Serious knee injury, position change haven't stopped Maryland football's Andrew Isaacs

Maryland defensive lineman Andrew Isaacs (44), linebacker Jalen Brooks (top left), defensive lineman Keiron Howard (below) and defensive lineman Adam McLean (91) swarm Towson Tigers quarterback Ryan Stover as the pocket collapses against Towson on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.
Maryland defensive lineman Andrew Isaacs (44), linebacker Jalen Brooks (top left), defensive lineman Keiron Howard (below) and defensive lineman Adam McLean (91) swarm Towson Tigers quarterback Ryan Stover as the pocket collapses against Towson on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

COLLEGE PARK — Standing on the field at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., during a game early in the 2014 season, Maryland team doctor Craig Bennett didn't need an MRI to tell how serious sophomore tight end Andrew Isaacs' knee injury was.

"The knee was completely out of place. The thigh bone and the leg bone were not lining up," Bennett recalled.


Just by feeling the knee, Bennett knew that Isaacs had torn multiple ligaments. After pulling the knee back in place and accompanying Isaacs to a local hospital, Bennett's fears were confirmed. Isaacs had torn all four ligaments in his left knee, as well as his meniscus.

"The two worst knee injuries I've had in 20 years of working with athletes were [former Terps offensive lineman] Andrew Gonnella and Andrew Isaacs," said Bennett, now in his 15th season at Maryland after serving in a similar capacity with the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Maryland team doctor Craig Bennett (center) helps escort Andrew Isaacs off the field after Isaacs sustained a serious knee injury at Syracuse in 2014.
Maryland team doctor Craig Bennett (center) helps escort Andrew Isaacs off the field after Isaacs sustained a serious knee injury at Syracuse in 2014. (Greg Fiume / Maryland Athletics)

Gonnella, then a senior, sustained a dislocated knee at Georgia Tech in 2011. Gonnella's injury was so gruesome — with his bone protruding through the skin — that those televising the game opted not to show a replay.

Three years after leaving the Carrier Dome by ambulance and a year after getting back on the field for last season's opener against Howard following a rigorous rehabilitation, Isaacs celebrated Saturday for more than just his team's 63-17 win over Towson.

Having switched to defensive end toward the end of last season, the 6-foot-2, 254-pound redshirt senior was in on two second-half sacks Saturday. It might have given Isaacs a chance to play a regular role in the continued absence of injured linebacker Jesse Aniebonam.

It was the culmination of a journey that began in agony in upstate New York and had more than its share of bumps even after the knee had healed. After returning to the team last season under first-year coach DJ Durkin, Isaacs barely played.

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"Individually, it was probably one of my better moments," Isaacs said, sitting in Gossett Team House talking to reporters after the Towson game. "I've had a lot of great times here at Maryland on the field and winning games … but that was probably my best moment."

Isaacs is defying the odds. According to a 2016 study of 51 NFL players in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, the chance of those with ACL, PCL and LCL tears in the same knee returning to prior performance is 18 percent.

The extent of Isaacs' injury and the fact that he tore his ACL in high school lowered his chances even more.

"I never thought that [I wouldn't play again]. I always knew I was going to play," Isaacs said. "I didn't think it was going to be on defense, obviously. But once I got hurt, my main goal was getting back and helping my team win."

Recalling the feeling he had when he first stepped on the field again a year ago, Isaacs said it was rewarding.

"It felt good, just the emotions of going through the struggles of rehab," Isaacs said. "I never questioned going back out there, but you get a lot of outside noise of people who questioned whether or not you'll play. Just having the ability to get back on the field was amazing."

Asked what it was like to get the opportunity he did Saturday, Isaacs said, "Exciting. It's been a long road. Finally getting on the field and getting a chance to help our team was probably one of the best feelings I've had in a long time."

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While several players who didn't play under the new coaching staff last season opted to transfer last spring, Isaacs decided to stick it out despite the fact that he would have been immediately eligible elsewhere after graduating in May with a degree in communications.


"It was frustrating [not to play], but I believe in the direction of this program and what we're doing," said Isaacs, who is now attending graduate school at Maryland. "Leaving was not an option. I always wanted to stay and help us win."

Durkin has often credited the team's upperclassmen who remained after he took the job for helping develop the culture that is now starting to reap positive results on the field. In Durkin's eyes, Isaacs is right at the top of that list.

"Great teammate, great player, great friend, great person to coach," Durkin said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference. "He's been through a few things — traumatic injury in his career, very unselfishly he switched positions.

"He thought that was the best opportunity to get on the field and help us. We went ahead and did that. He's obviously learning a new position and getting better with every rep he gets. He's such a hard worker, an accountable-type guy."

Senior nose tackle Kingsley Opara, who roomed with Isaacs when they were freshmen, has watched the evolution. He recalled how Isaacs had to lose weight in order to get in the rotation at tight end, only to suffer the injury shortly after becoming a starter.

"He just balled hard to get on the field and then he had that unfortunate injury," Opara said Saturday. "It's great to see his maturation as a defensive lineman. Andrew just wanted to help the team. It's just a blessing to play with someone like Andrew. He's like my brother."

If he was familiar with the physical struggle of a serious knee injury and the rehab that follows — he tore the ACL in the same knee while playing at Manchester High in Connecticut — the switch from offense to defense tested Isaacs mentally.

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"I didn't realize how technical playing defensive line was," said Isaacs, who caught two passes for three yards as a tight end before getting injured. "Most people think you just run past people and try to make plays. There's a lot of technique involved, a lot of thinking involved. I'm still learning as it is, but I'm finally starting to see some progress."

With Durkin shuffling his defensive line in order to make up for the loss of Aniebonam, last year's sacks leader who broke his ankle in the season opener at Texas, Isaacs knows he can be part of the mix when the Terps play their next game on Sept. 23 against Central Florida.

Though he won't announce any decisions about the two-deep until the Terps start focusing on Central Florida in practice next week, Durkin said what Isaacs did against Towson "certainly helps."

"He played well with the reps he got," Durkin said.

Said Isaacs, "With anybody out, everyone has to step up, especially a guy of his caliber [being injured]. I feel a lot of our guys are trying to rally and play hard for one of our brothers who are done [for the season]."

Three years ago, Isaacs has had others rally around him. And Bennett, whose six-hour surgery to repair the player's mangled knee started Isaacs on the road back, was happy to witness something of a coming-back party for Isaacs at Maryland Stadium.

"I thought he'd be able to play again," Bennett said. "Did I think he'd come back and be athletic? Yes. Did I think I think he'd come back and play Division I football and have a sack? That's just him. Most kids wouldn't persevere like that."


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