“Push through adversity, never quit.”
Plucked from Mike Atkinson’s Twitter profile, that short, simple sentence pretty much sums up the man.
After tearing his left ACL a little under three years ago, and then tearing it again, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive tackle is finally back to normal — or at least as close to normal as he’s going to get.
It wasn’t an easy journey.
“There were ups and downs,” the 26-year-old said. “I was kind of lost for a while, but the Ticats took me in and I embraced whatever it took to get better.”
That includes rehab, stretching, and a torturous twice-a-day cold tub ritual. Things he never did before he was hurt.
But that’s not where the story starts.
It was November 2012 and Atkinson’s Boise State Broncos were hosting rival San Diego State. Atkinson wasn’t making a block or a tackle, just, as he puts it, pushing; running back out of bounds.
Then he felt it.
With a single movement, the 6-foot, 312-pound lineman had blown his knee and, as he’d discover the following April, his shot at being drafted to the NFL.
“I was too tight,” he said. “I wasn’t flexible and I was never working on that stuff because I had never really been injured like that.
“I took it for granted.”
The Windsor native, a third-round pick of the Ticats in 2012, had surgery immediately and got to work on getting well. Nine months down the road, however, he was dealt a second blow — one that quashed his hopes of donning a Hamilton jersey for all of 2013 campaign and much of the campaign that followed.
“The doctor checked up on it and it was actually retorn,” he said of the ligament. “I didn’t know. So I rehabbed probably for five months without an ACL. That’s why it took so long for me to get back.”
But he did — about midway through last season — and, according to Tiger-Cats defensive line coach Dennis McPhee, he’s been growing, contributing, and gaining confidence steadily since.
“Perseverance is the word that comes to mind,” he said. “It’s probably overused in a lot of situations, but Mike has been very persistent on his comeback and he’s worked very hard on and off the field in therapy.
“To tear it twice — to injure it, come back and then tear the repair — a lot of guys would have shut it down.”
He didn’t. And now he, along with Hasan Hazime, who’s coming off an injury to his Achilles tendon, is being rotated into the lineup to help lighten the load on starters Ted Laurent and Bryan Hall — “to sort of give them a chance to catch their breath on the sidelines and play a little bit fresher,” said McPhee.
He has one tackle on about 20 snaps so far.
Atkinson kept going for a lot of reasons: the love of the game, the brotherhood in the locker-room, the desire to make his family proud. Mostly, though, he did it for himself.
“If I can get over this and get over surgeries and get over the hill of just so many — I don’t even know the word,” he said. “But if I can get over this, I can get over anything in life.”
Notes: Tiger-Cats quarterback Zach Collaros and defensive end Eric Norwood are among the CFL’s top performers of the week for their work in last weekend’s win over B.C. — Hamilton’s fourth straight. Collaros completed 19 of 23 passes for 290 yards Saturday, including four touchdown passes, while Norwood posted four tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery that he returned for his first career touchdown.