In March, Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall tweeted photos of himself doing a backflip in celebration of the strides he’d made in recovering from a twice-torn Achilles tendon, declaring, “I’m back!”
Despite Hall’s exuberance, team officials sharply limited his participation in the optional workouts and minicamp that followed in May and June, restricting him to individual drills and light running as a precaution.
“Obviously I’m itching to get out there — new defense, new coaches you want to try to impress and show ‘em what you can do,” Hall said in a June interview at the Washington Redskins Charity Golf Classic. “But it’s just something you got to be patient with, so I’m trying to be as patient as possible. I’ve always told people I’m a freak-of-nature-type athlete, anyway.”
That drive, positive mindset and rare athleticism should serve Hall well as he attempts to reclaim peak form after rupturing his left Achilles in Week 3 last season only to re-tear it five weeks later, which forced a second surgery in late October.
What’s the prognosis for a 31-year-old NFL skill player with a twice-torn Achilles? Are Redskins fans likely to see Hall, a three-time Pro Bowl honoree, in the defensive backfield again this fall, whether as a starter or situational player, for what would be his 12th NFL season and eighth in Washington?
The Insider turned to noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Geier for a better understanding. Former director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, Geier hasn’t treated Hall but is well-versed in Achilles-tendon ruptures and rehabilitation among both casual and elite athletes.
For starters, the Achilles tendon connects the calf muscle in the back of the leg to the heel bone. As a result, it’s essential that it’s intact for an athlete to be able to jump or “push off” at the outset of a sprint or any explosive movement. While so-called Weekend Warriors can sufficiently recover from Achilles tears without surgery, professional athletes with any hope of returning to their sport undergo reconstructive surgery.
It’s a straight-forward surgery, Geier notes. The only period of vulnerability is the first month or so, when the tendon hasn’t fully healed. That’s the window in which Hall suffered the second tear, reportedly after slipping in his kitchen at home.
“Achilles repairs generally have a good success rate; they heal very well,” Geier said in a telephone interview this week. “And though we don’t have much data, I would expect the success-rate on a second surgery is good also.”
That’s the good news.
The harsh reality, however, is that “good” isn’t good enough for an NFL cornerback tasked with covering top-flight wide receivers.
Whether NFL cornerbacks or NBA point guards, the goal in treating pro athletes with Achilles tears is to restore them to the form they had before the injury. That can take up to a year.
Meanwhile, the Redskins have taken steps to bolster their cornerback ranks in case Hall doesn’t return to full strength, signing free agent Chris Culliver to a four-year, $32 million deal. The secondary was a major liability last season, with the Redskins allowing 35 passing touchdowns—most in the NFL—while snagging just seven interceptions.
Hall, who is signed through 2017 and due to earn roughly $4 million in base salary this year, re-worked his contract in February to improve his chances of returning for an eighth season. As it stands, his pay is guaranteed only if he makes the 53-man roster.
Geier pointed to a 2013 study of NBA players who suffered Achilles tears.
Conducted by orthopedic surgeons at Drexel University, it found that of 18 NBA players who tore an Achilles tendon between 1992 and 2012, eight (44 percent) recovered well enough to return for several more NBA seasons. Three came back for just one year. And seven (39 percent) never played in the NBA again. The average age of the NBA players studied was just under 30.
A similar study of 31 NFL players who ruptured an Achilles tendon between 1997 and 2002, led by Dr. Selene Perekh of the North Carolina Orthopedic Clinic, found 10 (32 percent) never returned to the league.
They are small samples, to be sure. But they’re relevant to Hall’s situation because professional athletes are a rare breed—outliers, compared to typical patients, in terms of their fitness at the time of injury and their commitment to the hard work of recovery afterward.
“The challenge for the [professional] athlete is getting strength back, then getting power and explosiveness back,” Geier explains. “That’s where it’s going to help if [Hall] is somebody who is dedicated to his fitness.”