June 19th, 2011
Dad, Daughter Bond Over Injury Connection
Grossos grow closer after Assumption freshman tears ACL
The month of June is the time of year when families across the country celebrate Father’s Day and recognize the sacrifice, compassion and wisdom of dads everywhere.
In the Grosso household, June also marks and symbolizes the one-year anniversary of an injury – and more significantly, a surgery – that would trigger an everlasting series of physical, mental and spiritual adjustments within a multitude of life aspects.
And for the father-daughter duo of Mike and Michelina Grosso, the combined celebration of these two occasions couldn’t go more hand-in-hand.
During a high school junior varsity lacrosse tournament semifinal game in May 2010 at Ballard, Assumption High School freshman Michelina’s cleat got stuck in the ground during action on the field. Despite the snag, she turned quickly to maintain defensive position, but a horrific noise stopped her dead in her tracks.
“I heard it pop,” said Michelina referring to her right knee.
Her anterior cruciate ligament had been torn.
Terrified and emotional, Michelina remained horizontal on the field for several minutes until her father, Mike, could make his way from the bleachers to join coaches and trainers who were already attending to his severely injured baby girl.
But the six-foot-nine Grosso didn’t kneel down next to his daughter once he finally reached her side. He could only look down to examine the situation. Kneeling or bending of any kind has become a tall task for the former University of Louisville basketball standout Mike Grosso.
Four decades prior to watching Michelina crumble to the ground, Mike suffered a knee injury of his own that ultimately led to five surgeries, years of treatment, and a premature retirement from a game he was told he would grow up to dominate.
“De ja vu all over again,” recalls Mike.
“It was like an instructional video on how to blow your knee out playing lacrosse,” he said in reference to his daughter’s textbook injury. “She went down and I was frozen stunned. Michelina had that ‘look’ on her face and said, ‘Dad, I heard it pop.’ So they carried her off and then they carried me off. I was a wreck.”
Several hours later, the prognosis was still chalk full of dreary news. Dr. Mark Smith at Ellis & Badenhausen Orthopedics confirmed the ACL tear and informed the Grosso family that Michelina would need surgery, physical therapy and that it could be nine months before she was back up and able to be active on the lacrosse field.
Michelina was crushed. A straight “A,” 4.0 GPA student, she was able to do the math in her head, and knew that timetable, if accurate, would not allow her to be ready in time to play in her sophomore LAX season with the Rockets.
Learning to love lacrosse
As a bubbly and outgoing student at St. Francis of Assisi School during her elementary years, Michelina didn’t have access or even a speck of knowledge where lacrosse was concerned. But she did take advantage of all the other extracurricular activities available to her.
Ironically Michelina decided to attend Assumption following her 8th grade year – ironic because her high school athletic career was already being assumed for her by outsiders who merely looked at the future Rocket as Mike Grosso’s daughter.
But regardless of who her dad was, Michelina wasn’t sure sports was something she was even prepared to pursue at the next level.
“I played all of the sports in grade school, but going into high school I really didn’t know if I wanted to continue doing athletics, because I knew it was much different than grade school,” said Michelina. “You have to be really committed. So I was just trying to figure out where I’d fit best.”
Mike, who went to UofL with Assumption Head Volleyball Coach Ron Kordes, says that Michelina attended volleyball camp as a 6th and 7th grader, but he was never going to be the type of father who dictated his children’s future just because of his own athletic history.
“There were a lot of natural assumptions for her because of the background I’ve had,” said Mike. “Volleyball and basketball (programs) both wanted her to be involved.”
“I was not going to force her to do anything. Whatever she wanted to participate in, my wife and I would support her,” Mike continued. “I didn’t want her to get burned out on anything because of the pressure that my wife and I put on her to participate in sports.”
After deciding to give cross country a try during her first few months at Assumption, Michelina was urged by one of her running coaches, Matthew Cope, to possibly give the sport of lacrosse a look.
Curious and always willing to give things a shot, Michelina talked it over with her parents, received their blessing, and went with a friend to see what this up-and-coming stick game was all about.
“After one game, I fell in love with the sport,” said Michelina. “I love lacrosse and wouldn’t give it up for anything. I wish grade schools had it around Louisville. It’s just a great sport.”
A fan of lacrosse’s physicality and intense nature, Michelina latched on to the Rockets program, dove head first into acquiring the proper gear, equipment and training, and began working to become the best lacrosse defenseman possible.
Teaching her dad a new game
Mike Grosso, who still ranks among the all-time Cardinal basketball greats in scoring and rebounding averages and was inducted into UofL’s athletic hall of fame in 1994, was not going to hold his strong-willed daughter back when she decided to make lacrosse her permanent sport of choice.
But that didn’t mean this lacrosse stuff wasn’t foreign.
In fact, Mike had zero knowledge or history with the game and was forced to become a trial by fire fan by simply attending Michelina’s games.
“I’ve had “on the job” education by just going and watching,” said Mike. “I really believe, especially on the defensive end, there are so many similarities to basketball. The way you slide your feet on defense and have to protect the goal. And checking people. And being disruptive. The rules are a little fuzzy still and the terminology I haven’t grasped totally yet, but I’m learning.”
“Sometimes he yells out the wrong things,” blurts out a ribbing Michelina.
A sheepish Mike concurs with his daughter’s observation.
“Sometimes I’ll shout out, ‘Box out!’ or ‘Go to the hoop!’,” says Mike.
Despite the learning curve, Mike worked to embrace the game and has certainly come around after seeing his daughter out on the field.
“Her being engaged in the sport has been even more fun to watch,” said Mike.
Fighting through the therapy stage
Michelina had surgery to repair her torn ACL on June 10, 2010. It’s a date that is emblazoned in her mind forever.
Following the procedure, she says she remembers being unsure about her athletic future and scared at what lied ahead. Luckily her father, seasoned knee surgery veteran Mike, was at her side immediately to help her through the process.
There could have been no better person at Michelina’s disposal than him.
“A day or two after the surgery, you’re supposed to push your knee back, and I didn’t want to,” said Michelina. “But (Dad) was there to say, ‘No, you’ve got to do it.’ He was there to constantly keep me going.”
As physical therapy continued, Mike was there for the majority of the sessions. He and his daughter formed close relationships with the medical professionals and trainers, but the duo also began to develop an even closer bond over a common denominator that instantly made them part of the same club.
“People said I was following in my dad’s footsteps when I tore my ACL,” said Michelina.
“Our relationship has definitely been strengthened,” she continued. “He was the one always taking me to physical therapy. Going to UofL basketball games together has always been our father-daughter ‘thing.’ But during physical therapy, we talked during all the sessions. And I always thought that was cool.”
Mike, who recalls having to construct his own knee brace during his own post-op treatment and therapy, says he was extremely concerned when Michelina became injured, mostly because of the awful memories and lingering results that he associates with the botching of his initial surgery, which ultimately led to many others.
“I was real frantic about all of that, because I wasn’t sure how far orthopedic medicine had come in Louisville since my own injury,” said Mike.
But his tune quickly changed once he was able to witness the marvels of modern medicine up close and personal.
“You fast forward from when I was operated on in 1968-69 to 2010, and what became very apparent to me was the ability of shared information in the operating room,” said Mike. “It’s not a secret now to what all the techniques are. It’s all shared on the web through seminars. The procedures are out there. And that was a total relief.”
Mike says he was most blown away by the fact that the orthopedic surgeons were able to use a hamstring as a graft instead of a cadaver and that his daughter’s stitches were internal and more cosmetically pleasing.
Michelina’s miraculous recovery
During some weeks and sessions of frustration when Michelina was hitting a proverbial wall and becoming overwhelmed with the constant work and recovery, Mike was on hand to provide sufficient motivation and inspiration.
“Ever since I was little, he’s always told me, ‘Be the best you can be’,” said Michelina. “When that fourth month of (physical therapy) rolled around, and I was hitting a wall, he was there to push me through and wouldn’t let me give up.”
Mike continued urging his daughter to remember how important her dedication to therapy was and that her commitment to the process could be the difference between six months and nine months of recovery.
She apparently listened.
On December 27, 2010, after six months of resilience and hard work, Michelina was released from the physical therapy requirements and deemed ready to begin light workouts. She was called the “poster child” for ACL tear recovery by her doctors and trainers.
Several months later, she was named one of three JV captains at Assumption and reassumed her spot on the Rockets starting defensive unit, much to the pride of Mike and his wife.
“I grew up Italian and Catholic (in New Jersey) and was an altar boy, so I was very familiar with lighting candles in church,” said Mike. “After (Michelina) recovered, my wife and I continued to pray that she never reinjures herself. We prayed that we were sent in the right direction and that everything progressed the way it has. We thank God for that.”
This past season, Michelina even earned some playing time on the varsity squad and began showing flashes of the talented lacrosse player she has become.
“She had a little setback last year with the injury, but I think she’s in a position now to work out during the Fall (drills) and be ready for the season next year,” said Mike. “I know they had a lot of seniors go, but I think the sport is growing at Assumption and the talent level’s growing, and hopefully they’ll continue to improve upon the foundation the girls have put together over there the last four or five years.”
Michelina, who says she would love to start on the varsity squad when she kicks off her junior season, says jumping back into action wasn’t as easy as she had thought it would be.
“I was nervous getting back in the swing of things. I knew I was ready physically, but mentally I knew the first game was going to be rough,” said Michelina. “But (Dad) would always tell me, ‘You didn’t work out and go through six months of physical therapy for nothing.’ He definitely helped me calm my nerves (my first game back).”
Full of emotions, Mike was happy to see Michelina back in time for her sophomore season, but even happier to see her complete the year without any additional knee problems or flare-ups.
“I’m very relieved that she made it through the season. She came back earlier than most would,” said Mike. “I told her, ‘If you do it again, you’re getting a golf club and you’re done.’ And she doesn’t even play golf.”
Now that she’s back and stronger than ever, Michelina’s goals have become bigger and bolder.
“It would also be awesome to be a captain again,” Michelina continued. “I want to help us work as one, win as one, lose as one. We also want to show people that Assumption is a team to watch out for.”
“She’s matured ahead of her years to a certain regard, in the sense of understanding where she is and what she’s about,” said Mike. “We’ve tried to create a balance in her life, with academics, spiritual, and now athletics. The athletic environment has helped her become disciplined. And hopefully that gives her a foundation to grow on in life and help her understand that the glass isn’t always full. There are going to be obstacles in the road, but just give it your best shot every day.”
Michelina, who says she has considered playing lacrosse at the collegiate level, also says that her injury and the overall experience has peaked her interest in the field of physical therapy.
Should she ever pursue PT as a college major or concentration, she’d have an ideal wealth of knowledge and reference subject back at home: her Dad.
“I have even more respect for him now knowing what he’s been through,” said Michelina. “He’s seen me at my worst and helped me get to my best.”
With two years left in her lacrosse career at Assumption, the sky appears to be the limit for this Grosso tag team, and Michelina’s “best” could get even better with Mike in her corner.