As per a request from one of our frequent listeners, Brett Morris ( @brettmo.44 ) we are choosing not to let this episode brew in the interview arsenal. David Milewski is a former Rutgers football captain who overcame three ACL surgeries on the same knee throughout his career. During our interview, David said one thing that his coaches preached that really resonated with him was to "control your controllables." David couldn't control his ACL, but he could control his effort in his rehab, in the weight room and in the classroom. This mentality eventually earned him 1st team academic All-American honors. Only 24 college football players in the country achieve this honor. David's effort and success outside of his sport makes him a perfect example to follow for athletes overcoming injuries and working their way back to the field.
Early on in our conversation David talks about a pinched nerve/stinger injury he had in his neck during his Junior year of high school. As we know, a high school football players Junior season is the most important for college recruiting. Unfortunately, this neck injury eventually led to David being carted off on a stretcher and forced him to miss 4 or 5 games that year. David talked about how this was a continuously aggravated stinger where any contact to his head caused a stinger (temporary burning/tingling/numbness...football players know the feeling). Both of us grew up with old school coaches who taught us how to tough it out. Looking back, David feels this was an injury he should have been more cautious with.
We had a very unique and interesting conversation about the culture of toughness in football. David described the difficult dynamic that exists when you are one of the new, young and inexperienced guys on the team. No matter how much success you had in high school, in the eyes of the coaches and your more seasoned teammates, you haven’t made it yet. During this time, each practice and training session serves as a proving ground to display your "toughness." Coaches try to groom you into the players they want on their team. This creates a situation where the young athletes are forced to walk the line between being "tough" and being stupid. David admitted that he didn't find this line until his red shirt junior season. This is when he finally realized how to take care of his body for the long haul and knew he wouldn't be judged, questioned or ridiculed by choosing to sit out. ( We also talk about the effect this dynamic has with concussions at 38:40).
What did it take to earn the level of respect necessary to avoid the doubt that many teammates have for their teammates injuries? David's first ACL injury occurred during his freshman year. It was early on in the season and he was getting reps with the second team defense at linebacker (which added to his disappointment after the injury). At the end of most practices, there was a supplemental practice for the scout team players, so they got a chance to learn the Rutgers playbook instead of the opponents. During one of these supplemental sessions (thud tempo: defenders wrap up ball carriers, but don't bring them down to the ground. Thud tempo is a good way to prevent injuries, but it unfortunately backfired on him) David was chasing a receiver up the side line and as he attempts to make contact with the receiver and dislodge the ball, he remembers that he cant go to the ground (or else he will get ripped by the coaches haha) so he reaches his leg out to stay off the ground and he ended up hyper-extending his knee. He heard a pop and immediately knew something was wrong.
It was recommended to David that he use his patella tendon to reconstruct his ACL. He eventually had a serious infection from surgery, lost 30 lbs. During this time he was still going to team meetings and injecting himself with iv antibiotics. He also had to have two more surgeries to clean up the infection. This is where David began to embrace the mindset of “control your controllables." While David was sidelined while he rehabbed, it was important to him to excel at the things he could control, which included rehab, weight room training and school. This way of thinking worked for David and he ended up running his fastest 40 yard dash time ever after this surgery. Unfotunatlely, all it took to re-tear the repaired ACL was making a little cut on the field in another practice early in the following season. His third ACL injury was more of the same. The first three seasons of David's college football career all ended in ACL reconstructions on the same knee.
“thank god you don’t have to go to practice anymore”
Surprisingly, after this second ACL injury David said he felt more relieved than disappointed because the intense anxiety he would get from practice. He talked about the "hour of bliss after practice" where he would eat lunch with the team, but then as soon as that was over, he was already worried about the next day's practice. Although most athletes would never admit this, I am sure the thought has crossed everyone's mind at some point. This led to a conversation about coaching styles and how it's important to utilize different styles for different players. Not everyone is the same, so you can't coach everyone the same. David talked extensively about coach Panagos who made football fun for David again. After 27 months in the weight room, rehabbing from all his surgeries he had put on enough size to make the move from line backer to the defensive line. Coach Panagos was the defensive line coach and he told David "I don’t care about making plays, the only thing I want to see you do is run around the field like your hair is on fire.” The one thing you can always control in a football game is your effort. David said once he took that approach instead of worrying about making a mistake, the plays come to you! Luckily, David was able to stay injury free for the final two seasons of his career and was ultimately voted team captain in his senior campaign.
As you might expect, we had a toughness discussion. Looking back, David thinks that toughness was setting 2 or 3 alarms every single day because you could never be late to practice, being on time to all classes and meetings, being engaged in those classes and meetings, and making the right small decisions all the time. Everyone can control that version of toughness.
"You put your signature on everything you do"
What kept David coming back to football after the injuries? During our discussion he disclosed he thought he would have been a failure if he didn't come back to the team after each surgery because no doctor ever said he couldn’t fully recover and be successful. He wanted to make sure he exhausted all possible options. However, while David's buddies were training for the NFL Combine and their pro-days after their Quick Lane Bowl victory, he decided to pass on the NFL dreams he came to Rutgers with.
After tearing his ACL the first time as a freshman, David realized how quickly sports can be taken away from your life and how you have no control over it. With this in mind, establishing an identity outside of football came naturally to him. Early on, he learned to be a competitor on and off the field. David relishes in the opportunity to prove people wrong, especially students and professors who stereotyped him into the "dumb jock" category. David's advice to athletes looking to succeed outside their sport is that you put your signature on everything you do, so take pride in everything. David also gives tips to athletes who might be struggling to keep their grades up. One tip is learning teaching styles and having a good understanding of your learning style. He believes the passcode for college is that you can marry teaching and learning styles.
David had aspirations to become a Naval Officer after college, but was denied because of the extensive medical history on his knee. He was angry initially and said the days after getting that news were some of the toughest he experienced in his transition to life after football. Fortunately, David controlled his controllables, took pride in his signature and built himself quite the resume to attract employers. Not all athletes handle adversity like David did, but I hope this episode serves as a roadmap to success. To close, David's advice to transitioning athletes is know who you are and what makes you happy and be okay with that. David put the work in while he was an athlete and it paid off for him when football ended.