Sometime in July, Amari Rodgers began jogging. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal had he not three months earlier undergone surgery for a torn ACL. Tee Martin, the former championship-winning Tennessee quarterback, current UT assistant and also Amari’s father, could not believe what his son had told him. You’re jogging?! Martin is experienced enough in the college coaching industry to know that this could not be possible. His son, one of Clemson’s premier receivers, must be overstepping the bounds of a rehabilitation plan set by the school.
So he did what any parent would—he called the coach. “I’d text him, ‘Is he serious—he jogging?’” Martin says about his colleague, Dabo Swinney. “He’d be like, ‘Yeah, he’s progressing really fast!’”
A few weeks later, Rodgers began sprinting and then he began cutting on the right knee and then, in a stunner to medical trainers, he returned to practice during the week of Clemson’s season opener, five months after the injury. In the Tigers’ third game of the season (and Rodgers’s second), Rodgers achieved his rehabilitation goal of playing against Syracuse and vindicating a 2018 game against the Orange, one he refers to as the worst of his career. It was a dream-like result in Round 2: four catches, 121 yards and two touchdowns, including an 87-yard jaunt in which he caught quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s pass five yards behind the line of scrimmage, broke a tackle a yard later and then out-raced two defenders down the sideline for 94 more yards. He returned to his cell phone post-game to 130 text messages and 30 direct messages on Twitter.
This all happened 173 days or 24½ weeks after tearing his ACL during a spring football practice on March 25. The six-month anniversary of the injury was this Wednesday. That was the earliest date trainers had originally scheduled for him to return… to practice. “My goal was different than what the doctors said,” Rodgers says. “They said I wouldn’t be able to come back until the middle of October. I wanted to be back for Syracuse, and I wanted to make up for 2018, which I did, which was crazy. That was in my head while I was grinding.”
Rodgers’s recovery is somewhat of a medical marvel. According to a 2016 study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, the recovery time from ACL surgery averages about eight to 10 months. That can range, but it remains a mostly accurate average, says Steve Jordan, a Florida-based orthopedic surgeon who practices at the Andrews Institute and is an authority on ACL reconstruction. The ACL is a stabilizing ligament connecting the femur and tibia located on the inside of the knee joint. It is essential to pivoting. Once torn, the ACL can rarely be repaired but has to be replaced. In the traditional method, surgeons use a portion of the knee patella tendon to replace the ACL. Steven Martin, Clemson’s team physician, performed the surgery on Rodgers. “During the rehab process, we normally give patients questionnaires on how they feel, just the mental side of it. But I didn’t do that with Amari,” Martin says. “I asked him one simple question: ‘How do you feel?’ He said, ‘I’m Amari.’ I sat there and didn’t know what that meant. He said, ‘I feel like I’m normal. I’m Amari.’ I knew he was good.”
This week, top-ranked Clemson (4–0) plays what many might argue is the toughest game remaining on its regular season schedule, a road trip to meet Mack Brown and North Carolina (2–2). Keep your eye on the 5-foot-10, 210-pound slot receiver wearing the No. 3 jersey. He’s not supposed to be out there at all. “It sounds like the stars were lined up,” says Jordan. “He did great rehab, the surgeon did great surgery and his body responded.”
The first portion of Jordan’s answer—Rodgers’s incessant rehabilitation schedule—might be the most important. There were days this summer when he visited the training room for some kind of treatment three times. He’d wake up at 5 a.m. and join teammates for their 6 a.m. weight-lifting session, only upper body for him. After lifting, they ran sprints while Rodgers ran on an underwater treadmill. He’d then shower, eat breakfast, attend class and return for his official rehab session, which mainly included pain-staking workouts with weights strapped to his right ankle. He’d then leave for lunch and return for massage-like treatments to the knee. He did a version of this five days a week from mid-April through July. And he wasn’t alone. The man who holds guilt for the injury, safety K’von Wallace, often met him in the training room for those sunrise sessions.
“Going through that with him was very important for me,” says Wallace, a senior. “I had to make up… I was the reason it happened.” On the first practice back from Clemson’s spring break, Rodgers and Wallace were locked in a one-on-one passing drill. As Rodgers broke on a dig route, Wallace physically pressed him, shifting the receiver’s body weight to his right side, his plant foot. The artificial turf didn’t give—the knee did. “I knew right away,” Rodgers says. “I was broken down. I was crying.” Wallace still feels guilty about the incident. Don’t try to convince him otherwise. “A lot of people say, ‘It’s the game, not your fault,’” Wallace says. “I felt like it was my job and duty to be there for him.”
Out of a debilitating event came a closer friendship. The two were tight even before the injury, but “now we’re like brothers,” Rodgers says. They even roomed together during a religious retreat in Florida in July. That’s around the time that Rodgers shocked those around him by starting to run. “I’d never heard anybody returning that fast,” says Wallace. For Rodgers, he never thought he’d not meet his self-made deadline date: the Syracuse game. He mostly kept that goal private, not even informing the Clemson coaches or medical staff. There is one person who did know: Tee Martin. “Before he had the surgery, he told me, ‘I’m not going to miss a game.’ I said ‘Son, I don’t know if that can medically happen,’” says Martin, in his first year as the receivers coach at Tennessee.
Rodgers began researching players who made a swift comeback from ACL injuries, learning the details of their stories and following the method. A great sign appeared one day after surgery when he showed up in the Clemson training room without any swelling or bruising on the knee. The medical staff couldn’t believe it. The body’s reaction to surgery has maybe the most impact on recovery time, says Jordan, a former 25-year team physician at Florida State who has performed hundreds of ACL surgeries. During surgery, a strip of the patella tendon is removed from the kneecap before being inserted to replace the ACL. The rate at which the body accepts the patella tendon’s new location can dramatically accelerate or slow a player’s return. “We’re taking a tendon and it’s becoming a ligament,” says Steven Martin. “The body has to give it a new blood supply. It can take up to 18 months for that to happen.”
Rodgers’s quick acceleration is a best-case scenario. Martin is humble in discussing his role in Rodgers’s recovery. “There’s nothing we’re doing magical,” he says. “We don’t do anything differently than anybody else. It’s pretty much the same. It’s not like I have some secret method. It’s Amari.” But there is something he’s not telling you. Doctors are constantly exploring new ways to expedite the repair and recovery of ACL tears. In fact, at the Andrews Institute, there is an on-going research study on using stem cells in the surgical process. The results are incomplete. Clemson team physicians have been using stem cells in the surgical process for about five years, Martin admits when asked specifically. Do they know for certain that they speed up recovery? No. But they aren’t hurting it.
During Rodgers’s surgery, before attaching the patella tendon as the new ACL, Martin soaked the tendon in liquid containing stem cells excavated from the player’s bone marrow. He also injected stem cells at four different locations during the attachment phase. He did the same with former quarterback Deshaun Watson’s ACL surgery four years ago. Coincidentally, a few days after Rodgers suffered his injury, guess who FaceTimed him? “He told me to keep my head up, stay strong and it’s going to be alright,” Rodgers recalls the conversation with Watson, now quarterback for the Texans. “He told me I’m going to come back better than I was before.”
Rodgers had all the right ingredients for a quick return, and that includes a support team. From medical staff members who assured he wasn’t doing too much too soon to a football-coaching father and an extended family by his side. Rodgers has two sets of parents. He grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the home of his mother and stepfather with a younger half-brother. Rodgers was born as his dad’s six-year pro career began in 2000. Tee Martin was very much in his son’s life. Little Amari attended a Steelers game as an infant and watched dad play for the Raiders as a 4-year-old. Through his dad’s 15-year coaching career, Rodgers visited him, his stepmother and their two boys. “I love all four of my parents–they’re all my best friends,” Rodgers says. “There’s no feud.” This is a unique situation that got even better this offseason. Both of Rodgers’s families are now based in Knoxville, with Martin’s three-season tenure as USC’s offensive coordinator ending in November.
Rodgers was actually committed to the Trojans before switching to Clemson as a high school junior. He ditched the original plan—to play for dad—once everyone realized the nature of the coaching business: dad might not be there in a couple years. “I knew I wasn’t going to be there,” Martin says. “I didn’t want to not be there and leave my son stranded. And so he opened it up to some place he’d be happy and closer to family. We’d gone through three to four head coaches at USC. We were changing athletic directors. Going through a lot of different stuff. In our business, when you change ADs, that normally means the staff is soon to come.” It was a premonition. In what would have been Rodgers’s sophomore season in LA, USC coach Clay Helton fired Martin in a move tied to his own job pressure.
Even though he’s not coaching his son, Martin is… coaching his son. The two talk often, and Martin records all of Clemson’s games. Rodgers even sends practice tape to his dad. “There hasn’t been a rep I haven’t seen him take,” Martin says. That includes his son’s highlight-filled game against Syracuse and will include this weekend’s game at North Carolina. Tennessee is off this week. Martin will be in the stands, watching a kid who most expected to have been barely running by now, let alone playing in a college football game. Rodgers isn’t just back, but he says he’s faster, too, a chilling nugget for teams that must meet the defending national champions, their all-star quarterback and trio of NFL-ready receivers. Rodgers is different from wideouts Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. He’s six inches shorter than them. In fact, he says he’s the shortest player in the receivers room by about three inches. “He always feels like he’s overlooked and undersized,” says Wallace.
Maybe that’s what motivated Rodgers through that rehabilitation process—those early mornings and late nights, stuck in Clemson’s training room—or maybe it was something else altogether. “I want to be that story kids can look up to, look up to me when they go through something like I did and know that it will be OK,” he says. “It’s about your mindset and how, if you have the right mindset, you can definitely bounce back and come back stronger than before.”
So, yes, he was jogging in July, running in August and playing football in September. Why? He’s Amari.