Making the Best of It: Holmdel Guard Jeff Harris Playing With Torn ACL
When Holmdel senior guard Jeff Harris crumpled to the ground on a lay-up attempt during a fall-league game in October, his worst fears were confirmed.
Harris had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing for the Hornets at Hoop Group Headquarters in Neptune on Oct. 26, which meant the senior season he had worked so hard to enjoy was now up in smoke. It also meant Holmdel had just lost its top returning player, one on pace to hit 1,000 points for his career.
“I was devastated,’’ Harris said. “I thought I was never going to play basketball again.”
However, Harris was so desperate not to miss his senior season that he started thinking the unthinkable.
“We talked to several doctors, who laid out all the risks, and my dad and I started doing research on athletes who competed with a torn ACL,’’ Harris said.
San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers played in a playoff loss to the Patriots in 2008 with a torn ACL, but it’s extremely rare in basketball because of the constant lateral movement required. Harris was cleared to be able to play by a doctor because Harris said there was not much more damage that he could do to the knee, so the opportunity was there if he really was going to try and do it.
“I thought he was crazy at first, but knowing Jeff for 15 years, I know he’s stubborn enough to want to do that,’’ said Holmdel senior forward Matt McDonnell.
“My parents had mixed feelings about it,’’ Harris said. “I know the risks, but I just try not to think about it. I just wanted to try regardless, even if I was only scoring two points a game.”
Harris approached Holmdel coach Sean Devaney and told him that he wanted to give it a shot.
“I thought deep down we would throw him in for a minute just to keep him active and feel like part of the team,’’ Devaney said.
“That’s the kind of heart this kid has, so I wasn’t shocked,’’ said senior guard Luke Mayell.
Wearing a big brace on his left knee, Harris had to initially overcome the natural tendency to hesitate while playing because he didn’t know what might happen when he planted his foot or made a cut. Practice became a proving ground to see if he could legitimately function in game-like conditions while playing with a torn ACL. He also had to modify his game from a slashing wing player who relied on athleticism to get into the lane to more of a catch-and-shoot guard trying to think one step ahead of the defense to get open looks from 3-point range.
“I actually didn’t feel much pain,’’ Harris said. “But it takes away my explosiveness, so this season it’s more about knowing where to be on the court to get open shots. My shot has really improved from the beginning of the season.”
Harris also worked diligently with Holmdel athletic trainer Makenzie Atherton, who was filling in for regular athletic trainer Shannon Davis while she was on maternity leave, and then continued the work with Davis when she returned. She gave him exercises to help strengthen his knee and treat it properly to be able to make it through the season.
"Jeff has been really diligent with the strength routines,'' Davis said. "He's really good about coming in for treatment, and we let him set the pace and let his body tell us when it's too much. He's definitely surpassed what most people would be able to do without an ACL.
"Sometimes I'm cringing, holding my breath on every cut and every rebound, and other times I'm completely impressed because it's not even like he's had six months to a year to rehab it. We're just thankful for every game he has out there, and we just want to see him finish his senior season."
“The first practice or so you’re holding your breath because you’re just waiting for him to fall,’’ Devaney said. “You don’t want a kid like that to ever embarrass himself because he can’t move. But after one practice, it was like if you didn’t know (about the injury), you wouldn’t notice too much. Then slowly but surely each day he became more comfortable with it.”
Harris began the season as a bench player, checking into the game against Monmouth Regional in the season opener and knocking down a 3-pointer in a win by the Hornets. It was a moment that didn’t seem possible only weeks earlier, and he only played a handful of minutes because of the pain in his knee.
“After our first game of the year when he got in and hit a three, it was emotional,’’ Devaney said. “You thought the kid’s senior year was gone. I thought, at least he had that, at least he was able to get into a game, but it just seems to have kept going from there. It’s amazing.”
The role envisioned for Harris was as a shooter off the bench who could help stretch defenses by playing about eight to 10 minutes a night. Meanwhile his parents sat in the stands, half excited and half petrified.
“I got a steal against St. John Vianney, and as I’m going in for a lay-up I can hear my mom yelling from the stands, ‘Be careful!’’’ Harris said before smiling.
His role soon grew to be much more than a reserve. By the time the Hornets played Manalapan on Jan. 13, Harris had remarkably moved back into his old spot in the starting lineup, boosting his minutes from about 10 a game to more than 20 per game. He responded by scoring a season-high 19 points, essentially on one leg, in a loss to the Braves.
“When he had 19, I was watching it, and it was like last year,’’ McDonnell said. “It was like a flashback.”
“A month ago I was talking about never playing high school basketball again, so to have that moment was amazing,’’ Harris said.
Harris has the option to sit out of certain drills in practice if he thinks it will cause pain in his knee, but Devaney said he has rarely missed time or begged out of anything.
“You’re having a rough practice and you see he’s out there working hard on one knee,’’ McDonnell said. “It keeps us going.”
While Harris has served as an inspiration for his teammates, he has had his own inspirational figure to look toward as he tries to gut it out every day. He requested to wear jersey No. 24 in honor of former Holmdel guard Timmy McDonnell, 21, Matt’s older brother, who wore the same number for the Hornets. Timmy is a student at Rutgers University who suffered catastrophic injuries when he was struck by a car near campus on Oct. 4, leaving him in a coma. The driver who hit him has been charged with driving while intoxicated.
Three different times, the McDonnells were told they might have to say goodbye to him because he was so close to dying. Timmy was treated at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick and then did more rehabilitation at the nearby Kessler Institute. On Jan. 14, he returned home to Holmdel to continue his remarkable recovery, as he is able to walk on his own and is working to regain his speech and memory after suffering a brain injury.
“I think about Timmy a lot,’’ Harris said. “What he’s gone through is unreal, and he inspires me to keep fighting every day.”
“(Harris) is one of my best friends and seeing him go out there fighting with that knee, representing No. 24, it means a lot to me and my family,’’ McDonnell said.
While Harris has had his ups and downs, from the 19-point game against Manalapan to a tough 0-for-6 shooting day in a recent win over St. Rose, he is happy just to have the chance to be out there. He was getting some looks by Division III programs before he tore his ACL, but said the injury means this will be his last season playing organized basketball.
“Each time he’s out there, you’re thrilled for him that he’s getting somewhat of a senior season,’’ Devaney said.
“It’s all about the mindset,’’ Harris said. “You just can’t think about it too much. I’m very good mentally, and I just didn’t want to miss out on this season. You work so hard thinking senior year is going to be a big season that I just couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch it go by.”