For Craig Nicholson, the thought of never playing basketball again crossed his mind as he recovers from ankle surgery and is doing whatever it takes to get back to the court.
Last season, Nicholson, a senior on the Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team, played just 16 games before he fractured his fibula driving in for a layup with the shot clock winding down.
“I was devastated,” Nicholson said. “I have never had a serious injury before.”
For Nicholson the injury came on Jan. 15 against the University of Central Oklahoma. A day of importance that goes back to his young high school days.
Nicholson’s grandfather passed away on Jan. 15, 2014, exactly a year to the day prior to the injury. It’s a day that has always been filled with emotions for the point guard.
“I just had to win that game, my grandpa passed away on that day, it was game day and I just wanted to do whatever I could to win the game for him,” Nicholson said.
Prior to the injury, Nicholson was putting up the typical game you would expect from an All-American; 16 points and seven assists in just 24 minutes of play, but then tragedy struck the point guard.
“It was crazy for me I was playing so good,” Nicholson said.
For Nicholson, the tragic night is still fresh in his memory, but when he looks back at he can’t help, but think about the one thing he did different compared to the countless other times he has drove to the bucket.
“I don’t know why, but when I came down for whatever reason I was looking down while I was landing and I saw the ankle roll, “Nicholson said.
Nicholson would go on to add it was “something he has never seen before.” It was at that point Nicholson says that he could not feel anything so he just started screaming.
“It was at that point I just wanted somebody to help me, I tried to get up, but I just couldn’t move. Nicholson said.
Nicholson was taken off the court that night in a stretcher and taken to the Hays Medical Center. It was there where he found out the true nature of his injury, a fractured fibula, an injury with a timetable of six to eight months of recovery.
It was the first significant injury of Nicholson’s ball playing career. Up to that point, Nicholson had never sat out more than a day and never missed a single game due to injury he always played through it.
“The timetable was different for me I wasn’t use to that, but honestly I didn’t care I just wanted to get back out there on the court,” Nicholson said. “I love this game so I’m going to do whatever it takes.”
Surgery would come shortly after the night of the injury. After months walking around campus on crutches, Nicholson would spend the summer months back home in Wichita beginning his physical therapy and his return.
“I had real good doctors in Wichita who were dealing with the elite athletes so it was good,” Nicholson said.
Through the summer, Nicholson could barely run or jump. His physical therapy was focused on making the ankle stronger and getting his range of motion back.
As weeks went by, Nicholson said his ankle kept getting stronger and the therapists would add agility work.
“It was just like re-training yourself how to run and walk again,” Nicholson said.
Doctors were very upfront with Nicholson about his injury, telling him it’s a “common occurrence.” Nicholson’s physical therapist in Wichita said that his vertical wouldn’t be the same, but his speed and explosiveness would return.
“I really didn’t care about the vertical because I could barely touch the rim anyway,” Nicholson jokingly said.
Nicholson is still trying to run without a limp, but he is getting closer as each day goes by, but he can feel his speed and explosiveness coming back.
“I’m starting to tell what I did this summer is paying off,” Nicholson said.
Now that Nicholson is back on campus, he is able to do physical therapy five times a week compared to just the twice a week he was getting in Wichita.
The typical week of therapy for Nicholson rotates between strengthening and agility work such as running and jump.
“It’s just rotating and strengthening making sure I don’t wear out my ankle,” Nicholson said.
The one thing that has been steady for Nicholson through the recovery process is his shooting. Nicholson made it a point during the recovery process to not lose his jump shot.
“I’ve been shooting on the gun every day just trying to stay consistent,” Nicholson said.
His consistency in his workouts is not quite where Nicholson would like it to be, but he’s been dribbling and shooting almost every day since reporting back to campus.
“It’s not where I would like it to be right now, but once I get the go then I can start doing more stuff,” Nicholson said.
In late September, Nicholson was considered at 75 percent recovered. His doctor in Hays gave Nicholson the “ok” to do anything that Nicholson wanted to as long as it keeps him from hurting himself.
“I’ve been pretty much doing whatever as long as it doesn’t hurt my ankle,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson has been getting slowly more incorporated into the basketball workouts. Just before October, Nicholson was doing 95 percent of the daily basketball workouts, without any restrictions.
“I’ve still even been able to do the lateral movements, I’m still a little weak, I can’t explode when somebody goes left like I use too, but it’s getting there,” Nicholson said.
Now that Nicholson is back and doing work with his teammates there is some excitement building around the squad that honored Nicholson by hanging his jersey for every home game and wearing shooting shirts with “CN3”.
For Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mark Johnson, it is both a mixture excitement and worries at times.
“I know Johnson worries every time I come up limping because he thinks I’m in pain, but it’s just cause it’s not strong enough yet,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson, who has received plenty of support from the night of his injury up and up through his rehab process, not only from his teammates but the Fort Hays community and the MIAA community.
“I felt special, I didn’t know I had that type of effect on the community here,” Nicholson said.
The positive attitudes around Nicholson are helping him keep an optimistic mind. Nicholson recalls that NBA star Kenyon Martin had the exact same injury as he did his senior year in college and went on to play 15 seasons in the NBA.
Another top athlete to make a return from a fractured fibula is Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb.
“I just want to get back on the court, my doctors say it’s common so others have returned back just like I will,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson is on pace to make his return in November. It would be the first game action he has seen for 10 months. Whether he will play in the exhibition games against the University of Kansas and Kansas State University on Nov. 6 and 10 remains to be unanswered, but by the season home opener on Nov. 14, Nicholson says he should be 90 percent and ready to go.
“I’m on a good pace right now, I should be ready to go when November comes around,” Nicholson said.
Emotions are something Nicholson is expecting for when he makes his most anticipated debut after the fractured fibula. On top of the emotions Nicholson also states there will be some nerves since he hasn’t played in a while.
“I haven’t played for a while so I don’t really know what to expect, but it’s going to be crazy,” Nicholson said.
For many, Nicholson is known as a humble guy. He even sports the Twitter handle @TheHumbleTiger. He’ll push aside the fact that he was on pace to be the All-Time leading scorer in Fort Hays history and brush away he was on set to finish in the top three in career assists in Fort Hays history, but even The Humble Tiger himself is carrying a chip on his shoulder heading into the upcoming season.
“I know that there are people doubting me so I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder pushing me to come back, but at the same time I know there are people counting on me to come back,” Nicholson said.