In October 1995, freshman Travis Roy stepped onto the Walter Brown Arena ice for his first, and what would turn out to be his last, hockey game for Boston University. In the season opener, BU was playing the University of North Dakota. Just 11 seconds into his first-ever college hockey shift, Roy crashed headfirst into the dashboards, cracking his fourth and fifth vertebra and severely damaging his spinal cord. A little more than 18 years after that horrific incident, Roy, a quadriplegic, is still paralyzed from the neck down.
While BU Athletics has not seen such an extreme injury since the Roy incident, like any other university competing at a high level, BU is no stranger to sports injuries. BU’s athletes compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I, which is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics in the United States. With a total of 21 varsity teams and 33 club sports teams, BU’s students are involved in a whole host of collision sports like rugby, hockey and lacrosse, contact sports like soccer and basketball and then the non-contact sports like tennis, swimming and track and field.
The nature of injuries varies across the sports and seasons but, according to BU’s Athletic Department, students are more susceptible to injuries at the beginning of the season and when they make that transition from high school to the collegiate level. “Being a college student, there is a big change coming in as a freshman just trying to get used to the times, the increase in stress, and on top of that you have the physical demands of the sport,” said Lawrence E. Venis, the head athletic
trainer. “Freshmen are a little bit surprised with the intensity and length of practice and the length of the season that we have.”
A lot of it comes down to the lack of conditioning in the pre-season when the athletes come back from summer break. “Sometimes the athletes don’t do as much in the summer and they come back and are thrown into these tournaments and they’re not ready for them, and they get injured,” said Lesley Sheehan, the head coach the the women’s tennis team.
According to a 2012 study, released in the Journal of Athletic Training, almost 30 percent of college varsity athletes experience injuries due to overuse. The study, which analyzed 573 male and female college athletes from NCAA Division I schools, found that females were more likely to be injured because of overuse than males. “Because overuse injuries are associated with a gradual increase in symptoms, athletes may be unaware that they are seriously injured,” the study stated.
Dr. Robert J. Nicoletta, an orthopedic surgeon, is one of the team physicians at BU’s Ryan Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. He attributes the incidence of overuse injuries to a combination of factors. “Overuse comes from a repetitive motion, like a distance runner who’s logging a lot of miles and is increasing their level of training in a short period of time and because of errors in training, inflexibility or tight musculature,” Dr. Nicoletta said. With the increasing demands of BU’s Division I athletics all year round, Dr. Nicoletta has dealt with a lot of sprains, strains and ankle injuries across all sports.
With the ongoing controversy about concussions in the National Football League, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy was created in 2008 by Boston University School of Medicine in collaboration with the Sports Legacy Institute. The increased awareness of concussions has led to a greater trend of student athletes reporting such cases. And these cases are not just limited to the more high-energy collision sports, such as ice hockey. “It’s inherent in all the sports and even rowers sustain concussions,” said Venis.
BU soccer player Alejandra Diaz suffered a concussion last fall and was out of action for three months. “It’s pretty common, there’s usually one or two that happen each year,” said Diaz. “Goalies get a lot of concussions so they’re always a problem.”
Keeping in consideration the likelihood of injuries to college athletes, the NCAA has a medical redshirt rule. This means if an athlete participates in less than 30 percent of team competition — none after the midpoint of the season — due to a season-ending injury or illness, the athlete can preserve a year’s worth of eligibility in college sports. Typically, a student’s eligibility in a given sport is four years but in the instance of a lingering injury, it can be spread over five or even six years.
Tennis player Madison Craft, a sophomore at BU’s College of General Studies, was able to take advantage of the NCAA’s redshirt policy. Last year, as a freshman, in her third match for the team, Craft took a bad step and tore her right ACL, which is one of the four major ligaments of the knee. After undergoing surgery at the Boston Medical Center, Craft sat out the remainder of the season. It wasn’t for another nine months that she was able to compete again for BU.
With the inevitability of student-athlete injuries, the BU Athletic Department is trying to keep injuries to a minimum with its strength and conditioning program. Completed prior to the 1994-95 academic year, BU’s Strength and Conditioning Center features eight power racks and eight Olympic lifting platforms as well as a foot-speed and plyometric area. “Appropriate build-up of strength along with instruction on stretching and, I think, the appropriate education of what injuries to expect are the keys to avoidance of injury,” said Dr. Nicoletta.
A sufficient amount of rest is another approach coaches at BU are taking. “I actually give them two days off in a week because I need their body to rest, so they can be strong,” said Coach Sheehan.
Privileges such as the BU Athletic Department’s secondary insurance policy are granted to all student athletes to cover medical costs that are not absorbed by their primary insurance carrier. But there are limits to what it covers and the periods of time of those injuries. According to Venis, the way that the policy is written, an injury is covered for two years from the date of the injury and has to be sustained in a university sanctioned event.
Perhaps nothing could have prevented Travis Roy’s freak accident that fateful October night. However, BU’s emphasis on athletic training, conditioning and preparation may have spared countless athletes the agony of injury and helped many “wounded warriors” successfully return to action.