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Image courtesy of Ryan Kuttler and Northwestern Athletics

Return of the Back: the recovery and resilience of Cam Porter

Twelve months post-knee surgery, the rising star running back feels better than ever.

The atmosphere in Ryan Fieldhouse is electric. The sidelines of the indoor football field are crowded with players, and the air is polluted with whistles and energetic yells. The scoreboard reads a graphic listing the days until Northwestern will play Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland, serving as a countdown and a reminder of the 56-7 drubbing handed down by the Huskers last season.

The offense faces away from the board, donning white mesh practice jerseys, purple pants and new helmets set to debut in 2022. As the quarterback readies the offense, cheers from the sidelines are loud as ever.

To his left stands the running back, pants cut off at the knees and jersey pulled up in the front so only the top of the number four is visible. His sweat-stained mesh uniform is now fully see-through, revealing the pads underneath. Despite the noise around him, he’s dialed in.

The running back takes the handoff, bursting through a hole in the left side of the line with speed unmatched by anyone around him. When a defender attempts to tackle him, a quick jump cut shakes him loose and sends the running back off to the races. Whistles interject the “ooh”s and “ahh”s from the sidelines, but the man wearing number four keeps sprinting full steam ahead and doesn’t stop until he reaches the end zone.

Cam Porter appears healthy and ready to go. He’s quick, he’s shifty, and he shows no sign of injury at all — unless you get close enough to see the three-inch scar down his right knee. To most, the scar is just another injury, but to Porter, it’s a reminder of how quickly one can lose it all, and the long, difficult journey to get it all back again.

After breaking out toward the end of the 2020 season, Wildcat coaches and fans knew they had something special with Porter. A true freshman, the Cincinnati native ran for 301 yards and four scores in the final three weeks of the season. Displaying his ability in crucial games against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and Auburn in the Citrus Bowl, Porter proved he could handle the workload and produce with star quality.

It was clear he would be a valuable piece moving forward in an offense that graduated so much of its talent after that magical 2020 season. He was so valuable, in fact, that his coaches had him wear a red “non-contact” penny in camp, an honor usually reserved for the quarterbacks. Unfortunately, the extra layer of protection was not enough to keep him healthy.

In early August 2021, Porter was doing drills that required him to haul in deep passes down the sideline. There was no contact involved — nothing could hurt him other than chance. As he ran down the left sideline, Porter jumped up to catch the pass over his shoulder. When he tried to plant his leg, his right knee “tweaked,” and he fell to the ground.

Porter didn’t initially believe the injury to be as bad as it was. He knew something was wrong, but thought it was just a minor hyperextension and asked the trainers and coaches if he could go back to practice. When the MRIs came in though, they revealed much worse: a fully torn ACL and meniscus. Just weeks before Northwestern’s opening game, Porter’s sophomore season was over before it ever began.

Although he suffered minor hand and shoulder injuries in high school, Porter was always been able to ignore them and play through. His knee though, he said, was one of those serious injuries you couldn’t outlast. The news hit him hard — he called the thought of missing the entire season heartbreaking.

“It was probably some of the worst news I’ve ever received,” Porter said. “The amount of work and the amount of time you put into your craft, and to realize that it has no chance of paying off, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world.”

A week later, Porter had reconstructive surgery where doctors took pieces of his patellar tendon and used them to reattach his torn ligaments. After waking up from surgery, Porter described the feeling as some of the worst pain he’d ever felt. To help stabilize his knee, a lockdown brace that prevented the joint from bending was strapped onto Porter’s leg, set to stay on for 24 hours a day for six to eight weeks, followed by another three weeks of a smaller brace.

Despite the pain and discomfort, Northwestern’s trainers, led by Ryan Jarema, began rehab with Porter the following day. He worked endlessly in the training room to get his knee back to full strength. However, what Porter said he had trouble with the most was not his injury, but his mind.

“You go from a potential All-Big Ten guy like [people are] saying to not being able to walk in the blink of an eye,” he said. “You had those tough moments early in the process when you are going through it and you can’t walk and you need help doing everything. Those were kind of those moments you sulk and you feel sorry for yourself.”

After a tough first month, Porter made the decision to stop feeling sorry for himself and change his mindset moving forward. He told himself what was done was done, to control what he could control. By setting a goal to become the best version of himself upon his return, Porter was able to push past any doubt or fear surrounding his injury and move into the next phase of his recovery.

“I was like, ‘Alright, you’re about to use this situation to become bigger, better, smarter and use it as an opportunity to help myself grow not only as a football player but as a man,’” Porter said. “That’s the only mindset I had from that point on. Switching my mentality was everything for me.”

Once he fixed his mind, his body began to fix itself as well. Porter progressed tirelessly with Northwestern’s training staff, strengthening his knee through workouts like leg presses and knee extensions before finally moving from the training room back into the weight room. He utilized an underwater treadmill to regain his running form using the weightlessness as a way to get back to practicing jump cuts and lateral movements. Before long, he was doing lifts and activities that any healthy player would normally do.

While training himself back to health, Porter stayed engaged with his team. It was tough being in that position, he said, but he still tried to get to as many meetings as he could and would attend almost every practice in order to cheer on the guys. During spring camp, while he was beginning to do his own individual workouts on the side of the team practice, Porter would stand behind his fellow running backs on the field and walk through the activities that they were doing. The walkthroughs really helped Porter as he got closer to being ready, and the mental reps offered just a slight glimpse at his future on the field again.

When summer training camp came around, Porter took off his knee brace.

Through the later stages of his rehab and his individual training in spring camp, he wore an athletic knee brace, similar to what offensive linemen wear. After passing all of his tests and being cleared for full contact, it was his decision to remove it.

“I don’t want to be thinking about my knee at all when I’m out there playing,” Porter said about taking off the brace, noting he felt that it slowed him down. “I don’t want anything to even remind me of my previous injury.”

Image courtesy of Ryan Kuttler and Northwestern Athletics.

Now 12 months post-operation, there are no physical limitations to what Porter can do. When he stepped back out onto the practice field, Porter said he had no doubt or fear about his knee holding up. Instead, all he could think about was how excited and ready to play again he was.

“I’m just excited to feel the atmosphere of playing college football again,” Porter said. “I think there’s no better feeling than being out there and playing college football, so I’m just excited for everything that comes with this great game.”

Porter feels just like himself again after a long, strenuous recovery. He’s thankful for the training staff, doctors and coaches for helping him get back to playing football again, and can’t wait to prove to himself that all the work he put in is going to pay off.

Those around Porter also have noticed his progress, and the job he’s done in his recovery has caught the eyes of his teammates and coaches. Running backs coach Lou Ayeni is among those impressed and has high expectations for his lead back.

“He’s attacked that thing like I know Cam Porter would,” Ayeni said. “I expect him to be as good as anyone in the conference.

Above all, Porter has found a new appreciation for football through his recovery process.

“I think it made me realize how much I love this game,” Porter said. “I appreciate it so much more because of the injury. It made me realize that this game could be taken away from you in the blink of an eye. So every time you step out there, just make the most of it.”

While Porter wants to prove to himself that he’s made the full recovery, he, more importantly, wants to ensure that his teammates get the best version of him and that he can help them win games. After all he’s endured and all he’s put himself through, Porter is finally ready to return to the big stage.

He’ll do that in Dublin, and he’s prepared to give it his all. He’s not much of a ‘rah-rah’ guy, and his pregame routine will be the same as it always has been. He’ll put his headphones in, get himself mentally focused and ready, and then he’ll call his grandmother to pray together, a tradition he’s had with her since high school. And then, for the first time in over a year, he will take the field and reunite with the game he loves.

“All the preparation is done,” Porter said. “Now it’s just time to play and let loose.”

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