Speedy comeback follows derailed banner season WITTMAN MENDS WITH SPIRIT


Tim Wittman has lost track of the exact count. Has it been six knee operations or seven?

The Baltimore-born Spirit player knows the first was in 1982 -- cartilage, left knee -- and that the most recent was midway through last season -- to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee.

"I guess it's seven, if you count last season's as two," said Wittman, who began his comeback at the Spirit training camp last week.

The first five operations were to repair cartilage damage; three of the procedures were on the left knee and two on the right. The first was the most severe of the cartilage injuries, occurring early in the 1982-83 season and putting him out for the rest of the year.

Then, on Dec. 26 last year, 13 games into the Spirit's 40-game regular season, on the road against the Cleveland Crunch, Wittman planted his right leg and was hit on the side of his knee by a Cleveland player.

"I knew I'd hurt it," Wittman said. "I heard it. A Cleveland doctor said he didn't think I'd be able to play the second half. I said, 'No kidding.' He said maybe I could play in three to six weeks."

In actuality, it was six months, if he was lucky. A lot longer for anyone without the resolve of Tim Wittman.

Until then, the former Calvert Hall star and the leading scorer in the history of the Blast was having a banner season for the Spirit. At 30 and in his 12th indoor season, he was second to Paul Wright in points with 40 and in goals with 11, and had a team-high 19 assists.

Three days after the injury, Dr. Les Matthews, a former Johns Hopkins lacrosse goalie and chief orthopedic surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital's Sports Medicine Center, performed exploratory surgery.

"He then decided to wait six weeks until the trauma was gone," Wittman said. "It heals better that way."

On Feb. 23, Matthews repaired the ligament, scooped out bone chips and sewed cartilage.

"We knew it was a severe ligament injury," Matthews said. "But there were other concerns, about cartilage damage, about the amount of chronic deterioration in the joint. Because of that, he was facing a possible career-ending injury."

Many athletes today come back from anterior cruciate ligament surgery. Spirit coach Dave MacWilliams came back from it in 1986, with a 16-inch scar as a souvenir, and medical technology has advanced considerably since then.

"They told me it would take 18 months to come back," MacWilliams said. "I thought it was great I came back in 10. Now, Tim's back in less than that."

Wittman's speedy recovery has not surprised Matthews. He attributes it at least in part to Wittman's toughness and dedication to fitness.

"I felt going in that if anyone could come back from this, it would be a tough kid like Tim," Matthews said.

A sinewy 5 feet 7, 145 pounds, Wittman is nothing if not tough. He is hyper and an exercise devotee; if it's not soccer, it's weights or karate.

"Some guys are addicted to their work, others to alcohol or drugs," Wittman said. "My addiction is working out. I eat right, stay in shape. That helped during rehab."

Wittman, who grew up in the Herring Run section of Baltimore and went directly from Calvert Hall to pro soccer, began mild exercise two days after Matthews closed the two incisions. He tried not to overdo it -- "listening to my body" -- but gradually built up to six days of workouts a week.

"Timmy has such a disciplined lifestyle that he removed all obstacles that could slow healing," said Marty McGinty, an athletic trainer at the Sports Medicine Center. "His body is willing to heal as fast as it does because of the way he treats himself. He never says, 'I can't.' He says, 'I will.' Timmy never concedes defeat."

In August, when he was working at soccer camps and helping coach at Calvert Hall, it dawned on Wittman that he was able to dribble, cut, run and shoot.

It was then that he decided he would come back for his 13th year of indoor soccer.

"He hasn't lost a step," said Spirit teammate Barry Stitz. "I didn't think he'd be back until midseason."

Wittman occasionally concedes to his age and knees by taking a day off from practice.

9- After all, he said, "I'm not 19 anymore."

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