CARY, N.C. – C.J. Williams should not have been at the NCAA Division III men’s tennis championships this week, at least not with a racket in his hands.
A redshirt junior at Kenyon College, Williams endured a catastrophic knee injury during an ITA event in the summer of 2008. He’d just graduated from high school in his hometown of Richmond, Va., and was ticketed for DI school Virginia Commonwealth University. He’d played tennis for very nearly as long as he could walk, and this was going to be the greatest leap of his career.
Leap? Williams couldn’t even limp after a condition known as osteochondritis dissecans – in which cracks form in the knee’s tendons and underlying bone — caused a chunk of his left femur the size of a ping-pong ball to break off and severely tear the articular cartilage. Weeks later, Dr. Bill Beach did a knee transplant in Richmond. He’d had knee surgeries before, but this was something far beyond those.
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During the three-hour procedure, Williams’ knee was drilled out and its bone and cartilage placed in absolutely the perfect orientation for them to grow together. The surgery was successful, but tennis was out, for good. Or was it?
“At first, the doctors told me that I flat-out wouldn’t play again,” Williams said. “But Dr. Beach is a phenomenal doctor. I think he was an athlete in college, but regardless, he’s a huge sports fan. He made my recovery a huge priority, and even in the rehab process, he was a huge support for my family. But, yes, there were definitely points when people told me I wouldn’t be able to play, and I definitely thought I wouldn’t as well.”
The surgery was performed in late July 2008 and he was back on the tennis courts in March of the following season. Physically, the long and laborious process of coming back from such a severe injury was hard, but the mental aspect of the process might very well have been even more difficult.
“It was more motivationally and emotionally draining,” Williams explained. “I just remember being in bed and waking up and wondering if I should get up and go do it (therapy). Physically, it wasn’t too tough. There were just a lot of things I had to do, and I had to do it every day.” As Chip Williams and Karen Knapp watched their son compete in the men’s tennis team finals, Karen could not help but have a tear or two develop in the corners of her eyes.
“Don’t make my cry,” Knapp said with a smile. “It’s just not something people come back from. This just doesn’t happen. He did it. He made it happen. I’m a surgeon. It just doesn’t happen. I know the guy very well who was his surgeon, and he’s so proud he could pop. He carries pictures of C.J.’s surgery around in his iPhone.”
Did Williams fully comprehend what he was up against? That’s a good question, according to his mom.
“He has been presented at medical conferences and been written up in medical journals,” Knapp said. “This just doesn’t happen, and C.J. doesn’t understand that. He has no idea what he did, and it’s probably just as well. If he knew the odds that were stacked against him, he might have given up. He never gave up … and we never gave up on him. Never. Never. That’s our family.
Rehab to walk again would have been difficult enough, but Williams was determined to play competitive tennis. He went after his therapy with a fierce focus. Red-shirted at VCU, he spent a second year putting his tennis game back together. He wasn’t playing much at VCU, and made the decision to transfer to Kenyon.
“The prediction was that he probably wouldn’t be able to play again,” Chip Williams said. “He immobilized for a month and then spent about four or five months on crutches with constant rehab. Of course, we love him no matter what, but it was hard to watch him because tennis was such a big part of his life.
“Suddenly, it was gone for quite a while. That’s the hard part as a parent. It really breaks your heart. He kept working, working and working and spending time in the gym. Here he is in the DIII national championship.”
For C.J. Williams, the road back from such a serious injury was obviously incredibly difficult.
“About six months ago, he was sitting on our couch and he said to me, ‘For the first time I can remember, I don’t have any pain in my knee,’” Chip Williams said. “You have to give all the credit to the surgeons, the rehab people and fitness trainers he’s had who pulled him back up.”
Credit is due to three more people. It goes to Chip Williams and Karen Knapp, for their support and instilling in their son the kind of tenacity that allowed him to overcome such long odds. And most importantly, to C.J. himself, for actually having the guts to go through with it.
Kenyon lost in the title round to Emory University, and as they prepared to pick up their second-place trophies, the Lords were studies in quiet disappointment. For one of them, however, it could’ve been worse.