How often do ACL tears happen to athletes?

How’s your fantasy football team doing? Lost any star players to an anterior cruciate ligament or ACL tear? St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is out for a tear in his left knee for the second season in a row. Stephen Tulloch, a linebacker for the Detroit Lions, went down in week three with an ACL tear in his left knee.

ACL tears are common in football players and in professional, amateur and youth athletes in other contact sports with more than 250,000 occurring each year. An ACL tear is a season-ending injury, but does it signal the end of an athlete’s career? Not necessarily.

ACL tears affect 250,000 athletes each year Click To Tweet

So how often do athletes with ACL tears return to the sport they love? Dr. Joshua Harris, a Houston Methodist orthopedic surgeon, sought out to find just that. He matched athletes with ACL tears in the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and the X Games to athletes without tears based on age, experience and pre-tear performance.

“In addition to determining how often these athletes are able to return to sport after an ACL tear, our studies also revealed interesting patterns in ACL tears,” Dr. Harris said. “For example, we were able to determine which NBA playing positions had a harder time recovering and which knee was more susceptible to ACL tears in MLS players.”

National Hockey League

Athletes in the NHL had a return to sport rate of 97 percent – the highest rate of all major sports leagues. Left-handed shooters are more likely to tear their ACL, but all performed better after returning to the ice.

National Football League

Because the rates of ACL tears in the NFL are so high and specific offensive and defensive positions are unique in their cutting and pivoting demands on the knee, Dr. Harris and his team decided to narrow their research for this study to quarterbacks. The researchers found quarterbacks have a return to sport rate of 92 percent and, on average, played for five years after returning from an ACL tear, which proved ACL tears are not career-ending injuries for quarterbacks.


National Basketball Association

Dr. Harris found that 62 percent of ACL tears in the NBA occur in the second half, mostly in the fourth quarter of the game, possibly due to fatigue. Overall, NBA athletes have a high return to sport rate of 86 percent. Guards have the most difficult time returning to sport, while centers have the most predictable outcomes.

Major League Soccer

While most injuries in Major League Soccer athletes are non-contact injuries, these players tend to have more ACL tears in their left knee and have a 77 percent chance of returning to the field after an ACL tear.

“Because of the cutting and pivoting nature of soccer, MLS players may have more ACL tears in the leg they plant with,” Dr. Harris said. “The majority of soccer players kick with their right and plant with their left, which may explain why they tend to have more ACL tears in their left knee.”

X Games

Dr. Harris and his team looked specifically at skiers and snowboarders. Skiers tend to have more tears in their left knee and had an 87 percent chance of returning to their sport. Snowboarders had a 70 percent return to sport rate and won more medals after recovering from an ACL tear.

“This injury can happen to anyone,” Dr. Harris explained. “Researching ACL tears in athletes helps all of our patients because we are able to evaluate treatments and bring the best solutions back to our practice.”

What are the Transplant Games of America?

Born with a heart defect and diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004, then 42-year old Brian Gilliam was told he would need a heart transplant to stay alive. Surprisingly, he was against the idea. He felt he had lived a good life and didn’t want to take an organ away from a younger person who he thought needed it more than he did. After his family told him they would like him to stick around a little longer, he changed his mind.

Since receiving a new heart in 2008, Brian has been a tireless promoter of organ donation and lives life to the fullest. He spends many hours visiting and encouraging other patients to be strong and not afraid because, as he puts it, “there is life after transplant.”

His passion fueled him to take part in the National Kidney Foundation Transplant Games in 2010. The experience inspired him. He watched people who went through the same experience he had gone through thrive in sports like swimming and basketball. In November, 2011, the games were abruptly canceled, leaving Gilliam and the rest of the team devastated.

Later, a group from Michigan breathed new life to the games after being approached by a persistent kidney transplant patient named T.J. Maciak. With only a few months to prepare, The Western Michigan Sports Commission hosted the first Transplant Games of America in July, 2012 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Gilliam, along with Houston Methodist J,C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center Coordinator, Donna Esposito, quickly assembled a team of 86 transplant recipients, living donors, donor families and supporters to go to the games. Team Texas took home more than 60 medals. When Brian and Donna found out that the games would continue in 2014, they both set out to bring those games to Houston.

There is life after transplant Click To Tweet

They met with Janis Burke, head of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, the group responsible for bringing high-profile events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four to Houston. Burke loved the idea of the games. After putting together a bid, the pitch was made to the Michigan group.  The games were awarded to Houston.

Since then, Brian and Donna, along with co-captain and kidney transplant patient Amy Frackowiak, have traveled around the state recruiting transplant recipients, living donors and donor families. To date, nearly 400 people have signed up to be members of Team Texas.

The event takes place July 11 – 15 in Houston with events such as swimming, bowling, golf, and track and field. There will be information booths and seminars about organ donation and transplantation, along with a special ceremony honoring donors at The Wortham Theater. There will also be opening ceremonies on Saturday, July 12 at BBVA Compass Stadium and closing ceremonies on July 15 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

I invite you to attend the five-day event; it’s very inspiring. I attended the 2012 games and watching people who were once on the brink of death competing at such a high level is truly something to see. It’s beautiful to watch people of all ages and from all different ethnic backgrounds come together like they have known each other for years, sharing stories, expressing their gratitude for their donors and celebrating their second chance at life. The thing you will notice if you attend is how everyone is always smiling. It doesn’t matter what they are doing … they are always smiling. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

For more information about the 2014 Donate Life Transplant Games of America, click here. To get involved in Team Texas, go to