Today we are going to consider the humble fibula, the smallish bone in your lower leg that acts as diminutive sidekick to the big-brother tibia. If you are like I was three months ago, putting much thought into the fibula and how it is doing down there doesn't take up a lot of your time.
But, as Thomas Jefferson allegedly said, if you want to have something you've never had, you must do something you've never done. Jeffersonian scholars, a notably sniffy bunch, don't embrace the attribution, but when you're trying to sell readers on a fibula column, anything is fair game.
In Philadelphia sports history, the most famous fibula belongs to Terrell Eldorado Owens, who fractured that bone on Dec. 19, 2004 when pulled down from behind by Dallas safety Roy Williams after catching his 77th and final pass of the regular season and gaining the last of his 1,200 yards.
Despite the break and ligament damage in his right ankle, Owens was able to come back from surgery in just seven weeks to play in the Super Bowl and lead the team with nine receptions for 122 yards. It was a painful and somewhat dangerous return, but he played and never once threw up during the game.
The second-most famous fibula belongs to quarterback Donovan McNabb, who suffered a fracture in his right leg during a 2002 regular-season game against Arizona and finished the game! This was partly because the Eagles didn't bother to X-ray the injury at halftime, treated it as merely a sprain, and let their franchise player stay on the field. It was also because McNabb was pretty tough.
After the non-displaced break was finally discovered, according to a 2013 interview with Philadelphia Magazine, McNabb decided against surgery to pin the fracture – opting for simple immobilization in a boot – at the insistence of his mother, who didn't want her son to endure a lifetime of setting off metal detectors at the airport. McNabb, who would have been back in an estimated six to eight weeks with the surgery, healed normally and returned to the field in a little less than nine weeks.
Currently, the Eagles are waiting to see if receiver Mike Wallace, who had surgery to repair a fractured right fibula suffered against Tampa Bay, will be able to return this season. He is eligible to come off injured reserve and play Nov. 11 against Dallas. His injury was also non-displaced and didn't necessarily require surgery, but apparently, his mother wasn't worried about later TSA-related inconveniences.
My particular interest in this injury was greatly heightened in mid-July, when I broke my right fibula playing softball. I was charging a hit on a wet outfield, and when the ball hopped to the side, one of my cleats slipped and the other planted, causing my right ankle to fold over in a very unpleasant manner. There was an audible "pop-pop" and a lot of pain, and so I did what any intelligent male would do after breaking his leg: I finished the half-inning in the infield.
Later on, after the X-ray and the splint, I had two questions: "How long is this going to take?" and "Will I be able to get a column out of it?" The answers, as it turned out, were "Ten weeks" and "Sorta."
The break was non-displaced (the bone stayed in line), so there was no surgery, but the first six weeks were spent 24/7 in a boot that extended to just below the knee. I was hobbling through the Eagles' training-camp locker room one day with the aid of a cane when I passed the locker of Darren Sproles. He stopped me, nodded, and said one word: "Fibula." Then he pointed to a scar just above his right ankle.
"I need some advice," I said. "Did you wear the boot as much as they told you to?"
"Nah, man," Sproles said. "But I had a screw in there holding it together. I figured, if I had the screw, why did I need the boot?"
I found that, to a man, the Eagles privately believe doctors are always overly cautious in their post-injury instructions, mostly to cover themselves. Of course, the Eagles are also young, elite athletes with a highly developed sense of immortality. Having none of those attributes, I kept the boot on.
After six weeks in the boot, and two weeks in a small ankle brace, about the time I was a week or so into physical therapy, I received a public relations solicitation from the prestigious Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. (It is the hospital where Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Zhaire Smith had their foot surgeries.) The Wallace injury had just taken place and the hospital wanted to know if I would like to speak to one of the nation's leading experts on the fibula.
"Why, yes," I replied. "I believe I would."
The surgeon I interviewed was Mark C. Drakos, who at least partially prepped for his specialty in sports-related injuries while a four-year varsity receiver at Harvard. In his spare time, he earned an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering. Professionally, Drakos was previously an assistant on the medical staff of the New York Giants, and he has the distinction of being on-call in the hospital the night Plaxico Burress nearly shot off his post route.
We talked a little bit about Mike Wallace, but the thing about these expert interviews is that the doctors in question have not examined the patient or seen the X-rays. The observations are general by necessity. Drakos agreed it was possible that Wallace might have had the surgery solely to get him back more quickly, not because the injury required it. But that is far from uncommon.
"The fibula has a high healing rate, and with surgeries there are potential complications concerning infection, painful hardware, bad wound healing," Drakos said. "You always are balancing what is medically safe, what the player feels, what management says, and then you throw the agent in there. You like to think that everything is always straightforward and everyone agrees, but we really don't."
Well, fine, and enough about Mike Wallace. What about me?
"I'd say you are probably down to baseline risk," Drakos said. "The fibula is a bone that wants to heal. Generally speaking, you should have few restrictions."
So much for additional physical therapy. Three days later, I played again. The outfield was wet. What could possibly go wrong? It wasn't the Super Bowl, but it wasn't bad.