Drew Willy (5) smiles after a play against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the first half of CFL action in Winnipeg Friday, June 19, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Your starting quarterback is one tough guy.

This is nothing new, and nothing I haven’t said before; let’s be honest, over his first two seasons here, Drew Willy has taken a beating. The quarterback has spent more time in Head Athletic Therapist Al Couture’s therapy room over two seasons than he should in a lifetime.

In 2014, while dealing with a shoulder injury to his throwing arm, Drew routinely went straight to the training room at halftime. Then the hellacious headshot he took in week one last season sent him right back to that training room. He wouldn’t stay down long that time and we all collectively drew a sigh of relief.

But then came August. That fateful game against Hamilton. The MAJOR turning point in our 2015 season.


Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Drew Willy, centre, grimaces in pain while an official calls for help from the sideline during the second half of CFL football action in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, August 9, 2015. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 38-8. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power


Was it inevitable? Drew never thought so. “I can take the hits,” he would tell me. “It’s part of the game.” Others may not agree. When Kyle, looking concerned, quietly asked me on the sidelines of Tim Hortons Field, “is that Drew?” while #5 squirmed on the turf across the field, we all knew it wasn’t good. Drew went straight to our locker room, where our doctors and Al began testing. The immediate fear was a torn ACL, as is usually the case with a knee injury. But the initial prognosis seemed positive.

“I think we are okay on structure here, Drew. Ligaments are solid,” Dr. Jim Longstaffe said while our franchise player lay flat on his back in severe discomfort. Between Al, his staff, and our doctors, a torn ACL or MCL can almost always be determined quite quickly and accurately. Because this had all but been ruled out following preliminary testing, we left Hamilton that night knowing it wasn’t good, but hoping for the best.

“When we got on the plane that night, we were pretty sure the ligaments were fine, which led us to believe his bone was affected, judging by the amount of pain he was in” – Al Couture

A day later, once Al confirmed Drew had suffered a Tibial Plateau Fracture (which is a fracture of the anterior portion of his tibia), he relayed the information accordingly. His daily meeting with Head Coach Mike O’Shea this time also included GM Kyle Walters and President and CEO Wade Miller, and he presented the situation to the three. He then began planning a rehab regimen.

Drew has often called Al the best in the business. Al helped Buck Pierce return to the game, making him the only professional quarterback on record to ever continue his career after suffering a dislocation and fracture in his throwing elbow. Drew knew he was in good hands.

I’ll let Al explain the rehab: “Because this is a weight-bearing area of bone, he had to be non-weight bearing and on crutches for the better part of four weeks. But the rehab pretty much started two weeks post-injury; that’s when we started in the fitness tub here at Investors Group Field,” he explained. “Aquatic therapy was a huge part of his rehab because the hydrostatic pressure of water helps with getting rid of swelling, and unloads weight-bearing structures. In other words, we could get him walking in the 5’ deep water much earlier than we could on land. It is also at this time that he started riding a bike (still in water with an underwater bike).”


Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Drew Willy, centre, is assisted off of the field after being injured during the second half of CFL football action in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, August 9, 2015. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 38-8. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power


Drew was in this tub every day for four weeks, and at the four-week mark, after making some progress, they began land exercises in addition to water therapy. Al tells me they used the large tubs in our training room throughout the entire rehab process. “We also used an anti-gravity treadmill when he was able to walk/jog at faster speeds. It allowed us to make sure his gait (walking pattern) was normal and he wasn’t developing any compensatory patterns,” he said.

One of the most upbeat guys in our locker room, Drew wasn’t himself after the injury. And that’s more than understandable. He would watch film like he was preparing to play every week, and do everything he could to help out the starter. It wasn’t the injury, the rehab, or the pain that had him down; it was not being able to be out there on game day.

“Al and his group were diligent in their approach and pushed me,” he told me during a break in training in Tampa. “It was a long process and the hardest part wasn’t anything I went through, but not being able to help my team. That is one of the most motivating factors for 2016, looking forward to being able to do that again.”

Al says he still monitors Drew, but that he is “healthy and ready to go as we speak.” I think I speak for everyone in saying I look forward to seeing #5 back out on the field come Mini Camp at the end of April.