Friday, January 11, 2008

Payment for a knee injury

Randy King

Randy King's Tech Insider is exclusive to roanoke.com and is posted by 5 p.m. Thursdays in season.

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There was one major upside to Sam Wheeler’s season-ending injury. At least, the Virginia Tech tight end snared a new set of wheels out of the deal.

In the only big catch he’s made since he shredded his left knee Nov. 1 at Georgia Tech, Wheeler was the happy recipient of a set of keys to a 1999 Silverado at Christmas. Wheeler’s father, Anthony, took care of the Santa Claus deed.

"Getting hurt had something to do with it," Wheeler said. "My Dad has done good and he’s kept me positive the whole time about my injury. Buying a car for me and just being there kind of helped out the situation."

Wheeler’s mother has been a major impact player, too. After crying most of the night of Nov. 20 at Montgomery Regional Hospital as her youngest of three children underwent surgery to repair the three major ligaments in his knee, Linda Wheeler went out and purchased a new bed for Sam to sleep on and recover in the family’s home in Blacksburg.

"When I got hurt, I went back with my parents for a couple of weeks so they could take care of me. I had been living with my older sister in a townhouse and was helping her pay the rent. My other brother just turned 30, so I’m the little one in the family."

Who says it doesn’t pay to the baby of the family?

"I won’t argue that," said Sam, laughing.

Of course, he also won’t argue it’s anything fun about suffering such a major injury. In addition to sidelining him for Tech’s final three regular-season games, the ACC championship game and last week’s Orange Bowl, Wheeler was on crutches for six weeks before finally being able to ditch them last Friday. Now he’s wearing a black brace on his knee. His total recovery time is scheduled to last anywhere from six to eight months, meaning he won’t participate in the Hokies’ spring practice drills.

"I’ve got like a whole new knee and they said when I get back that I will be stronger than ever," said Wheeler, a redshirt sophomore who started Tech’s first nine games. "I’m just eager and patiently waiting for everything to heal up."

Wheeler, who opened the season with a career single-game-high seven catches against East Carolina, had 15 receptions for 211 yards -- both surpassing his totals from his redshirt freshman season in 2006 -- before going down on the second offensive series of Tech’s 27-3 rout at Georgia Tech. Wheeler was engaged in a block on a defender when he was hurt.

"We ran a power play and one of the linemen, I guess, pushed his guy back and his guy fell and rolled, and kept rolling onto my my knee," Wheeler said. "I didn’t see it coming it all. It was just blind luck ... a freak accident. I just happened to be in his very path.

"It’s a physical game, and you have to be aware at all times because you never know when someone is going to fall down accidently or just bump into you and you get injured."

Wheeler said it’s the first sports-related injury he’s ever sustained. He never before had undergone the knife.

"At first, it was a big shock to me," Wheeler said. "I was hoping it wasn’t that bad. I was just hoping to be able to come back by end of the year. It was painful. Then when we got back home after the game, I got the MRI and they told I was done for the rest of the season."

Rendered helpless as he stood and watched on the sideline on crutches, Wheeler said it got tougher to accept as Tech’s offense began to flourish in November in its two-quarterback system of Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor.

"As we played the big game at Virginia and then the ACC championship game, it started to hit me even more," he said. "The emotion kept building up because each day I realized that I should be out there with them."

Classmate Greg Boone took over Wheeler’s starting role for the final five games, with redshirt freshman Andre Smith also getting some valuable time.

Wheeler said the timetable calls for him starting to run again by late March to early April.

"I may be to do a little bit, but now they’re going to take it easy to make sure my post-lateral ligaments are healed up all the way. I can do upper body [lifting], but nothing lower body ... the only thing I can do lower body is just ride the bicycle. Pool exercises and stuff like that would help out my knee, but as far as squatting and any leg press, I won’t be able to do that for a while."

Wheeler said after overcoming the initial shock of the severity of the injury that he has gradually began to learn how to deal with the situation.

"There is nothing I can do about it now, so I just should just go along with the process and wait until my time comes again," he said. "Hopefully, I can come back and that I don’t have another injury for the rest of my career."

Wheeler said being able to travel with the team to the bowl game helped his mind-set. He joined injured teammates Chris Drager, a freshman tight end, and redshirt junior linebacker Andrew Bowman among the walking wounded at Tech’s bowl practices.

"At first, I was concerned, but I asked about it and they said, ‘yeah, we’re taking everybody down there,’ " Wheeler said. "I was thankful for that. Being back in the cold weather of Blacksburg while everybody else was here soaking up the sun ... that was no way for a guy to recover, not at all. It was nice to get a little vacation in Miami."

Of course, he’s got a lot of work to get done before playing the game he loves again. How will his knee feel? Will he be just as fast and agile? Will he be skittish about making a sharp cut on his knee? Those are just some of the questions he will eventually have to face on the field.

In the meantime, though, he will have his own much-needed set of new wheels, at least off the field.

"I’ll be back, don’t worry," Wheeler said. "I’m hoping to come back even better when I hit that field again."

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