Unleashed: Sudden End, New Beginning for Colin Porter
April 12, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Football. Baseball. Basketball. Even skiing.
Colin Porter has played sports -- made them his hobbies, really -- since before he was 10 years old.
And he hasn't just participated. He's excelled. At age 10 he started for the Redmond Junior Mustangs football team in the Seattle suburbs. At age 12 he was 5-feet-9 and 215 pounds, pitching and playing first base for Redmond North in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn. Three years later he began a high-school football career that ended with him as a dominant, all-state offensive lineman at Bothell High.
"It's been a way of life," the 20-year-old says of sports.
So has pain.
In ninth grade Porter's shoulder began popping out of its joint too regularly, far too easily. He got so used to the pain and what to do about it, he would just jog off the field, pop the shoulder back in, then run back out for the next series.
"It popped out five times in one game last season, against Arizona," Porter says, matter-of-factly. "It was just constant.
"Yeah, it's a pretty distinct feeling and pain."
After Porter made six starts as a true freshman for the Huskies in 2010, after he started all 13 games last season through that pain, including in December's Alamo Bowl, he had surgeries on both shoulders. The presumed clean-up procedures in January and again in late March showed unexpectedly severe damage, including degenerative arthritis in each joint more commonly found in men more than twice or three times his age.
With that, the torn labrums, the countless displacements, and UW's team orthopedist advising him "No more," Porter reluctantly agreed to give up his starting job and end his football career with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
The Huskies made the news official on Tuesday. But the junior-to-be had known for about 10 days, since UW's Dr. Chris Wahl, a shoulder specialist, told Porter that if he was his son he wouldn't want him to play football anymore, so he could go on to live a normal, healthy life.
"Oh, man, it's tough," Porter told me Tuesday evening, just before he went out to dinner with his family. "After the first surgery, I knew how bad it was. But ..."
His right arm was in a sling, months after his left one was.
His mind was similarly hung up.
"Shoot, man, I don't know," he said. "I love football. I used to love baseball, but I can't be sure I can even throw a baseball again.
"It's been a way of life for me, athletics has, ever since I was little. To have it gone ... it kind of hits home."
Like a wrecking ball.
It's been a way of life for me, athletics has, ever since I was little. To have it gone ... it kind of hits home.
In any sport, at any level, when we hear a player is forced to retire because of injury, our reaction is immediate. Yet it is fleeting.
"Man, too bad for that guy. He had a great career. "OK, now who takes his place?"
Colin Porter deserves more than that. Way more.
MATURE BEYOND HIS YEARS
Wahl was an assistant team physician with the NFL's New York Giants before he came to UW to join its acclaimed, progressive medical staff. He has treated many players, professional and amateur, that have kept playing no matter the toll on their bodies or the impact on their later lives.
But he hadn't seen shoulders like Porter's, at least not in someone so young.
Porter says his shoulders pop out of their sockets simply if he bumps into a door frame.
"I've done it rolling over and sleeping," he said, with a rueful chuckle.
Weeks after Washington played Baylor in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30, less than a month after Porter turned 20, Wahl performed a first surgery on Porter's left shoulder. It was supposed to repair a torn labrum. It found far more damage than that. Wahl then asked Porter to rehabilitate and check back in with him before spring practice in April.
"He was a little freaked out at what he saw in the first shoulder," Wahl said.
Then Wahl went in late last month to check on the other one. He found the right shoulder to be just as bad as the left. That's when he told Porter he was "really young to have the changes in the shoulders he's had." Wahl also worried, as a lineman that must constantly lift weights to stay at peak size and strength even in season, Porter would never be able recuperate his shoulders properly while playing football.
"The deal breaker for me was, this was pretty significant damage. And it was in both his shoulders. It wasn't reversible," Wahl said.
"We were sort of pushing a bad hand. ... I starting saying to myself, `If this was my kid, would I want him to play -- then know for his whole life he'd be trying to use shoulders like that?
"In my heart of hearts I said, `No.'"
Porter was crushed. But he also understood, displaying perspective and maturity far beyond a normal 20-year old.
Wahl was wowed.
"A lot of other kids, they live in the moment," the doctor said. "Colin has enough of a mature outlook to look at it on how this was going to impact his life.
He was finally tired of playing with pain. He didn't want to do that anymore.
"He was finally tired of playing with pain. He didn't want to do that anymore."
So, halfway to becoming a Huskies four-year starter with hopes of playing professionally, Porter gave up his dreams and the sport he's been playing since he was 10. He saw Wahl's wisdom and agreed those degenerative shoulders will absorb no more pounding from constantly lifting weights and banging into defensive lineman 60-plus times a game. In doing so, he's retaining a chance to live a normal life beyond UW.
Though he won't miss those collisions and the searing pain they sent flashing through his shoulders, I asked him what he will miss about playing for the Huskies.
"You know, just my teammates and those strong bonds," he said, adding he intends to stay around the team. "That is something that lasts a lifetime. I'm good friends with the whole offensive line - we are like a family within the team.
"And Husky Stadium on Saturdays. We have the best fans in America, from all the stadiums I've played in around the country. Just running out of that tunnel before games."
NOT JUST AN ENDING, BUT A BEGINNING
Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said Tuesday he couldn't disagree with UW's medical staff and Wahl's advice, no matter how much he valued Porter's skill and experience on his all-important offensive line.
It's another example of what Dr. Wahl respects most about the Huskies' fourth-year, first-time head coach.
"When Sarkisian talks to me about any injury with any player he always asks, `What is the best thing for the kid?' That is not all that common," Wahl said. "That really impresses me."
Porter's forced decision leaves Washington without one of its most experienced blockers. And it leaves Porter with a sudden void in his young life.
"For me, I know I've got to adapt to what else I like to do," he said. "As of right now, football is out of the question. I am just going to try to focus on my academics, do my rehab."
That's the one, huge positive to all this.
When Sarkisian confirmed officially on Tuesday that Porter's career was over, he pointed out the now-former lineman will remain on scholarship so he can finish his degree. The Huskies will also continue to host and support his shoulder rehabilitations at its first-class sports medicine clinic.
Even through the surgeries, the pain and the rehab, Porter's grade-point average in the UW's just-completed winter quarter was a shade under 3.0, at 2.93. This week he is declaring his major as political science, with a specialty in international security. He intends to keep taking summer courses so he can graduate a term or two before four full years.
The huge redhead wants to be a counter-terrorism agent overseas for the FBI or CIA, and has been talking to professionals in those agencies about it.
"It's an honor that I can finish and still get my degree from such a great university," Porter says. "Not worrying about having to find a way to pay for my school even though I am no longer playing is huge. My parents, they don't have to worry about that, either.
The fact the university are staying committed to me, that's a pretty important thing. They still have my back, even though I'm not playing anymore.
"The fact the university are staying committed to me, that's a pretty important thing. They still have my back, even though I'm not playing anymore."
The NCAA has no clear rule on it but encourages athletic departments to honor the scholarship of a student athlete forced to retire, through a waiver known as a "medical non-counter." That is, the injured player's scholarship does not count against his sport's scholarship limit.
It is up to the individual school to make the decision whether to absorb the cost of what becomes an extra scholarship for the injured player. Most major athletic departments with the available resources do it regularly, but not every one, and there are controversial stories around the nation of injured players losing scholarships and being left with unpaid tuition and medical bills.
Although Washington reviews each injured student athlete's situation on a case-by-case basis, UW has continued to provide athletics aid to many medically disqualified student athletes to help them complete their degrees.
According to figures from UW's NCAA compliance office, the Huskies have had nine players over the last two academic years in soccer, gymnastics, basketball, and football pursuing their degrees while still on scholarship despite career-ending injuries.
"We certainly want to do right by our student athletes who have met our academic expectations and have been good citizens, to give them all the support necessarily to complete their degrees even if they can no longer play their sports," Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said. "And we expect them to hold up their end of that bargain."
That means staying in good standing academically and with the university's student code of conduct, just like all who are enrolled at UW. It also means completing internships in operations, administration or other places within the athletic department while they finish their degrees.
Something tells me that's not going to be a problem with Porter, that he will hold up his end of this deal. He's armed with a vision he's already altered away from football.
"My dream is to be in the CIA, in counter-terrorism. I'd love to do overseas work," he says. "It's a challenging career."
Speaking of challenges, I joked he'd be the most conspicuous CIA agent in the world. At 6-4, 300 pounds, he's, uh, not exactly the prototypical undercover guy.
"No, I'd probably not be doing clandestine work," he said, laughing. "Maybe in research, or in a field office somewhere.
"It's never quite seemed like it would be a reality, because I've always had football to look forward to.
"But now life has smacked me in the face."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.