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Rewriting Achilles? Sirk rebounds from third injury

Indiana Duke Pinstripe Bowl
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Indiana and Duke players look at Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk, center, after he was injuried during overtime of the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015. Duke defeated Indiana 44-41. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Thomas Sirk is still standing, and he might be more ready for battle than ever before.

Poised for a joust to become East Carolina's next starting quarterback, Sirk carries fresh memories of painful interruptions to his career after being felled by two serious Achilles tendon injuries, including one last offseason that derailed his senior season at Duke.

Each ordeal proved to be a different learning experience, and despite his injury history Sirk, a graduate transfer, firmly believes his college finale with the Pirates will be his most memorable. Perhaps it is because he now knows how big a factor determination is in Achilles recovery.

“At times, physical therapy and rehab can get very frustrating, but I think that you already have to know in your mind and tell yourself that this is what it's going to take for me to come back and be better than I ever was before,” Sirk said of his slow but steadfast return from his second Achilles injury, giving him a tear on one side and a rupture on the other in his career. “For me, when this has happened, both times I told myself that. That's what I told my doctors and my physical therapist up front.”

Sirk said recovery largely came down to making sure those doctors and therapists were as hell-bent as he was about healing.

The difference this time is the quarterback who had a dazzling junior season with Blue Devils is “listening to my body,” he said, and accepting that determination must have limits.

“I'm going to keep pushing myself, but I'm responding to my body differently than maybe I did last time so I don't push it too much,” he said, adding that he has worked on strengthening his core and his hips as an additional safeguard against re-injury.

Sirk said he firmly believes in coming back stronger than before with the right rehabilitation.

The comeback

That’s not just jock talk. Thanks to advances in therapy, there is reason to believe Sirk will be right.

“Oh yes, no question,” said Kevin Youngs, the owner of Youngs Physical Therapy who is also in his 10th year as a therapist for East Carolina athletes, when asked if Sirk really can be stronger after multiple injuries. “You hear so many times after the rehab process, after all the physical therapy that they’ve had, that they come back even stronger than before because we dial in on all those other muscles.”

Also true, Youngs said, is the notion that Sirk’s level of commitment to returning helps his chances.

“That kid is motivated and he is driven and he is focused,” Youngs said. “His work ethic is solid. When you have those characteristics, it makes it a little easier on our side. We give him the tools, and he’s driving the bus.”

Because the Achilles is such a large tendon and is connected so directly to the explosive part of running, a rupture or tear of it is a substantial bodily trauma. Pushing too much too soon in recovery can “impact the integrity of the tendon,” Youngs said, creating an even longer recovery.

He said the tendon weakens quickly if not protected early in its healing phase. The Achilles and the patellar (which connects the kneecap to the tibia or lower leg bone) are the two most critical tendons in terms of running, sprinting and sports in general. Those are the two, Youngs said, that “can make it challenging to get back” for injured athletes in many cases.

His goal is to analyze the athlete’s entire body after an injury, not just the injury itself. Youngs also noted that it is not uncommon for athletes like Sirk to injure both Achilles during their lives.

The transfer

The injury was most certainly a consideration for second-year head coach Scottie Montgomery, who was previously Sirk's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Duke. He made the dual-threat QB part of his now five-player grad transfer haul this offseason and perhaps had as much insight into Sirk's injuries as anyone when he did it.

“I had Thomas after an Achilles for a whole season, and I think he'll tell you that he wasn't ready to come back,” Montgomery said of Sirk’s first injury. “He pushed himself and he didn't listen to certain people who were trying to get him to do things a certain way. The year that I was with him after the Achilles, we basically forced him into doing a whole lot of nothing.”

The team had Anthony Boone as its starter at the time, and Montgomery said the coaches were able to slowly work Sirk back onto the field, as the ECU staff is doing now.

“It's a tough injury, but 15 or 20 years ago, an ACL was a tough injury and guys have an ACL injury now and play 10 or 12 more years,” Montgomery said. “We've learned a lot and medically, we've gotten a lot better, but we're going to use the information we have from the past and try to get him back on the field the right way.”

Testing limits

Sirk said he still undergoes daily treatment and rehab on his most recently injured leg, admitting that it initially required some mental healing as well.

From here on, his college football career will require purposeful but careful steps, both by himself and by the ECU strength and sports medicine staffs.

“It takes a long time to heal and the rehab is extensive. You have to be very careful working people back into full-speed activity. It's got to be a process, particularly with a quarterback,” said ECU strength coach Jeff Connors, noting that his experience with the injuries is limited.

When it comes to Sirk, an important factor is the passer's age and level of development. As Connors pointed out, the grad transfer is far removed from the initial college growth phase. Physically, he is not necessarily growing anymore.

“I'm not really worried about the quarterback being able to run full speed, as long as he can take a drop (back into the pocket) through the summer,” Connors said, adding that limiting the activity on a previously injured Achilles is a judgment call made by sports medicine staff and that he is currently adhering to that protocol with Sirk.

Connors said that while surgeries and recovery time have generally improved over the years with advances in medicine and technology, there is no quick fix for these injuries.

Too much too soon is always a concern, he said, and Connors understands Sirk is poised to play an important role on this year's team both as an athlete and a leader.

“Thomas Sirk is a kid that is advanced in relationship to his physical development,” Connors said, adding that Sirk's strength won't be an issue. “It's not as key for me to develop him. As far as full-speed sprint work, sprinting up the stadium (steps) and other things we might do in conditioning that requires a lot of change of direction and running, I don't think it's worth the risk.

“As long as he can do what quarterbacks do from a movement standpoint and stay in relatively good physical condition, I don't have a whole lot of concern,” he said. “The alternative is much worse. If he re-injured it again, he's gone. You can't let that happen.”

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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