SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The device doesn’t look like much, just a clunky piece of beige medical equipment. About three feet long and a foot high, it resembles a cushioned splint with a backrest, not the stage for Josh Adams’ comeback.
Two years ago Notre Dame’s freshman running back strapped himself into that Continuous Passive Motion machine to begin rehab on the torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee, which had also absorbed a severe MCL sprain.
Adams had gone down midway through a junior season at Central Bucks South outside Philadelphia, a run good enough that Notre Dame, Penn State and Stanford had offered scholarships. If Adams wanted to accept any of them, his comeback started with that CPM machine, which would forcibly bend that knee.
Surgery complete and back home in Warrington, Pa., Adams lowered himself onto the couch and plugged in. His mother Apryll sat next to him.
“It feels like you’re trying to move something that’s not supposed to be moved,” Adams said. “It was a lot like tearing your ACL. I definitely did cry. I’m not ashamed of that.”
Six months later Adams came out the other side of that rehab. His pain tolerance got him there. So did his mother’s support. And the advice of physical therapist Frank Angiolillo, who was still a stranger.
When Adams first met with Angiolillo to set up the rehab, Apryll joined the meeting to go over the details. Angiolillo knew Adams was a three-sport athlete in the National Honor Society. He also knew the rate of re-injury in Adams’ case was roughly 25 percent. He wondered out loud if Adams might want to quit football, focus on track and apply to an Ivy League school.
Apryll cut him off.
“She got up in my face, ‘You get this straight, he’s gonna be scoring touchdowns for Notre Dame, Stanford or Penn State. You got me?’” Angiolillo recalled. “I got her loud and clear. And I didn’t ever bring it up again.”
Adams scored six touchdowns this fall, the first coming on his first carry. Heading toward the Fiesta Bowl and Ohio State, he’s on track to finish as Notre Dame’s all-time freshman rushing leader, behind Darius Walker by just 29 yards. His 168 yards against Stanford are the single-game school standard for freshmen. That 98-yard run against Wake Forest is the longest play in Notre Dame history.
While he doesn’t qualify among the NCAA’s rushing leaders – that requires averaging 10 carries per game – Adams’ 7.3-yard average would trail only Florida State’s Dalvin Cook among Power 5 backs.
Not bad for a regional recruit with a bad knee, even if his mother swears this was meant to be from birth.
“Josh came out of the womb rushing yards,” Apryll said. “He was premature, four pounds, 12 ounces when he was born. My last baby. But he came out fast, grew fast, got strong fast. And I knew he was something special when he started that rehab. I gained a new respect for him then.”
It took Angiolillo a bit longer, but not by much.
Three months into rehab Angiolillo wanted to measure Adams’ right knee with a standing hop test. Pass that and Adams could get back to cutting, bending, stopping, being a running back. Adams stood on his repaired right leg and put his left knee at a 90-degree angle backward. Then he performed a standing long jump.
Adams traveled seven feet, two inches.
“I told him the charts don’t go where you live,” Angiolillo said. “I never saw anything like it. I’m sure I’ll never see anything like it again. It was breathtaking.
Adams and Angiolillo remain close, the running back inviting the physical therapist to a few games during his senior year, when he was already committed to Notre Dame. Angiolillo attended Adams’ graduation open house and stood around the running back in a prayer circle led by his pastor. He attended the Temple game in November, the only time Adams didn’t get a carry.
“I didn’t do anything spectacular, Josh got himself back to where he is,” Angiolillo said. “If you can’t rehab Josh Adams, you can’t rehab anybody.”
Adams averaged better than 17 carries per game in November with C.J. Prosise slammed by a concussion and high ankle sprain. Notre Dame expects the senior back for Ohio State, but Adams has earned his place in the rotation.
He still wears a brace on that right knee, a reminder of the comeback necessary before he could even start his Notre Dame career. There’s no point in taking it off now. That injury and rehab are as much a part of Adams’ game as the stiff-arm that sprung his 98-yard run against Wake Forest.
“I just thank God that I went through it because it’s a process that made me stronger,” Adams said. “I’m not gonna doubt my abilities from the knee because I know I’ve worked hard to get back. It makes you stronger as a person to go through that.”