Ike Opara was 26 in 2015, in the prime of his career and facing the possibility of retiring from professional soccer due to a torn Achilles tendon.
“I thought that was it for me,” Opara said.
This year, the defender is one of the major reasons Sporting Kansas City is a MLS Cup contender. Opara is one of a handful of Kansas City professional athletes who have demonstrated that an Achilles injury no longer is considered a career-ender.
That’s thanks to Dr. Kirk McCullough of the Kansas City Orthopaedic Institute. McCullough uses an innovative surgical technique invented by Florida-based medical company Arthrex called the “mini-open,” a minimal incision compared to the usual long cut that leaves an ugly scar.
“We decrease their risk of having a wound complication that has devastated professional and amateur athletes alike while, at the same time, giving them a much more reliable chance to get back to their pre-injury function,” McCullough said.
The procedure was “the kick-start for me to switch my mindset from possibly retirement to getting thing back into full gear,” said Opara, the MLS Defender of the Year in 2017 who got his first call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team in January.
Former Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson also had a “mini-open” for two season-ending torn Achilles injuries: in the 2014 season opener against the Tennessee Titans and in December 2016 against the Oakland Raiders.
Aaron Borgmann, a physical therapist and athletic trainer who used to work for the Chiefs, helped Johnson return to the field both times.
“I would like to say that the complications, or lack thereof, following all the new inventions of surgery and the new advancement of surgical procedures have been a welcomed change,” said Borgmann, who also worked with Chiefs coach Andy Reid while with the Philadelphia Eagles. Borghmann now runs his own business, Borgmann Rehab Solutions.
The Lower Extremity Review published a paper four years ago estimating that there are about 18 ruptures per 100,000 in the general U.S. population. There’s a perception that Achilles injuries are increasing in the NFL, but McCullough disputes that, pointing to fantasy football, which places emphasis on individual players instead of a team.
Four years ago, he wrote in the Journal of Surgical Orthopaedic Advances that Achilles injuries are “infrequent” compared to ankle and knee injuries. But McCullough, who is a member of the NFL’s Foot and Ankle Subcommittee, isn’t able to comment on internal NFL figures until the results of the league’s study are released.
“As to the specifics is whether they happen now more frequently than they did a decade ago, I think we’re still trying to figure that out,” he noted.
In the Chiefs’ 2017 season opener at New England, five-time Pro Bowl selection Eric Berry was lost for the season with a left torn Achilles tendon. The 29-year old had the mini-open procedure and put on shoulder pads when training camp opened last month. But lately he hasn’t practiced due to a problem with his right heel.
Opara often gets questions from amateur athletes — aka weekend warriors — who hurt themselves playing sports for fun.
“Does it ever get better?” he said he hears the most. “I think a lot of people at times take one step forward and they take two or three steps back. They think there is no end in sight.”
Opara has shown that there are rewards after rehabbing. He admitted that he cringes each time he hears about someone sidelined by an Achilles injury. But with the mini-open surgery, even the casual athlete stands a good chance to play the sports he or she did before.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.