SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Football, a beautiful collage of controlled chaos unreplicated in any other game. The players who choose this path respect the prepossessing dance between competitive violence and inevitable injury. For Augustana University left tackle Sam Lee, the word “injury” never derailed his pursuit to play collegiate football at a high level.
Lee began his Augustana career in 2012 as a true freshman at right tackle. After a successful freshman year, and anticipation for an even better sophomore campaign, Lee discovered that the sport of college football never seems to go as planned. In January 2013, he went through his first collegiate surgery to repair a broken scaphoid bone in his left wrist.
“The healing potential of the scaphoid is dependent on the location of the fracture because of the blood supply,” said Sanford Health orthopedic surgeon Bob VanDemark, M.D. “If the fracture is closer to the thumb, then it tends to heal quicker, rather than a fracture closer to the forearm because the blood supply comes in the backside of the scaphoid.”
Fortunately for Sam, the break was near the thumb, and he identified the problem quickly.
“It is important to make a quick diagnosis and fix it early, because typically this type of fracture can go undetected and lead to arthritis down the road,” VanDemark said.
Lee was placed in a surgical cast for four weeks and was limited in offseason training to stationary bike workouts before being cleared for full weight training in the summer.
Despite having a limited offseason due to surgery, Lee was able to start all 11 games at left tackle and finished his sophomore season with Academic All-NSIC honors.
“You always hear stories of injuries bringing people down, and outside voices saying ‘they’ll never be the same again.’ But I took it as challenge to be better than I ever have been in my life, and it’s that attacking process I take with me every single time,” Lee said.
This relentless attitude toward recovering from injuries would be put to the ultimate test following the 2013 season.
“I first noticed during our January running workouts, it felt like I could never get my hip loosened up,” Lee said.
After nagging pain in the groin, an MRI found a posterior tear in the hip labrum. Having not used his redshirt year yet, Lee and the coaching staff decided to utilize his redshirt and dedicate the 2014 season to completely recover from surgery.
The rehab process for a hip labrum tear can be very extensive. “The hip joint itself incurs a lot more passive shock absorption if the surrounding tissue musculature isn’t doing its job of stabilizing above and below,” said Melissa Moyer, manager of Sanford POWER Sports Physical Therapy.
The movements involved in the sport of football can be complex and technical, distinctly as an offensive lineman, where a missed step can lead to a mistake in a fraction of a second. These movements can become even more complicated when you throw in a core injury.
“Typically, the hardest movements to get back into are a deep squatted position and one that you have to push off from a hip flexed position,” Moyer said. Anybody that has watched a game of football can attest that this is a crucial movement for a player in the trenches.
This particular recovery process would prove to be especially difficult during the 2014 season. Many athletes sidelined by injury would agree, it is more painful to watch the game you love from the sideline due to injury than the injury itself. Especially when you are forced to watch your two older brothers compete in their last season of football.
The Lee brothers have spanned nine years on Augustana football rosters, starting with eldest brother Jake (defensive line) in 2009, middle brother Nick (tight end) in 2010 and then Sam joining in 2012.
“It was fun playing and living with my brothers, especially because I got to play directly next to Nick, and that was a special bond and connection I’ll never have with another tight end,” Sam Lee said. “It was so much fun to all be competing together to help the team win.”
Jake and Nick’s final year was slated for 2014, but Sam was unable to be a part of it. “It is painful to sit and watch a game and know you can’t go in and help. Because of the recovery process I couldn’t be on the field,” he said.
It didn’t stop him from attacking his situation with a positive attitude. “I took it as an opportunity to learn the offense better and was able to chart plays with Coach Bear (Matt Bacoulis offensive line coach and run game coordinator) and see how and why they do what they do.”
After a full year off, and a talented group of upperclassman, Lee returned to give all he had into his junior season and help the team’s playoff run. Unfortunately, his knee gave out three games into the 2015 season. On an unusual play in the 2nd quarter vs. MSU-Moorehead, Lee tore his medial collateral ligament (MCL) and medial patellofemoral ligament (MPFL).
“Honestly, after missing the season before and then having this happen to me, I’d hit probably a new low in my life. Usually I’m good at staying positive, but after the knee it was really tough,” Lee said. “After hearing I qualified for a medical redshirt it kind of gave me new life again, I went back to square one and wanted to come back better than I ever had before. Rather than wallowing in self-pity I really focused on getting in the weight room and getting a lot stronger in my upper body.”
After eight to 10 weeks of rehab work, Lee was able to start lifting heavy squats again in preparation to make a bigger and better comeback.
Tough times do not last, tough people do.
Lee did come back better than ever. In 2016 Lee was an All-NSIC selection both athletically and academically and contributed to a Vikings offense that set school records in total offense (5,617 yards), passing yards (3,786) and touchdowns (65).
“It was a crazy amount of fun, and playing with those guys is a memory I will have forever,” Lee said.
Improving upon each year is an important aspect in every student-athletes career, and with one year left of eligibility Lee looks to his 2017 season as his best year yet.
“The word I use for myself is ‘relentless.’ It is the mentality that nobody is going to put out more effort than me. Your edge and how you play is all mental framing. I learned playing college football that the majority of it is mental. You can accomplish so much if you believe it and your confidence is high,” Lee said.
Lee is a team captain for the 2017 Augustana Vikings and has big aspirations for his final year in college football.
“I want to go out with a bang,” he said. “This is my last year of guaranteed football and it’s a different team than we’ve had in the past. But these guys are ready to go and ready to prove themselves and relentlessly pursue our goal at 100 miles per hour, not caring what other people think.”