Raul Vijil didn’t want the last image of his arena football career to be of him hobbling off the field with a serious knee injury in Milwaukee last June.
He knew there would be some who doubted his chances of coming back from a torn ACL and damaged MCL, especially when he set his target date as the opening of Spokane Shock training camp on Feb. 19. That was less than six months after the Sept. 1 surgery to repair his ACL.
“I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that I could do it,” said Vijil, who has been with the Shock since the team’s inaugural season in 2006. “I love playing this game and I didn’t go out on the greatest note. I didn’t want that to be my career ending injury.”
So he did something about it. Vijil left nothing to chance, devoting countless hours to rehabilitating his knee.
“The second week after surgery I went in and they were like, ‘Raul what are you doing here?’,” Vijil said. “I’m ready to start.”
Working with Rockwood Clinic and later at APX Strength, where Vijil is employed as a performance coach, he began with stretching and flexibility drills. He spent time in the pool. If two workouts were required, he’d often do a third.
There were days with measurable progress and days he thought he’d never reach his long-term goal.
“Every month or so I’d go see my doctor and he gave me the dos and don’ts,” Vijil said. “A couple of times I was like, ‘When can I start running?’ And he’d say, ‘Just give it another month.’ In the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘I just ran stairs.’ I think I pushed them as well as they tried to push me. I kind of pushed the limits.”
He kept a countdown calendar on the wall, starting 80 days out from training camp. A six-month turnaround from ACL surgery isn’t unheard of, but it’s probably ahead of the norm, particularly for an athlete playing a demanding, run-oriented position like wide receiver. Head coach Rob Keefe called Vijil’s return on the first day of camp “kind of a medical miracle.”
Vijil weighed 200 pounds with 18 percent body fat in mid November. He eventually trimmed down to 185 pounds and seven percent body fat.
“Six to nine months is pretty common, but Raul accelerated it quickly because he was extremely determined,” said Drew Buchkoski, owner of APX Strength. “A lot of it had to do with the individual and a lot of it had to do with the science.”
Vijil’s goal wasn’t just to return, but to be an effective player. He convinced his teammates and coaches he was ready during training camp. In the season opener, Vijil had 13 catches for 161 yards and one touchdown. He has 24 receptions for 240 yards in three games. He missed one game with an illness.
“It’s going to be a process, even after the season ends,” said Vijil, who doesn’t wear a knee brace. “Feeling the way it used to, I don’t know if it ever will, but I feel good. Maybe midseason is where I get to 100 percent with the ball in my hands, that extra explosiveness, but I’m in the 90 percentile for sure.”
He’s absorbed numerous hits that have convinced him of the soundness of his knee.
“Watching film a couple times people were like, ‘How did it feel when you took that hit in the second half?’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘What hit?’ Then I’d watch it and say, “Oh, I kind of got twisted up a little bit.’ But I think I’m past worrying about it.”