September 5, 2012

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Rob Pannell In His Own Words: Part II – The Injury

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Rob Pannell broke a bone in his left foot early in the 2012 season and had a three-inch screw surgically inserted just days later with the intent of returning for the end of the Cornell season and the playoffs. But he never made it back.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

* Pannell In His Own Words: Part I – The Journey
* Photo Gallery: Career in Images
* Forman: How Do You Measure 'The Red Mamba'?

Who is Rob Pannell the person, behind Rob Pannell the player? In search of the answer to that question and more, Lacrosse Magazine's Matt Forman spent two days with Pannell at his home on Long Island in Smithtown, N.Y., in late July as he awaited a decision from the Ivy League on his fifth year of eligibility. What quickly became apparent is that Pannell needed his own platform, to tell his own story. To tell us everything in uncensored, stream-of-consciousness reflections.

As you'll read in a three-part interview released on LaxMagazine.com this week, Pannell's career has been a winding road, one which Pannell has chronicled in his own words. He takes us through the twists and turns — the recruiting snubs, the college commitments (plural), the post-grad experience at Deerfield Academy, the freshman season in which he was one fluky flip in Foxborough away from a national championship, a Tewaaraton-caliber season overshadowed by Steele Stanwick's title run, and the season-ending injury that left more questions than answers — that have defined the career of arguably the best attackman of his generation.

Part I addressed the journey from unknown to Tewaaraton Award candidate. Part II below describes the circumstances and reveals new details of the injury that forced him to miss most of the 2012 season. Check back Thursday for Part III.

There were a lot of unknowns about your injury. What happened?

It initially happened against Binghamton, the first game of the season, Feb. 28. I couldn't walk the next morning. Practice for the next few days was extremely painful. I probably should have sat out. I had just gotten off an elbow injury where I was out for two weeks, and I missed the Hopkins scrimmage. Any injury I've ever had fixed itself, and I didn't know any different. Leading up to the Army game, there was something wrong. I thought it was a bruise. I thought somebody stepped on my foot. It was probably a stress fracture. We were taping it and taping it, and I couldn't run. I would heat it up, and ice it down. I heated it up before the Army game. I loosened my cleats and played on it. I pushed it to its limit.

How and when did it happen?

It happened with 0.5 seconds left in the third quarter against Army. We had the ball with 20 seconds left. I drove to the cage, and when I planted I broke it. I continued to play and had an assist. We scored with 0.5 seconds left, and right when we scored I just fell to the ground and was in pain. My mom said the stadium was dead silent. The trainer pushed on where it was broken, and I screamed. My mom said you could hear me scream from the stands. It was the worst pain I've ever had in my life. I was carried off the field by two teammates. I got back to the locker room, and they wanted me to go for an X-ray. I said, 'No, I'll wait until the game's over. I want to be with my team.' Right when I got to the locker room, I drove myself to get an X-ray.

What was the diagnosis?

When I got back from the doctor's office, they had already been looking at the X-ray. It was a Jones fracture, breaking the bone of your pinkie toe that goes throughout your foot on top. I broke the left fifth metatarsal. I snapped the whole bone in half. I immediately just started bawling my eyes out. I went back in the locker room and called my mom and dad. They came in, and my mom was like, 'What's wrong?' It was absolutely awful. I haven't even thought of it until now. It was the worst thing ever. Everything I wanted to achieve with my classmates and all the success we planned to have together — it was our time, after three years of being underclassmen — and all of that just went away.

Then what were your options?

The trainer pushed on where it was broken, and I screamed. My mom said you could hear me scream from the stands. It was the worst pain I've ever had in my life.

- Cornell fifth-year attackman Rob Pannell

I had the option of surgery, or letting it heal naturally, which would have taken longer — about three months. Without a doubt, I was getting surgery. It was pretty much a no-brainer, if I was going to try to come back. My mindset the whole year was, 'I'm coming back before the end of the season, to be there for the playoffs.' I had surgery two days later, March 5. They put a three-inch screw in my left foot, bringing the bone together. The screw will stay there for the rest of my life.

What was your recovery timetable?

I wanted play within four to six weeks. I was shooting for April 10, for the Syracuse game. It was very optimistic. No one had tried to do that before. The earliest anyone had come back, by the records, was seven-and-a-half to eight weeks by a soccer player. I was trying to do it way earlier. Hakeem Nicks, the wide receiver for the Giants, did the same thing. It took him 12 weeks to come back, minimum. I was destined for failure. Unfortunately, looking back on it now, there was no way it was going to happen. I just kept trying to tell myself I was going to make it happen. It's still not 100 percent.

Where is it now?

I would say 90 or 95 percent now. But it's not right. It still feels weird. It probably will for the rest of my life. If I step on it the wrong way, I feel it. I wanted to play on Senior Day. To be honest, I just wanted to get back out on the field so bad. I was so eager to play lacrosse. I remember scoring a goal in practice, and I was like, 'Oh, that felt so good.' Guys were excited. It was cool. But it wasn't going to happen. The storybook ending we would have liked wasn't going to happen. So I put it off.

When did you practice?

Wednesday before the Brown game, Senior Day. I practiced, and then next day, Thursday is when I hurt it again. After rehabbing on the elliptical and staying in shape— pool workouts, arm bike, etc. — the first day back I wanted to play the next weekend. I told coach [Ben] DeLuca and he was like, 'What are you, crazy? You can't even run out there.' I was like, 'I can run!' He said, 'OK, well do this cutting drill for me.' I did the cutting drill and rolled over on it and I couldn't walk that night. I painfully walked off the field so he didn't know. But I injured it again. The pain was almost as bad the second time around.

What were you thinking?

I just kept asking myself, 'Why is this happening to me?' That's all I said. Looking back at everything I had gone through to get where I am — the journey, the Rob Pannell story — this is really what's going to happen? This is my career? I was on track for a big year. That was all I kept saying: 'Why is it happening to me?' It was the hardest thing I ever had to go through.

How tough was it?

I would sit in my room and cry. People around me were suffering. Watching practice, trying to help guys out and be as positive as I could, when really inside I was thinking, 'I really couldn't want to be anywhere less in the world right now. This is reminding me of not playing.' Games were awful. Having had control of the outcome for three years — I just wanted to get out there and do it myself sometimes. But I'll be better for it in the long run. It'll make me a stronger person. It's just another little bit of adversity that I had to go through.

If you don't get hurt in 2012, how was the season supposed to go?

Cornell goes undefeated, 19-0, and wins the national championship. That's it. That's what our senior class made our mission for our final season together. That's what we said. All the other goals would have fallen into place. It was very unfortunate that I got hurt and we were unable to accomplish that together, as a class.

Virginia's Steele Stanwick and Pannell at the 2012 Face-Off Classic in Baltimore.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

When did you decide you would not return and preserve your eligibility?

It was the week after the Brown game, before Princeton. We had a team meeting. Coach DeLuca told everyone, and then I met with my seniors afterward. I explained the whole situation. I told them I wasn't trying to be selfish. I wanted to come back, and I had all intentions of coming back, and trying to win it all with them. But it wasn't going to happen.

What was their reaction?

They understood. They were disappointed, because we all talked since freshman year about doing it all together, finishing together and graduating together. Some took it better than others. My best friends, Chris Langton and Mitch McMichael, were a little upset, because I hadn't really talked to them about it. They deserved to be told before anybody. They were a little surprised. But they might have seen it coming, by the way I was acting. It was weird for a few hours, being with them and living with them. But it passed by soon.

Any regrets?

I don't regret putting in the screw. But I do regret trying to practice. In hindsight, it wasn't worth it. I didn't have any shot of playing last year. It felt like I broke it again. I was so frustrated with myself.

Would you have applied earlier for the fifth year of eligibility, had you known what you know now?

I probably would have. I think it hurt the team. People thought I was going to come back. Everyone was trying to be optimistic. Once they found out I wasn't coming back, it was like a shot down — a big letdown. The team morale took a hit. It affected the outcome of our season. If I knew, I would have had surgery and said I was coming back for a fifth year.

News of your return broke during the final four. What was that like?

I had no idea. It was funny, because I was watching the final four on TV and they cut away, 'And news on Rob Pannell coming up at halftime.' I was like, 'Oh really? What is this news?' I have no idea how it got there. But it was funny.

What's the application process for a fifth year like?

As long as you don't graduate on time with enough credits, you can apply for a fifth year with the Ivy League. I took an Incomplete for a class, Introduction to Philosophy, because I wasn't able to do the work. I was going to be away from school, working with doctors and making sure my rehab was going well. Then when I re-injured it, I had to go back to meeting with doctors. I was off-campus for a while, and I was going to miss my final exam in this class. I came up with an academic plan, that if I were allowed to come back to Cornell, there were a couple classes offered in the spring that would allow me to fulfill a second specialization — strategy — within my applied economics and management major. That would help me out from a career standpoint, and I would love spending another semester at Cornell.

Your plan all along was to go back to Cornell?

Absolutely. All I wanted was to go back to Cornell, and I didn't even want to think about anywhere else. I want to finish my career where I started. I love Cornell. Everyone associates me with Cornell. They see that red jersey with No. 3, and they know it's Rob Pannell. As a human, you're going to think about things, because you're in the situation. My little brother from the time it happened said, 'Dude, just redshirt and come to Virginia to play with me.' That probably would be the only other place I would go, solely to play with my brother. Going to Virginia and trying to get my MBA, playing with him, was the 0.1 percent chance if the Ivy League didn't approve me, with 99.9 percent chance of going back to Cornell.

Check back to LaxMagazine.com on Thursday for Part III of Rob Pannell: In His Own Words. Part I is here.

A version of this article appears in the September issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.


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