OMAHA, Neb. — No one would have blamed Creighton’s Martin Krampelj if he had decided basketball wasn’t for him anymore after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Coming back from one ACL tear is quite common.
Coming back from three is not.
Krampelj was establishing himself as one of the most improved players in the Big East when he stepped awkwardly on teammate Kaleb Joseph’s right foot during a game against Seton Hall on Jan. 17. He got the bad news the next day, and if there was any self-pitying thought of “Oh, no, not again,” it was fleeting.
“When I got my MRI results, I was like, ‘I’m coming back,’ ” Krampelj said. “It’s so worth it.”
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound junior forward from Slovenia (his name is pronounced Mar-TEEN CROM-pul) knew all too well what was ahead following surgery. The rehabilitation process is not only hard work, it can be painful. There are mental obstacles, none more prevalent than fear of re-injury. He also would have to rebuild his conditioning.
“There would be a lot of people giving it up after the first or second one,” Krampelj said. “I’m not a quitter. I’m not going to give up, and that’s it.”
Krampelj first tore his left ACL during a tournament in France in 2013 in a non-contact situation. He tore his right ACL during a practice early in the 2015-16 season when he got tangled with former teammate Zach Hanson. And then there was the fluke landing on Joseph’s foot that resulted in yet another tear in the left knee.
“Everything happens for a reason. I believe in that,” Krampelj said. “You never know what it’s good for. God gives the toughest battles to the toughest soldiers.”
Former Purdue star Robbie Hummel, who came back from two ACL tears in 2010, said he isn’t sure he would have the wherewithal to do what Krampelj is attempting.
“It’s hard to continually put everything you have into something and to be consistently disappointed by it, especially with something that should be joyful,” Hummel said. “It’s fun to play college basketball, it’s fun to play a sport at a high level like that. When you keep getting let down in a way, it can be really, really frustrating and really hard. Respect to Martin for coming back again and again because it is a tough process.”
Dr. Andrew Cosgarea, professor of orthopedic surgery and chief of the Division of Sports Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said while it’s not unusual for people to tear ACLs multiple times, it’s rare for elite athletes to play at the same level following multiple tears.
“There is such a finite opportunity for success at the Division I and professional level, and I think you run out of time, you become selected out, you lose those opportunities when you’re gone that much,” Cosgarea said.
Creighton head athletic trainer Ben McNair said Krampelj’s upbeat attitude has helped him battle through the arduous rehab. When dealing with one or more ACL tears, McNair said, the medical staff explains to the athlete the higher risk of re-injury and lays out the rehab plan, and then it’s up to the athlete whether he or she wants to do the work necessary to play again.
“Martin is a full-speed-ahead kind of guy. Usually, you have to pull the reins back on him rather than kick him in the butt,” McNair said.
Krampelj played on national teams in Slovenia before leaving in 2014 to attend Impact Academy in Sarasota, Florida. He drew recruiting interest from West Virginia, Rhode Island, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech but was sold on Creighton when 14,000 fans showed up to watch an exhibition game during his official campus visit.
He took a redshirt year after the ACL tear seven games into the 2015-16 season, and he backed up first-round draft pick Justin Patton during an injury-free 2016-17. Before getting hurt last January, Krampelj was averaging 11.9 points and 8.1 rebounds and was second in the Big East in field goal percentage.
Until now, Creighton coach Greg McDermott has never had a player attempt a comeback after three ACL tears in his 25 years as a head coach. Though Krampelj injured an ankle in preseason practice, he’s being counted on right away to give the Bluejays a strong inside presence. His leadership also is needed on a team that lost four of its top six scorers, including Marcus Foster and NBA draft pick Khyri Thomas.
McDermott likes Krampelj’s chances for a successful return.
“To come back and be as athletic as he is, there is not one ounce of athleticism he’s lost during the process,” McDermott said. “In fact, it seems he’s come back stronger and with more authority in that he’s doing athletically. It’s a real credit to him and his work ethic that he’s back to the point he is.”