By James MacDonald | Minnesota Wild | June 6, 2008 ST. PAUL, Minn.
-- Arrrghh, Donnie!!Kurtis Foster
’s exhalation on one morning in late May cut through the ambient din of a training bunker tucked behind the Wild’s dressing room. “Donnie” is Don Fuller, the Wild’s Head Athletic Therapist, and he had the long, still-broken left leg of his patient in his hands, holding Foster steady with his left while bending the defenseman’s ankle up and past 90 degrees with his right.
Foster, meanwhile, face down and flipping through a hockey magazine between takes of this show, held on tight to the underside of the table as Fuller repeated the process.Urrrrmmm!
The somewhat tortured and exasperated gasps, pleas muted by pride, athlete ethos and comic relief, echoed off the concrete walls and replaced all the other sounds in the room. No longer could a visitor be distracted by the hot tub humming nearby, the clanking from the weight room around the corner or the conversation of a few other players on a lighter rehab detail.
Grunting, the sound of rehab.
Fuller had prepared Foster for the idea of 10 of these presses, while Foster would have settled for something more like eight, which was his previous high. But Fuller looked forward to the injured defensemen setting another record for himself. Indeed, the therapist-rehabber relationship can be an interesting one -- full of chiding, support, trust, effort and, well, some suffering.
“His line is, ‘I don’t care,’” Foster interjected when Fuller was asked if he took any joy from this practice. The therapist’s aim is to safely rehab his players, not to appease them with the easy way out.
Pinches a little?
“I don’t care.”
Think you can’t handle another one?
“Don’t forget to breathe.”
Fuller clearly does care, deeply, and shouts out, “There you go, Fozz!” as he works past the comfortable limits of Foster’s flexibility.
Foster braced himself again. Fuller added a third round of tough love.
“Breathe,” he said.
Foster winced, managing to force out a How’s that?
along the way.
“Better,” Fuller said quickly. “Let’s go a little further … breathe ...”
Foster exhaled hard and collapsed quietly.
“Three,” said Fuller, keeping official count.Three!?! That’s four!
“No, that’s three,” Fuller said calmly.Shoot, tried to get you on that one.
“That’s good, the range is coming,” said Fuller, before mocking Foster with, “Hey, there’s a muscle there!”
The fourth repetition led to Foster accusing Fuller of being mean that day.
“Breathe. Deep breath, in and out.”Arrgghhh! K, that’s nine ... That had to be far ...
“Getting there,” said Fuller.
Isn’t that the truth. It’s not happening fast, and it’s not happening painlessly, but Kurtis Foster is getting better every day. By the time you read this, he will be much better than he was during the rehab effort you’re reading about, and by the time he makes his next public Wild appearance on June 12 at the Wells Fargo Wild Summer Bash in Rice Park, he will be even better.
The rest of the set continued through the give and take of Foster breathing harder and harder, being worn into admitting he hated the process, and that both his knee and head were hurting, while Fuller either cheered for him (“Got it going now, Fozz!,” “Nice, Fozz!”) or intentionally tried to throw off the count as the two of them worked so hard toward the same, incremental goals.
Nos. 9 and 10 brought Foster in for a smooth landing, and, after a few less taxing exercises, he was off to ride the stationary bike, followed by an upper body workout.
Not long ago, Foster could be fully drained by merely crutching his way across a room. By late May, he had broken his 20-minute walking record by going 30 minutes, which reduced him to a 6-foot-5 puddle of sweat. There on Fuller’s table with our audience, he had broken his range record by hitting 118 degrees.
* * *“Donnie pushes me pretty hard. What I’m doing right now looks easy, but wait until he has me on my stomach and he’s bending my knee. It’s not … fun.”
Other than boredom, which Foster dodges every day after leaving therapy, the Fuller press is probably the most arduous of the necessary individual pains to recovery.
And, truth be told, the rehabilitation of Foster’s left leg seems to be going as well as could be expected for a guy whose femur exploded when he crashed into the boards trying to touch an iced puck on March 19, 2008 in San Jose.
Yes, there is the dull roar of pain that he carries everywhere he goes. Yes, there is the wide, old-school scar on his outer thigh with the eyelets that look as if they could have been sewn together with shoelaces. There is the inch-thick metal rod, stronger than any bone, anchoring his knee to his hip. But there are worse lots in life, and Foster knows this.
His pain reliever has been dialed back to something most might take for a headache. And he will walk down the aisle for his July 12 wedding.
Almost until then, his job these days is to get well. The results are coming. Slowly.
“Every day, I can see improvement,” Foster said. “It might be three degrees. It might not be much, but there is improvement. It’s hard looking at the final goal and seeing that I’m going to get on the ice someday, but I know with how it’s going that I will. And that’s the good thing.”
Each weekday, Foster, owing to the fact he can’t sleep very well, is up by 7:30 a.m., and he makes way to Xcel Energy Center by 9. He eats, changes into shorts, then sheds his crutches to lower himself, by himself, into a hot tub. After about 10 or 15 minutes, he’s out of the tub and ready to begin his stretching routine on the training table. He begins by wrapping a towel under his left foot and sliding it toward his body. Foster then spends the next two hours on or near the table, stretching, chatting, grunting and playing the part of Fuller’s rag doll.
Conversation bounces all over the place, from draft picks (the Wild pick 24th overall), to video games (Foster’s getting pretty good at Mario Kart and picked up Olympic Games recently, even if the double-arm running motions look absurd to everyone who isn’t playing), to what a guy should do when a daughter starts dating (Fuller has a friend who introduced himself to a suitor with, “Jail isn’t that bad”). The atmosphere is light.
Light, but not easy. The day’s down notes include tedium and boredom, and its harmony is pain.
“Every step, it hurts,” Foster said. “And it’s a pain I can’t even explain. It doesn’t feel like someone’s digging a knife my leg; it’s that it doesn’t feel like it’s together inside. But it’s part of the recovery. I want to be back as soon as I can, so I’ll deal with whatever I can to make sure I’m back as quickly as possible.”
Quickly is an odd, albeit encouraging, word for Foster to use in a sentence.
He pulled up his shorts to reveal the scars and the scar tissue that raises the largest scar almost an inch off the surface of his outer thigh. He pointed to the middle of his leg and started drawing imaginary lines.
“It broke here, here, split down the middle and then there were fragments that broke off,” Foster said. “So it just, like, blew up.”
His femur, the thickest bone in the body, was replaced by the rod.
“They say I’ll be back and back to normal,” he said, “but there were days I thought I’d never play again, and it was tough. It really was. When you have a metal rod put in your leg, there’s a little bit of you that thinks you’re not going to come back.”
It wasn’t long after Foster crashed into the boards before he and the Wild knew this was a very, very serious injury.
“From when this happened, in surgery, and when we found out the severity of his injury, we knew it was going to be a long haul -- a long, hard haul,” Fuller said. “He has a long road ahead of him. He knows it. I think everybody does. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. It’s going to take months of rehab.”
For now, the rehab is all performed on one plane, bending the knee, walking forward, as twisting is still prohibited. Weight work is also strictly prohibited until his femur is fully healed.
Foster will find out where he stands on that progress after his next x-ray on June 16.
“At first, I was hoping the bone would be healed by then, because that will be about 11-12 weeks, but I’m really thinking now it won’t be,” he said more a matter of fact than frustration. “I’m thinking when I get back [from his wedding], which will be about 16 weeks, that’s when I think it will be healed. I hope to be walking by at least July 11, without crutches. I’m sure I won’t be too smooth or too quick, but I don’t need those [crutches] in the wedding pictures.”
At the very least, Foster will be among family and friends, whom he misses.
In addition to the physical pain, he is also haunted by the unfortunate timing of the therapy. Summer is a player’s time, his own time that makes up for being on the road so often, a time away from dictated schedules and broken cheekbones and a grueling game three nights a week. In other words, Foster would like to be with his friends and family, and his fiancée, who is spending long stretches of her summer doing the same.
“You play the year and you look forward to the summer, you know,” he said. “I look forward to family, to seeing my niece and nephew getting bigger, seeing my friends and being around. I love playing here and I love being here, but my friends and family are somewhere else.”
Instead, in addition to the weekdays he spends with Fuller, Foster works out with the Wild Director of Strength and Conditioning Kirk Olson, from 11-12:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. After lunch, he’ll change, fold himself carefully back into his car and spend the rest of the day trying to dodge the boredom.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and most Saturdays, Foster can be found working on the other phase of his therapy, making use of the underwater treadmill at a suburban pool.
“Mentally, it’s tough because I have to be here,” he said. “I’d rather be home with my family and friends, but I know this is my job and this is what I have to do -- to get better. It’s just dealing with the constant pain to get yourself better. It’s just tough. It’s ongoing and it’s every day -- and you know you’re coming in and it’s going to hurt. But it’s what I like to do. It’s a game I want to get back to. This is what I’ve done my whole life. You just recover and you come back. That’s the way it is.”
Fuller, among the people most intimately familiar with the ups and downs, and there have been both, to be sure, is impressed with Foster as a client.
“He’s easy,” Fuller said. “No problem. He wants to do whatever it takes to get better. He’s willing to do whatever. And it shows here. He’s in every day. I tell him what we’re going to do, and he doesn’t complain about it. He probably grits his teeth and hates me at times, but those are the things we have to do.”
Fuller is also cautious when he talks about when Foster might be back on the ice, or even running, or walking without crutches. The goals are still small, though no less significant.
“You can’t put a time on it,” said Fuller. “With how severe his injury was and what he’s going to have to overcome, I don’t think you can put a date on it.”
* * *"My nerves and brain were telling me it was moving. I was looking at it, and it was just, like, [still]. Something was up. I knew right away it was something bad."
Soon, Foster will head back to Canada for the better part of a month.
“I go home June 17,” he said before ticking off the summer wedding docket. A June 21 wedding he’s in, a June 28 bachelor party/wedding shower combo, another friend’s wedding July 5 and his own wedding on the 12th.
He’ll be rehabbing along the way, too, and Fuller will certainly look forward to Foster’s return. Even after a weekend away, Fuller notices progress.
“You see him again on Monday,” Fuller said, “and maybe he’s not limping as much, or you notice a little more muscle coming back.”
By the time we all see Foster back on the ice, and there is confidence in every camp that it will happen, he will try to pick up where he left off. At the time of his injury, the big defenseman seemed to be growing in to his own substantial abilities.
“I felt things were going in the right direction,” he said. “I felt I was gaining some confidence and they were gaining confidence in me. It was bad timing, but it’s part of the game. I can’t do much about it.”
He also recognizes, still, while things could have unfolded much differently on that evening in San Jose, he can’t do much about that, either.
It took him about three weeks to watch the replay of the events that took him to this place, and he hasn’t revisited it since.
“I’m sure he’s just trying to knock me off balance,” he said of Torrey Mitchell, the Sharks rookie who was also charging to the puck. “It happens. It happened. You just recover. It’s almost like it’s part of the job. To some people, this is the greatest job in the world, but there are pros and cons.”
This chapter in Foster’s life also places him in a position, whether he likes it or not, in the middle of any debate on the touch-icing rule. He is more than willing to talk about it and to give his opinion, but he does not want to become a poster boy for either side.
“I’m not going to advocate a change,” he said. “I’m not going to not come back if it doesn’t change, but I’m willing to answer questions and talk about it, as a discussion. I would like the rule to change, but when it comes to the first play like that [after he returns], I’m still going to go after the puck.”