Written by Alice Warchol, CHKD Staff Writer

Local football player tackles ACL recovery, returns to the field stronger than before

A high school sophomore and football player, Curtis Avant can squat an impressive 345 pounds. It is hard to imagine that one year before, the 15-year-old from Virginia Beach could barely walk and was facing surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

Curtis, who plays center and defensive tackle at Salem High School, was injured right after the whistle blew in a preseason game. He remembers getting hit, hearing a pop, and feeling his knee collapse. Although it didn’t hurt too much, Curtis couldn’t take a step without his leg giving out.

His mom, Rosa Avant, took him to see Dr. Joel Brenner, medical director of CHKD’s sports medicine program, who immediately ordered an MRI and referred Curtis to Dr. Marc Cardelia, surgical director of CHKD's sports medicine program and orthopedic surgeon at CHKD. It was clear from the MRI that if Curtis wanted to keep playing football, he would need surgery to repair his ACL. The recovery would take at least nine months and his full commitment.

“I was really upset,” Curtis says. “I wanted to play football and it was either have surgery or stop playing.”

Curtis’ love for the game began early on at the age of 5 when his parents placed him on a flag football team. His appreciation for the sport and team camaraderie has grown each year since. He hopes to play football in college someday.

Once Curtis decided that surgery was the right decision for him, it initiated a multi-step recovery process that would begin before his procedure and continue until he was fully healed.

At CHKD, sports medicine physicians, sports physical therapists, and certified exercise specialists work with pediatric orthopedic surgeons to create a coordinated treatment plan that encompasses the strengthening and conditioning required for a successful recovery. Most importantly, the treatment plan is tailored to each patient and designed for the needs of kids.

“Our program is solely focused on taking care of kids who often are still growing,” says Cardelia, an orthopedic surgeon who created CHKD’s sports medicine program more than 20 years ago to address the specific sports-related concerns of kids, teens, and young adults in our region. “We also take into consideration the psychological well-being of the child and the family. A lot of kids strongly identify themselves by what they do as an athlete. We want to help them continue doing what they love and pursue their dreams but with an eye toward safety and their long-term health.”

For Curtis, his journey toward recovery began before his surgery. The first step was for him to work with a CHKD physical therapist to help him maintain his leg strength and mobility. Then he would have surgery with Dr. Cardelia before resuming more physical therapy. As he progressed, Curtis would also work with the CHKD certified athletic trainers assigned to his high school. Eventually, he would work with a CHKD personal trainer to increase his strength and perfect his form. Every step of the way, the sports medicine and orthopedic team carefully mapped out what Curtis should work on to ensure the best success of his surgery and return to football.

Curtis’ mom says she appreciates the care her son received through his entire recovery. During Curtis’ surgery, Dr. Cardelia kept Rosa and her husband up to date with everything that was happening.

“He was very reassuring,” Rosa says.

After surgery, during physical therapy with CHKD sports medicine physical therapist Beth Ackerman, Rosa noticed how careful she was to safely increase the intensity of his workouts.

“Beth was so awesome,” Rosa says. “Her coordination with the CHKD certified athletic trainer at Curtis’ school was absolutely perfect.”

Throughout physical therapy, Curtis remembers how Beth would encourage him. “She kept pushing me,” Curtis says. “It was a lot of hard work, but it was fun.”

One of the most important aspects of recovering from ACL surgery is making sure patients don’t return to play before they’re ready, which can increase their risk for re-injury. At the same time, the goal is to help patients safely regain their strength and agility.

After physical therapy, Curtis worked with Julius Delbridge, a certified personal trainer and performance specialist, to build up his strength and correct his form. Curtis says he always felt comfortable at CHKD because he knew the physical therapists and trainers were there to answer any questions he had.

“It’s like a family there,” Curtis says. “Everyone helps each other.”

Less than a year after his injury, Curtis’ commitment to his recovery has paid off. He’s back on the football field, stronger than ever, and still pursuing his dream to play at the college level.

“CHKD is a great place,” Curtis says. “The recovery goes by way faster than you think.”