By Alissa Bauer
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
She knew it was bad before she hit the ground.
Lying next to first base, gripping her left leg, Alex Jones thought of her mom and dad. Both in the medical field, they had warned her all of her athletic life about the dangers of over-extending her leg trying to beat the first baseman to the bag.
This time they were right. The pop was deafening and nauseating, the sound no athlete wants to hear, much less one who makes her name as a speedy slap-hitter at the Division I level. Jeff and Sherri Jones hadn’t made the trip from Enid, Okla., to Lawrence for the Jayhawks’ informal fall exhibition softball game, but crying in agony on the ground, their daughter could hear them nonetheless.
“The second I felt that pain in my knee, I was on the ground screaming and I remember thinking of my mom ripping me a new one every time I would over-stride first base growing up,” Jones said. “I would twist my ankle again and again and she would preach over and over about me not striding out at first base. I knew she was going to have an ‘I told you so’ moment.”
It was Sept. 28, 2011, and the Jayhawks were hosting an unofficial fall game at Arrocha Ballpark. During what was otherwise a somber day, Jeff Jones recalled one moment that made him laugh as he talked on the phone later with his injured daughter.
“Her team was ahead like 30-1, or something like that, and getting to first base was really not all that important,” Jeff Jones said. “But from her individual perspective, getting on first then is just as important as it would be in the NCAA Tournament, so honestly it didn’t surprise me. That’s just how she plays.”
He’s right. In her three years as a Jayhawk, Jones has made herself known as a fighter on the field. Whether heading to her position in centerfield or the circle, she’s in a dead sprint and double that on the base paths. Speed mixed with constant, infectious energy makes her the player she is. Nothing holds her down.
Until that night.
“Lying there, 100,000 things were going through my mind,” Jones said. “I was trying to be optimistic and convince myself that I was over-exaggerating, that it really wasn’t that bad. But, I was in serious pain and couldn’t even hold my leg up myself. When they did the test, I could feel it myself. But I was still optimistic when they carried me off the field that it wasn’t that, but then I tried to prepare myself for the worst.”
When Alex was younger, her older sister, Syndi, tore her ACL playing basketball during her sophomore year of high school. She thought back to the way her sister described the way it felt when she had done it. Through courses she had already taken at KU, Alex was well aware that hyperextension of the knee was tearing the ACL.
Plus, there was no need to sugarcoat the possibilities – not that Alex would have accepted anything other than the facts regardless of her optimism. She and KU softball’s graduate assistant athletic trainer, Mallory Kelsay, had no idea how much they were about to go through together, but the night of Sept. 28, Kelsay prepped her for the MRI scheduled for the following day.
“I think before I even had the MRI, I knew for sure that it was torn, but getting the results back really solidified that this was happening,” Jones said. “The exact moment I realized that this was for real was when they did a test where they had to strap my knee in and it actually tests the elasticity in your knee. It pushes down on your shin, while it pulls up on your thigh, to test the strength of your ligament. I was bawling. Randy, the physical therapist that was there, had to have been thinking I was the most dramatic girl he’d ever come across, but it was that moment – it was so lax – that I 100 percent knew. I was just wondering if I was prepared to fight the long battle that I knew was coming.”
The doctors informed Alex that she had torn both the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL). She would have to wait and let the MCL heal for seven weeks before surgery was possible on the ACL so her surgery was set for Nov. 15. In total, the prognosis for a full recovery was seven months.
Now fully informed, she called home with the news.
“I talked to my dad first on the phone,” she remembered. “He quoted a (Bible) verse from James (1:2-4): ‘Although we may face trials of many kinds’ and repeated it when I told him the news, ‘Although we may face trials of many kinds’ but that verse starts with ‘Consider it pure joy that whenever you face trials of many kinds” And I thought, no way in the world can I consider this joyful at all, but I look back on it now and it makes perfect sense.”
Jeff also recalls that conversation. Although he had always known and been impressed with Alex’s – and all of his daughters’ – ability to see the big picture and work like crazy to make it happen, he knew that night he was talking to a girl in a lot of pain. Not simply from the injury, but from seeing her junior season stop before it started and knew what it meant to have something she loves taken away.
“I don’t think any dad wants their kids to suffer, but in trying to make some sense out of that scripture, I’m an old enough fart to recognize that when I have suffered in my past, there has come a point in time where the suffering seems to come around to where I can understand what that joy is supposed to be about,” he explained. “So as a daddy, realizing that when doo-doo happens, you don’t necessarily like it, but you take what life gives you and you move on. So I’m fairly certain that was the gist of the conversation I had with her that night.”
Surgery went as planned and Alex’s mom, Sherri, came to Lawrence to see her daughter through the tough first few days. Unsurprisingly to those close to her, Jones was immediately ready to start the rehab process. The seven-month recovery process was always being tested in Alex’s mind, ‘Maybe I can do this in six and a half months,’ she’d tell herself.
Unable to compete on the field, she battled instead with the timeline. Every day, Kelsay came ready to work and found her student-athlete prepared to do the same. As expected, rehab was grueling and painful.
“Mal and I used to joke about how you’re supposed to hate your physical therapist – or in this case, my athletic trainer – and there were so many days when I absolutely hated Mallory Kelsay,” Jones laughed. “But, Mal was my support system through the entire thing. It was amazing having her there. I look back on it now and it made me so much stronger mentally, and even physically, but it was a rough recovery.”
In true Alex Jones fashion, she started strengthening her leg before rehab even started as she explained that ACL patients immediately start losing muscle around their thighs and calves after suffering the injury. College athletes with muscles accustomed to an intense daily workout routine lose that mass even faster. So, even though she knew she’d have to start all over after the surgery, she wanted to build up her leg to have it as strong as possible for the rehab that was to come.
“A.J. fought to get better. She fought every day,” Kansas head coach Megan Smith said. “I’m sure there were days she didn’t want to, days that it hurt, she didn’t want to or was tired of it – but we never knew that. She fought through it because she wanted to get better.”
Alex traveled with the team to every game of the 2012 season. Just because she wasn’t playing didn’t mean she had nothing to offer. Smith and her staff used Jones and her intelligence to chart defenses and plays from the dugout. If one of her teammates blasted a home run, put down a bunt or fielded a ground ball, she was the first out of the dugout to congratulate them. Somehow, she became even more of a leader.
“The scary thing when you lose someone was thinking ‘How is our program going to respond when you think you lose a big part of your identity?’” Smith said. “Luckily for us, A.J. was even more a part of it. It’s really interesting to think that she was even more a part of our identity on the bench than she was on the field. That says a lot about her character and her wanting to be a part of things. There was nothing else she could do besides that, so she did it 100 percent.”
Now in the heart of the 2013 season, Jones has reclaimed her leadoff spot and paces the team with 33 runs scored and 10 stolen bases. The redshirt junior has hit .360 or better all season, but has shined even brighter in the circle as she leads the Kansas pitchers with a 1.88 ERA and holds a 7-1 record. To most, the vision of Jones sitting on the bench in warm-ups are a distant memory. To Alex, however, those recollections are something she’s centered her life around. Literally.
“I’ve decided what I want to do with my life because of my injury,” Jones said, who has changed her career goal to physical therapy. “I couldn’t be more excited about it. I feel like I came back even stronger as a player because of the injury – so I can honestly look back on it now and consider it pure joy, even though it sucked at the time. It was an absolutely crucial situation in my life that is leading me in a great direction.”
Jones has already finished her sports management degree requirements along with a minor in business, but has added pre-physical therapy to her education path. She is studying to take the GRE this summer and will start applying to PT schools next fall. Before she kicks off that career, however, she has a pressing one on the field to finish first.
“Getting back to where I am now took a lot of work,” Jones admitted. “It was never something that I took for granted. I was blessed with an injury, and the reason that I am this fast and the reason you see that fight from me in the circle, is because of something traumatic that I went through. Whether it sounds cheesy or not, just never be discouraged when you have some obstacle in your life because something really positive could come from it.”
She couldn’t be more right as she, Smith and her parents agree that Alex Jones might be even better now on the softball field than she was before.
“But for the record,” Jeff Jones said, “I suspect that I can still out run her in the first 10 yards.”