Lyle Cain had sweated through everything he owned.
His hands, in fact, were so sweaty that Alabama’s team doctor was having trouble doing his job, which, at the time, was to slip DeVonta Smith’s dislocated right index finger back into its joint. Cain’s hands were wet enough that he needed gloves, but in this small, stuffy, inflatable medical tent erected on the Crimson Tide’s sideline, there existed only one pair of gloves—the ones Smith wore to catch 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of the national championship game.
“Here,” Smith, in immense pain, his finger dangling out of its joint, told Cain, “use mine.”
As all this was happening, the sideline medical tent was the focus of national intrigue. After all, let’s look at the situation. Inside the tent was the Heisman Trophy winner who had left the game while having one of the greatest performances in the history of college football title bouts.
Every now and then, a person would leave the tent and then return to it. An Alabama staff member stood outside of its closed entrance standing guard like a sentry. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes passed.
Where was DeVonta?! What was going on?!
The world stood mystified.
Inside, it was a cramped, hot mess. Cain, two of his top assistants, team trainer Jeff Allen and Smith were huddled together with the sole purpose of fixing the finger. Smith insisted on returning to the game immediately. He even eschewed a numbing shot. Expecting to return to the field, he did not want to attempt to catch passes with a tingly hand.
Everyone was dripping in sweat, Cain most of all. With Smith biting into a balled-up towel in pain and his two assistants holding down the player’s arm, Cain worked for nearly 25 minutes attempting to pop back in place a finger that hung somewhat loose. Smith got the finger caught in an Ohio State player’s jersey on what would be his final play. It was bent backwards where the base of the finger meets the palm.
“We were basically in the tent trying to do everything we can to get him back in that game. Hated it didn’t work out,” Cain says in an interview with Sports Illustrated on Thursday. “It was a struggle. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been at the university for 20 years and have dealt with a lot of other teams and athletes, including at the professional level. He’s as tough a kid as I’ve ever seen.”
Smith’s dislocation was severe enough that a simple fix wasn’t possible. At some point, after nearly a half hour inside the medical tent, Cain told the receiver the bad news, and they walked him to the locker room for X-rays. Earlier this week, Smith underwent surgery, somewhat of a rarity for a dislocation.
But his future prognosis is strong. Doctors expect his finger to have full functionality.
“It had a rare variation where it wasn’t able to be put back in without having surgery, which is pretty uncommon,” says Cain, who also serves as an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist with Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center.
Smith’s injury was one of many that Cain and his staff encountered during Alabama’s 52-24 win over Ohio State on Monday night. There were enough bumps and bruises that Cain jests it would have been difficult for the Crimson Tide to play another game this season.
Receiver Jaylen Waddle’s condition drew the most scrutiny. Coming off of a fractured ankle during the Oct. 24 game against Tennessee, Waddle played in the game despite showing a noticeable limp. He finished with three catches for 34 yards, including a third-down reception that converted a first down. After the play, he limped off the field.
Doctors cleared Waddle to play. Though at times he appeared gimpy, Waddle could not do any further damage to his ankle, Cain says. The ankle was deemed to have healed completely.
“Ultimately, Jaylen decided to play,” Cain says. “There were some difficult optics at times after the runs. But if you watched him closely, he never limped while running. He ran well and fast. We had good GPS data in practice where we had followed all the variables. We knew from practice he was the same if not ahead of where he was before he even got hurt.”
And then came an injury to quarterback Mac Jones, who suffered what Cain says was a “deep bruise” to the side of his leg during the second half. He continued to play on.
“We talked in the fourth quarter. He was having a hard time getting around,” Cain says. “Most decisions we make on the field are (1) what is the injury, (2) is it safe to play and (3) is the guy functional enough to play. He was. We don’t expect him to have any residual effects.”
Maybe the most injured guy to see the field on Monday night was center Landon Dickerson, who tore his ACL a month prior. He suited up and even went through warmups with the team. However, doctors would not clear him despite Dickerson’s insistence on playing.
In fact, in Alabama’s semifinal game against Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, Dickerson showed up five days removed from ACL surgery capable of activities that stunned doctors. He could jump and even jog, things that athletes in his situation wouldn’t normally do for another several weeks.
“Landon is a very unusual athlete,” Cain says. “We do dozens of ACL (surgeries) a year on high level athletes. Most people that were at the stage Landon was at—20 days post surgery—are pretty disabled. They’re on crutches and in a brace, just learning to put weight on it and walk on it. It’s a slow arduous rehab process. Landon showed up in Dallas trying to convince me to let him play.”
Cain made a deal with Dickerson. He couldn’t play in the semifinal or the championship game, but if Alabama was ahead by enough to get into the victory formation, Dickerson could take the snap. And that’s exactly what happened Monday night.
By that time, as Dickerson jogged onto the field to deliver the final snap of the 2020 season, Cain had cooled off from his “sauna-like” experience inside the medical tent. He got to enjoy the Tide’s sixth national title in the last 12 seasons.
He got some new gloves, too, to go along with a memorable and somewhat excruciating 30 minutes inside that inflatable tent—maybe the most intriguing half-hour of a blowout championship game.
“There was definitely some vocal stuff going on,” he says. “DeVonta was talking to himself. We were all talking to him and each other. A lot of discussion trying to get this thing where it needed to be.”
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