Former FAU CB Keith Reaser's Road to Recovery Takes a Cruel Twist at the NFL Combine
By: The Football Girl | Posted: March 07, 2014
For draft prospect Keith Reaser, the Combine was supposed be redemption. An opportunity to shock the NFL world with his almost supernatural ability to heal.
Back on October 5th, the cornerback from Florida Atlantic tore his ACL in the fourth quarter of an Owls victory over UAB. Reaser described the play in a recent draft diary for USA Today:
It was a toss play. The fullback came out to try to cut-block me, and I fended him off, but not completely. He caught my leg and it got caught in the turf. I just felt two pops. Instantly, I knew something was wrong. It was this intense pain for 30, 45 seconds. It kind of went away, and I thought I would be all right. I didn't think it was anything serious.
It was serious, of course. The one injury in football where you instantly know the ramifications. Reaser says he cried immediately and for days after.
“I didn’t know if I’d be back, ever be 100%. It was real, real tough,” said Reaser from his home in South Florida.
Reaser’s road to the NFL, which had been promising, was suddenly filled with potholes and speed bumps. As a three-year starter at FAU, Reaser had five career interceptions and was a key cog in a pass defense that was ranked no. 11 nationally at the time of his injury. But it was his lightning speed and athleticism that made him not only a collegiate standout, but a fascinating prospect as he was to enter his professional career.
(Photo: Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports)
With an injury so debilitating, Reaser knew becoming a viable draft prospect would be a multi-step process. First was the mental, a belief that his path still existed.
Then came the surgery, and an important fork in the road. Would Reaser have his ACL repaired with a cadaver graft, where a surgeon uses a ligament donation from the deceased? Or would he go the more popular route, especially among high-level athletes, and use his own patella ligament? Reaser says FAU orthopedic surgeon, Alan Saperstein, encouraged him to use the patella surgery but ultimately gave the decision to the patient. After ten days of extensive research, Reaser opted for the cadaver.
“I knew it was considered more of a risk,” Reaser explained. “But I talked to a lot of people, including my uncle who had both surgeries, and thought the success rates were about equal. And it was a one-in-a-million that the body could reject a cadaver graft.”
Add only having one surgery versus two when utilizing your own ligament, and thus, in theory a shorter recovery time, and the cadaver option appeared attractive.
At first, Reaser seemed to make the right call. After undergoing traditional physical therapy that starts with simply bending the knee, he was soon training with the Bommarito Performance Systems in South Florida, the training facility of choice for clients of Drew Rosenhaus, a group that includes Reaser.
Though the typical recovery from ACL reconstruction is at least six months, Reaser was running after three. At four months he was running like he had never been injured. Once Reaser ran a 4.4 at Bommarito’s facility in early February, the next step was obvious. Rosenhaus, who came to gauge his client’s progress, suggested Reaser not only attend the NFL Scouting Combine in late February but that he run the 40. Both Reaser and Rosenhaus were confident the fastest 40 time was within reach. And in the world of combines, there’s no bigger attention grabber.
“I was so excited,” Reaser recalled. “I was really going to shock some people. No team or scout expected me to run at this point. I was finally getting over the hump.”
First up for Reaser at the Combine: the full medical evaluation, where players undergo myriad tests to ensure there are no underlying injuries or other medical issues that could hamper their ability to perform. These extensive reports, which include grades, are given to teams at the Combine’s conclusion to incorporate into their respective draft boards.
Reaser met with the first group of team doctors and was able to breathe a sigh of relief after he was told that upon full examination and review of his MRI no further damage had been found.
Then came the next group of team doctors.
As these doctors examined the same MRI results, they discovered something peculiar that conflicted with the first group’s results. Reaser’s body had rejected the cadaver. His ACL graft was wearing away.
Doctors told him not to run and referred him to the King of sports orthopedic surgery, Dr. James Andrews, for a second opinion.
It was another crushing blow, in many ways worse than that day in October.
“I just sunk down. It was like a nightmare,” Reaser said. “ A couple of doctors tried to talk to me but I walked out of the room. I didn’t see the point in sticking around.”
After receiving some advice from his mom and taking a few hours to decompress, Reaser decided to stay in Indianapolis for the remainder of the Combine and partake in activities not involving his damaged ACL.
The day following his medicals, Reaser tied Florida’s Jaylen Watkins as the top cornerback on the bench press. He then proceeded to interview with teams, garnering the most interest from New England, San Francisco, Seattle and Carolina. None knew about the full extent of his setback at the time, only that, as Reaser put it, he had “received conflicting reports from the team doctors and was going to see Dr. Andrews for further evaluation.”
Despite the devastating outcome of his cadaver surgery, Reaser doesn’t regret his decision. That decision, however, defies the general practice of most NFL team doctors, who view cadaver surgery as far inferior to the more modern and commonplace patella option
Dr. Matthew Matava, the head physician for the St. Louis Rams and president of the NFL Physicians Society, explained that rationale.
“I’m not a big fan of cadaver grafts,” Matava said, “because it’s been shown in younger athletes who participate in high level cutting and twisting sports to have a four times higher failure rate than if they use their own tissue.”
Matava suggests that even if the body accepts the cadaver graft, the recovery time is longer because the body needs initial time to adjust to foreign tissue.
“I would personally downgrade a player more if they had that surgery for a first time ACL tear,” Matava said.
Reaser’s experience lends support to Matava’s view, and also begs the question: Why didn’t the surgeons at FAU make a better sell for the patella graft?
Reaser left the Combine last Tuesday and flew directly to Andrews’ surgery center in Pensacola, where Andrews confirmed the deteriorating ACL. Last Thursday, Reaser had his ACL reconstructed again, this time by Andrews and with the patella ligament graft.
The next day the Patriots called to invite Reaser in for a workout. After disclosing the full extent of his situation, the Patriots rep wished him well and said about the only thing he could in that moment: “Get healthy.”
Reaser is now back to the rudimentary level of his rehab, again undergoing the same simple knee bends he went through after the October surgery. But the chances of showcasing any athleticism via a Pro Day or team workout prior to the NFL Draft in early May are nonexistent.
At this point Reaser has no plans other than to play professional football. He’s still hoping that a team will want to draft him and stash him for the future.
“I feel like if you put all your efforts into one thing, it will work out for you,” Reaser said.