J-Mike took the hard road back from injury
By Tom Silverstein, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – When Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley scored his third and final touchdown of the game Sunday, there weren’t nearly as many people thinking about how he got to the end zone as those who were just happy he was there.
But up in Minneapolis, where Finley’s other “team” resides – the one that helped him get through the darkest of days the off-season – they were celebrating how far the young star had come since tearing up his knee against Washington in Week 5 last year.
Sunday against the Chicago Bears, just two weeks shy of the moment that changed his life, Finley was back.
“It’s so fun to see him, he’s so motivated,” said Josh Sandell, the sports medicine specialist who directed Finley’s rehabilitation. “He’s on such a mission. For four months, he was completely focused on rehab and training. He was a consummate professional.”
Finley may be best known for his touchdown catches and tweets – both of which are often eye-catching – but the back story to the 24-year-old phenom’s return from cartilage repair in his right knee is about the steps Finley took toward getting his life in order.
With the help of his agent, Blake Baratz, who not only befriended Finley but frankly told him all the things others wouldn’t, the immensely talented tight end embraced the concept of teamwork, trained like never before and overcame a debilitating injury.
“I would say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” Finley said. “I’ve never had a death in the family or anything like that. I never had to push myself so hard. People don’t know how hard I worked.”
Since arriving as a third-round draft choice in 2008, Finley often has been portrayed as a loose cannon whose self-confidence and unedited comments sometimes make the organization cringe, especially given the conservative tone general manager Ted Thompson has set.
Finley criticized quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the throws he made to him in the end zone as a rookie. He talked candidly about blowing curfew before the Arizona playoff game in ’09, got involved in the Super Bowl team photo flap, called Chad Ochocinco a “clown” and tweeted that he wished the Packers played Philadelphia this year because all this “dream team talk is killing me.”
This year, the Packers frequently have a public relations employee hanging around Finley during the locker room sessions open to the media.
Baratz said he understands that Finley needs to censor himself more, but he also pointed out that nothing Finley has said has been malicious or incendiary.
“People focus on why did he say this or that,” Baratz said. “A lot of those things are him growing up. Sometimes he doesn’t realize how big of a star he is. He only played two years at Texas and they blanketed him from talking. He doesn’t have a lot of experience with it.
“People are misunderstanding who he is. He wants everyone to like him.”
Repairing the meniscus
After Finley went down with the injury early in the first quarter against Washington, team physician Pat McKenzie repaired the torn meniscus. He could have trimmed and removed part of it and gotten Finley back on the field in a matter of weeks, but he did what was in the best interest of Finley’s long-term future.
The downside of it was Finley had to miss the entire season. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was playing on a Super Bowl team and would miss all of the thrills that came with it.
Worse yet, he developed a staph infection in the knee, which required him to have a stent placed in his chest so high doses of antibiotics could be pumped into him. The infection slowed his rehab and left Finley helpless to feed his competitive hunger.
Players on injured reserve come in for treatment before the rest of the team and usually leave before the others come back. Finley came and went before the others came in and had limited contact with the team.
“Green Bay in winter is cold and he’s coming off an injury, and he wasn’t around the team all the time,” Baratz said. “It was very difficult. It’s very difficult to go out there in great shape and your season ends in Week 5.”
Back home in Diboli, Texas, where Finley was raised by his grandmother, the atmosphere was not conducive to rehab. Baratz said in the recession-struck town Finley is a target for every person who once knew him and wants a handout.
Finley isn’t estranged from his family, but he’s careful with whom he associates and relies on his wife, Courtney, and his son, Kayden, for his family support. Baratz is one of the few others Finley trusted before embarking on a seven-month rehab frenzy.
Off to Arizona
Once the infection cleared, Baratz sent Finley to train in Arizona, where he could get around-the-clock attention so his rehab wouldn’t be neglected.
The knee didn’t respond the way Finley hoped and, with the lockout in full bloom, Baratz contacted Sandell, who employs a program that the U.S. Olympic training center uses. It includes several layers of treatment, including nutritional, physical and psychological.
When Sandell saw Finley, he was amazed at how little flexibility he had in the knee.
“He was very limited,” Sandell said. “I bent the knee and the two bones would bump together. There are a lot of compressive forces working there. It was serious.”
According to Sandell, the septic arthritis (the infection) led to arthrofibrosis, which is a condition where scar tissue forms and the ligaments and tendons tighten. If left untreated, the only remedy is more surgery.
Sandell said he was determined to get Finley healthy without surgery, so he formed a team that would treat Finley over a four-month period. It included respected personal trainer Bill Welle and performance coach Shaun Goodsell.
And then Minneapolis
All three operate out of Minneapolis, which meant Finley would have to spend a significant amount of time there. He surprised everyone when he moved his wife and son there so he could train daily.
“That was my question to Blake, ‘How long is he going to be here?’ ” Welle said. “He said, ‘Bill, he’s moving here. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he was like, ‘I said he’s moving here to work with you and Josh.’ ”
As Welle went to work on Finley’s body, Goodsell began counseling him on rehab, stress, trust and life in general. The two met regularly and talked about all the things going on in Finley’s life and how to deal with difficulties when they arose.
“He’s a young man that functions and strives and thrives under structure,” Goodsell said. “His finely tuned nature of athleticism is a byproduct of structured life and a very determined personality. He put his all into what he does.
“That’s even why the rehab process is so difficult, because when that’s stripped away you have to internally reorganize yourself. He did a pretty darn good job of that.”
The player who showed up late to meetings in ’09 never missed a day of rehab, training or counseling, according to all three members of his team. He attacked the rehab with such vigor that he was running in June, two months before expected.
With Welle, Finley would come in four or five days a week, twice a day. He’d do speed work and resistance running, upper- and lower-body weightlifting, cone drills and intense conditioning. It was a process, though, because when Finley arrived he was as out of shape as the couch potatoes who watch him on Sundays.
“The very first time we did 12 warm-up drills and he just had to jog out and catch the ball,” Welle said. “He was done. He was just fatigued.”
By the time they were finished rebuilding his body, Finley was able to run the 10-route “receiver tree” four times with only a 2-minute rest between sets. He ran the first two sets with a 20-pound weight vest on.
“I think he knew he needed to get back on the field and prove something to everybody, including himself,” Welle said. “He definitely put the time in and the work and he had a lot of blood, sweat and tears go into it.
“He’s definitely reaping the benefits now.”
The last part of the process was preparing Finley to play full-contact football again. The psychological part reigns above all because any finely tuned athlete needs to know all his parts are working the way they always have.
Goodsell helped prepare Finley for that day, which has since come and gone. Finley has advanced to catching touchdown passes, a trifecta on Sunday that will be hard to duplicate.
Finley hasn’t forgotten how he got there.
“The cuts I was making, I felt so light out there,” Finley said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never felt like this.’ I thought back to all those two-a-day workouts and not taking a single one off. Every day was a serious grind.
“But now I’m in the best shape of my life.”
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