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My Tommy John Experience: Anthony Brady, Part 1

After 30 months of rehab for two Tommy John surgeries as a Division III pitcher, Anthony Brady has succeeded in an inspiring battle to continue his passion

Out of all the people I have talked to for this series, Anthony Brady has had the most remarkable journey. In fact, that is why it takes two parts to tell his story. Brady spent a combined 30 months at a Division III college rehabbing from multiple Tommy John surgeries, which took a toll on him both mentally and physically. Having logged only three appearances after the first surgery, Brady essentially dedicated his entire college experience to the sole thought — the hope — of continuing to play this game. On top of all that, Brady is an athlete who rediscovered his career through a summer spent at Driveline Baseball — a place he credits for the continuation of his career after graduation. The story is a fascinating testament to a desire to keep going, even when he forgot the reason why.

If you have had Tommy John surgery and would like to participate in this series, feel free to email me at shawnbrody9@gmail.com, or DM me on Twitter (@ShawnBrody) to let me know.

Shawn Brody: When you tore your UCL the first time, as a freshman in college, what was your initial feeling?

Anthony Banks: The first time it happened I had two appearances already. I was the closer for the team, had two good outings (saves), and was really excited to be a college pitcher. In my third outing, when I tore it, I felt the pop, the zing, the pain. I wasn’t sure 100 percent what it was. I know that it was enough that my coach called time, then the trainer and coach came out. At the time, I actually told my coach that it wasn’t anything to do with my arm. I said that I had tweaked my hamstring on my landing, because I wanted to stay in the game and keep pitching.

So I got back on the mound, and they gave me a couple warmup pitches. I threw one with a completely stiff arm — everything was locked out so I didn’t really feel anything. I didn’t really feel any pain, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m totally fine.’ On the next one, I reared back and threw it as hard as I could. That was the most pain I have ever felt, as far as throwing a baseball goes. I just remember collapsing to the ground, pain up and down my arm. That moment was when I knew it was bad. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t think it was going to be a torn UCL, or anything like that. I’d never really seen anything like that growing up in a small town in Idaho. We never really had those huge injuries or seen anything like that. I thought it was just a minor injury.

When I got to the dugout, they were doing some tests on me, moving things around. It seemed grim. They were talking about things like, ‘We’ll have you back by next year.’ Once someone said that, it just blew my mind. I figured it was something where I’d be out for a few weeks, maybe a month at most. When people started to say that it looked like it was something more severe, that was brutal.

Anthony the moment he tore his UCL the first time

On top of that, the first thing I thought of was how hard it was going to be to call my dad later that day and let him know that I had done something pretty bad to my arm. That it was going to be pretty serious. Calling my dad and letting him know that was by far the hardest part of the thought process.

SB: So, you make your way back through the Tommy John surgery recovery process, then you came back your sophomore year and tore it again?

AB: Yup. So the first time, honestly, it wasn’t that bad. I think I was so focused, and I wanted to get back out there so bad because my career was so young. I was also a lot younger, and probably a little delusional. I didn’t have that much foresight, and I thought it was going to be easy. I hit the rehab hard. I was showing up every day, doing everything I could. I was hitting all the checkpoints well, I was making great progress. Things were going well, and I didn’t have that many setbacks the first time around.

I remember showing up the fall of my sophomore year, and we got the schedule on the calendar. I looked at the dates for when our opening day would be. I circled it, and was immediately calculating out how far into the program I was. If it was even possible for me to be 100 percent off the mound by that day. I ignored nearly everything in that meeting because I was trying to figure that out. After looking at it, if I stuck to the program, it looked like I’d be 100 percent by the time our opening day was. I pounded out the rehab in the fall, started throwing bullpens in the winter. I think I was officially cleared to return to full activity at 11 and a half months post-surgery.

I came back and made my first appearance on that opening weekend in Texas. I had two rehab starts, my first one went well in that opening series. I remember I was all jitters, a lot of anxiety and nerves. I don’t think I threw a fastball below belt-high because I was just so anxious. The second outing went alright. In the third outing, they had finally taken the pitch count off me. As a starter, they were letting me go out there and do my thing.

It was our first conference weekend. I had a shutout going into the fourth inning. I was throwing pretty well, and there were two outs at the time. I remember I threw a curveball, and something just felt funny. After that I threw a fastball, and it went probably 35 to 40 feet. It was the same exact feeling I felt a year ago. I knew it right away. I knew that I had either done some serious damage to the scar tissue, or that I had another complete UCL tear. I came out of that game, got the MRI, and a couple weeks later I got the news that I tore it again.

SB: A lot of the time you hear people who have gone through TJS recovery one time struggle with a sense of losing themselves. You dedicate your life to a game, put so much time into it, then suddenly it is taken away and you have to sit out for a year. What was the mental stress put on to you by having to go through it twice?

AB: The second time was ridiculous. I was so distraught. I couldn’t figure out why, I just kept trying to figure out a reason why. I thought I had done everything right during the rehab. I put in the time, showed up every day, did all the right drills. I followed everything to a ‘T.’ The worst part about it was that I had gotten back to my pre-injury form, and I was healthy. I was able to go out and perform, and I was pitching well. That was what made it the worst for me. I got the opportunity to taste that competition, that game — to be back at it. As soon as I had gotten that little taste, it was taken away from me again. That was the hardest part for me to understand. I was just so frustrated, angry, and sad about everything. I had no idea what to do.

Anthony pitching his freshman year at the University of Puget Sound

I didn’t even know if I really wanted to get surgery, because one of the first talks I had with my trainer was that if I decided to go through with the second surgery there was absolutely no way I’d be back by my junior year. This was March of my sophomore year, and with the second time around they put the rehab clock a lot longer. At the time, my athletic trainer told me that it would be at least 16-18 months before I’d get cleared. There was no way I would play my junior year. I wouldn’t be able to compete baseball-wise again until the fall of my senior year, and at that time I only had six career appearances.

SB: Were you ever able to confront that ‘why is this happening’ feeling?

AB: I couldn’t really come to grips with it. I think that my parents helped me out a lot, saying the right things when I was down. But then it also changed to the extent of — I was going to do more. I’ve always hated — maybe it’s a small-town Idaho mentality — being told I can’t do something. That helped me out a lot. The idea that I wasn’t going to let it beat me. That helped me make the decision that I was going to do more. But the second time, it was nowhere close to the first time. It was so much harder. The mental side of things took more of a toll than I ever thought. It was absolutely brutal the second time around.

SB: What was your initial reaction the first time, and how did it differ from your initial reaction the second time?

AB: The first time around, I didn’t understand what it involved. I had no idea what goes along with Tommy John rehab. I had absolutely no idea of the toll it was going to take on me, physically and mentally. Because of that, the first time around was a mentality of hitting it head-on. That it was going to be easy. The second time around, I knew how hard it was — mentally and physically. Knowing that the second time around would be even longer and even harder made it worse.

On top of that, the worst feeling and reaction I had the second time was knowing that I could do everything right again. I could follow the protocols, do the drills, the rehab, the exercises. I could do everything right — to come back and be cleared — and it could happen at any moment, again. Just like it did the first time. It was this feeling like I had no control over it, at all. I could do all the right things and just lose it out of nowhere. That was the hardest thing to comprehend. It was what I feared the most, in terms of my initial reaction the second time.

SB: How did you cope with that fear?

AB: It was tough. I think that I wasn’t coping with it well. I dealt with a lot of anxiety and depressive symptoms that second time around, because I wasn’t coping with the stress. I wasn’t coping with the rehab, at all. I had some really, really low lows when I was going through that second recovery. There were a lot of bad days. The issue that I ran into the most was the constant up-and-downs, and I wasn’t able to cope or deal with that as well as I was the first time. I’d have a good day, where I’d go out and play catch to like 100 feet or so, and then the next day I wouldn’t be able to throw a ball 60 feet. Just that constant roller-coaster of emotions.

It was really taking a toll on me stress-wise because I knew that even though I was going through those ups-and-downs, having good days and bad days, I still knew that it wasn’t guaranteed. I could put in this work, and it could all be for naught. I was second-guessing myself constantly, wondering if I was wasting my time doing this. I got to a point where I almost felt like I wasn’t doing it for myself anymore. Like I was, maybe, doing it for my parents. Like I owed them something for all the time they poured into me and supported my baseball career. That is where my rehab took a turn for the worse.

I wasn’t doing it for me. I wasn’t finding any enjoyment in it. I was struggling to even show up to the training room, struggling to get my exercises in. My intent decreased; it was hard. There were a couple weeks, or about a month span, where it was tough. I got to a point where I was wishing that something unfortunate would happen to me to kind of make it so that it wasn’t my fault, I guess. If that makes sense. It’s hard to explain. There were legitimately days when — at my worst — I’d be walking across the street to the training room, having thoughts that maybe a car would run into me, or something would happen and I’d fall.

I was hoping that injury would make it so that I wouldn’t have to go through this rehab anymore, and it wouldn’t be my fault. It wouldn’t be on me, or the quality of rehab that I was doing. I was hoping that something out of my control would take it away from me. That’s when I knew that something was wrong. That it was taking too much of a toll on me to not address it.

Anthony just before the second surgery

SB: What did you do to address it?

AB: What happened is that the athletic trainer, who I was really close with, noticed it first at the time. I was away from my parents, still living up in Tacoma about 14 hours away from them. I was able to have phone calls and talk with them — and they could tell. My mom always had an idea of the way I was feeling. She could always help me out through conversation, but the athletic trainer that I worked with noticed it at first. Through a lot of good talks — a lot of mentality, motivation shifts — he was kind of able to get me back on the right track. My parents were also a huge role in that, even my girlfriend at the time was huge, too.

I think that another thing that helped me out a lot, in the early stages of the second one and even the first one, was having something to occupy my time outside of baseball. Having something just completely away from baseball because anytime I was around my team, teammates, or practices, I was reminded of what I was going through. And it was hard to cope with that. Something completely outside the realm of the training room and baseball was extremely helpful. That did a lot for me.

SB: Do you still feel like it was your fault for the second injury?

AB: I don’t think I put any blame on anyone in particular. I don’t think it was my fault, the surgeon’s fault, or any of the trainers or physical therapists’ fault. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. I think that pitching is kind of, just, shitty. It’s such a violent action, and it can happen to anyone at any moment.

After the first surgery, I took a huge shift in my education and career direction. Originally I was a mechanical engineering, physics/math double-major kind of guy. After that I focused my efforts into exercise science, changed my degree, and got my undergraduate degree from the University of Puget Sound in exercise science. I’m studying biomechanics at the University of Northern Colorado right now to get my master’s just because I’ve gained so much interest in the field of sport performance, injury prevention, etc. This summer, I’ll be a research-and-development intern at Driveline.

So, I had done a lot of research and information gathering on my own, and I think because of that I came to the conclusion that you can’t really blame it on anyone. At least I didn’t have a reason to blame it on anyone else, after studying so much and understanding that there are so many factors that play into it. Because of that, I didn’t really put any blame on anyone.

SB: How long did it take you to realize that?

AB: I’d say a while into the second surgery. With the first surgery, I put the blame on myself, and I thought it was because I threw a ton of innings in high school. There were days in American Legion where I’d throw complete games with 120+ pitches. One instance in particular, I think it was my senior year of summer ball, we mercy-ruled a team in five innings and I was pitching. I had only thrown 60 pitches, and I started the next game of the doubleheader. So I had thrown a ton of innings in high school, and originally that is what I attributed my injury to the first time around.

But the second time around, feeling like I had done everything right, that one was hard to understand. After a lot of talks with my trainer, and doing a lot of the research a few months into the rehab, that’s kind of when I hit that point of realizing that baseball and pitching is just…kind of shitty. That I couldn’t really blame anyone for it.

SB: You mentioned that you had depressive symptoms a little earlier. Do you feel that you were depressed? Did you seek out professional help or medication, other than your trainer?

AB: No medication, no professional help. My girlfriend at the time, back then she was probably my psychologist every night. Whether it was an up or a down conversation with her, I honestly couldn’t imagine (at the time) being able to get through the rehab like I did if I didn’t have somebody I was close to talk about this stuff with. She was a huge part, because conversations on the phone with your parents can be pretty redundant. And with them being far away, it’s tough for them to see what’s going on. Having someone like her close was a huge part.

Later, when I finally came back my senior year after the second surgery, about halfway through the season I did start seeing a sports psychologist. But, during the rehab, no medication or clinical help.

SB: A lot of the people I’ve talked to, they’ve had their injury either in the middle of their college time or at the end of their high school season. You had yours right as a freshman, which has to be tough because you missed basically your entire freshman year, and 16-18 months after three outings into your sophomore year. You spent almost two and a half years not playing this game with the people you came in with. Do you feel that you were alienated from your teammates, or that you alienated yourself from them?

AB: Definitely not at all on their part. I had a great group of guys behind me. Guys in my house were always behind me, always asking how I was doing and how I was feeling. They were always a huge part of getting behind me. On my side of things, I separated myself from them a ton. As I mentioned, I needed something in my life completely away from baseball. That just had nothing to do with it. I started to develop so much resentment, anger, and frustration towards the game. There were days when I would just ask to leave practice, or sometimes I just wouldn’t go to games because I hated being around it. I kept myself away from my teammates a lot.

I played a ton of video games, things like that, which were in a realm that they weren’t apart of. Something that was my own thing that kept me away from them, because it was tough. There was so much frustration and resentment that started to build up over time, and I needed something like that.

So, I never felt alienated by my teammates — they were always supportive and a great group of guys that I was close with — but I definitely kept myself away from them at times.

SB: You mentioned that you’ll be working at Driveline this summer, and you trained there last summer. How big was that in your recovery process? What did you learn there that helped you come back?

AB: That was huge. Technically I had already come back from the second surgery. Going into my senior year, I had a rough time early on and pitched a little better at the end. After I graduated from the University of Puget Sound, I went to Driveline. I started training there that summer because, after the second surgery, I had never really gotten my velocity all the way back. I just never really put enough time into actual training, and was real interested in what they were doing. I wanted to go check it out and experience it. Also, it was really close to where I was. It all kind of worked out perfectly. That summer I went there to begin training, and that was huge. I think in one of my bullpens after training there for two and a half months, I threw a fastball at 90 mph. I hadn’t thrown a fastball over 90 mph since my freshman year. I don’t think, through either of the surgeries, there was a day I was above 88 mph. All that training, it was huge for me.

Video done by Driveline

Because of that, I then got the opportunity to play at the University of Northern Colorado. So, I went from a small Division III school after Tommy John twice to pitching at a Division I university. Driveline is a huge part of that. I don’t know if I make this team in the fall with where my stuff was at before Driveline. They’ve just been a huge part of my training and my ability to recover.

Also, one thing that Driveline gave me that I didn’t really have the second time around — and I think gets overlooked — was confidence in my arm. I think everyone who has ever had Tommy John can speak to this, but that lingering thought in the back of your head: Am I healthy? Am I strong enough to throw this pitch? Could something go wrong here?

Driveline really gave me the confidence, a different mentality in terms of thinking my arm is strong enough. That I can handle these weighted ball pulldowns, all these plyo-drills, etc. I’ve never had more confidence in the strength of my arm as far as my ability to play catch, my ability to throw off the mound. It has been a long, long time since I’ve ever had a lingering thought of a tweak or something hurting in my elbow. Driveline was the biggest part of that, in my opinion.

— Part two is featured here

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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, producer of In Play, Pod(cast), and pitcher recovering from Tommy John at Howard Payne University. He is a Senior double majoring in Business Management and Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com