In mid-October, a serious injury caught up with one of the best high school football players in the city. But now he is on the mend, thanks to a new clinic at Children's Hospital. Beth Schwinn, my associate, filed the following story about the clinic and one of its most illustrious patients:
The game was early in the season, and seemed to be routine for Wilbert Rice and the football team at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the District.
College recruiters were in the stands, but that was nothing new. Roosevelt is a frequent recruiting ground, and Wilbert Rice was a popular recruit. He was a defensive tackle, 6-feet-3 and 285 pounds, and the captain of the team.
But, while rushing the passer, Wilbert Rice was hit with a blind-side block by an offensive player. His leg caught in back of him, he felt pressure on his knee and he heard a cracking noise, like the sound Joe Theismann's leg made when it broke. Wilbert had to be carried off the field. His femur had splintered just above the knee joint, and his football future was suddenly in great jeopardy.
Wilbert speaks little about his prowess at football, but the schools recruiting him include some of the biggest "football schools" in the country: Ohio State, Clemson, the University of Miami, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State and the University of Maryland. "He's quick for his size, and he has a great attitude," said Roosevelt coach James Tillerson.
Within minutes of his injury, Wilbert was taken to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. From there, he was referred to Dr. Richard Reff, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children's, who had repaired torn ligaments in Wilbert's knee six years previously.
Dr. Reff operated on the injured leg to remove bone fragments. "I'm glad he performed the surgery," said Wilbert's mother, Shirley Rice. "It was such a relief to get someone with a specialty in sports medicine. We got someone who understood the game, and understood the injury."
Wilbert was one of the first patients to benefit from a new sports injury clinic at Children's Hospital. The clinic, opened under Dr. Reff's direction in August, is gradually increasing its caseload as the community becomes aware of it.
"We need the clinic because the child athlete is the most vulnerable of all to developing injuries which will lead to permanent problems. Not only are they vulnerable due to their developing bodies, but also because most available clinics are geared to the needs of the professional or quasi-professional athlete, or the executive," Dr. Reff said. He believes that for a child, rehabilitation that prevents a problem from recurring is critical.
From the first, Dr. Reff was concerned that Wilbert recover full capacity of his leg, and not risk injury by playing football again too soon.
"I have a dual obligation," Dr. Reff said. "What I did might prevent him from getting a scholarship. On the other hand, we treat patients for life . . . .Very few college players go on to pro football. It would be ludicrous to say I would be protecting him for pro ball."
During arthroscopic surgery, Dr. Reff discovered that the injury was not as extensive as he thought. Bone fragments had splintered from the femur when Wilbert's leg was pushed sideways during the block. "It's as though someone took a sledgehammer to a tile floor," Dr. Reff said.
Nonetheless, it was not clear whether the injury would prevent Wilbert from playing football -- and getting his scholarship. Shirley Rice, however, was not too worried about that.
"At that point, I didn't want him to be hurt anymore," she said. Her main concern was that he be able to walk and engage in normal activity.
Dr. Reff was delighted with her attitude. "Too often the emphasis on winning that four-year scholarship is so great that the rest of the athlete's physical life is thrown away. The potential professional athlete becomes a piece of meat.
"The responsibility of the professional doctor or trainer at a children's level is very different," Reff said, "not to patch an individual together for more play, but to treat the child so he can enjoy lifetime participation in sports.
"We're indoctrinated into professional sports. We read about 300-pound guys earning lots of money in pro football. They're glorified." But children "are in sports for fun. Injured children shouldn't be on the field. There's nothing glorified about playing injured and ending up being paralyzed."
The Children's sports clinic has received a great deal of publicity since it opened, part of which Reff attributes to Theismann's broken leg.
"Due to Joe's injury, there's a greater awareness of the importance of treating sports injuries, which is helping us," Dr. Reff said. "A lot of the people who saw him break his leg will never forget it. It's hard to reproduce a sense of pain in memory, but seeing that injury brought it back for people, and reminded a lot of people of how vulnerable we are."
Wilbert Rice returns periodically for checkups, and the news is good. Following the operation, there was no additional swelling or pain in his knee, and Wilbert does not have to wear a brace to walk around. In a recent checkup, Dr. Reff confirmed that Wilbert's strength is returning to his leg from the isometric exercises he has been doing with his mother's help, all of which keep the muscles from atrophying without stressing the knee joint.
Wilbert's immediate football goal is to play in the D.C. All-Star game next June. "I'll test you," Dr. Reff offers immediately. "You just come in and you'll know beforehand how much you're capable of." His mother applauds.
The Rices did feel concerned over the possibility that Wilbert might not play again, or that he would lose his chance at a scholarship. These fears were quickly laid to rest, however, as they notified coaches of Wilbert's injury.
"They didn't think it made any difference," Shirley Rice reported. "They were very knowledgeable about the injury and seemed to expect that Wilbert would have had an injury at some point." In fact, when a coach from the University of Maryland called, Shirley Rice began telling him about Dr. Reff's diagnosis. "He wound up telling me about the surgical procedure involved," she recalls.
There are two types of sports injuries, explains Dr. Reff. Both are treated at the clinic. One is tied to an event, such as Wilbert's leg injury. The other, more common, is an ongoing problem which causes discomfort while playing a sport.
"These are important in children because many such problems may be related to abnormal growth. Often, a child is not aware of a problem until he comes to the clinic," Dr. Reff said. As examples, he cites the recurring back pain of a gymnast, or the repeated sprained ankles in a tennis player.
Awareness of the limitations of children's bodies is also important. Dr. Reff stresses that adults must take responsibility for a child.
"One boy came in after using his head during a tackle in a JV football game," he recalled. "The emergency medical team on the scene confirmed that he had a soft tissue injury to his neck, which did not require bracing or transport, but stated that the child shouldn't play to both the boy and his coach." Even so, the boy talked his way back into the game.
Wilbert Rice hopes to play football in college, but he also wants to be in shape to throw shotput this spring. He lists engineering, communications and instrumental music as possible majors.
Wilbert hopes to go on to play professional football, but if he can't, "I just want to have my major." His mother comments that they will just adapt to whatever happens. "Things are too unsure to count on his continuing in football," she said.
"I do feel lucky," Wilbert says, "knowing that I'm able to walk and that I will have a chance to play football again."