Leistikow: Inside Iowa safety Brandon Snyder's amazingly fast ACL recovery
IOWA CITY, Ia. — At age 11, Brandon Snyder became the first child to receive permission to play in the annual men’s tournament at his local golf club in Larchwood, Iowa.
Tim Snyder recalls his son, fresh out of sixth grade, playing 54 holes a day for most of a month to prepare — often walking the Meadow Acres Golf Course layout to build up his endurance.
Brandon, who had just completed sixth grade, would shoot 81-37 to place fourth in the 27-hole tournament.
The men’s tournament.
Throughout his life, an uncommon ability to push his internal limits has allowed Brandon Snyder to defy conventional odds.
Especially those from doctors.
And now, he’s about to do it again.
Just 5½ months after ACL reconstruction surgery in his left knee, the 6-foot-1, 214-pound junior safety at Iowa is amazingly set to play in a physical Big Ten Conference football game. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said on his radio show Wednesday that Snyder would “definitely” make his season debut when Iowa hosts Illinois at 11 a.m. Saturday.
When the Hawkeyes arrive via bus two hours prior to kickoff at Kinnick Stadium, Tim and Sheri Snyder will be among the line of fans waiting to greet the players. They’ll try to share a quick hug with their oldest son, as they traditionally do.
Except this one will feel different.
“There will be some tears,” his father says. “I know how hard he’s worked to get back.”
A medical mystery
A full recovery from the time of surgery in an ACL reconstruction — which replaces the torn ligament with a graft cut out of the patellar tendon — typically takes at least seven months, but a more realistic timetable is nine months to a year.
But Snyder’s parents vividly remember head Iowa athletics physician Brian Wolf — who would perform the surgery — telling them in April: “I’ve known (Brandon) for three years, and I can tell you he’s more of a six-month guy than a 12-month guy.”
Still, Snyder insisted he could do it in five.
And why not?
He had baffled doctors before.
As a sophomore at West Lyon High School, he was supposed to miss five to seven weeks after breaking his collarbone. Tim Snyder recalls a mystified doctor, three weeks later, staring at a pristine X-ray while tugging on Brandon’s intact clavicle before giving him the OK to return for a playoff game.
A scary diagnosis of compartment syndrome — excessive pressure that can impede the flow of blood to and from tissue — as a junior basketball player nearly caused Brandon to lose his leg. Instead of missing the expected four to six months, he was back on the court in two.
And as a high school senior, he was supposed to be out for four to five weeks with compression fractures in his back. Doctors told him he wouldn't do any further damage by returning earlier, but warned him he couldn't handle the pain of making a tackle.
“Dad,” Brandon said in the doctor's office, “I can tolerate the pain.”
He only missed two games.
“Every doctor, every trainer, would just kind of scratch their head,” Tim Snyder recalls.
And it’s not like Snyder was a shell of his athletic self when he returned. As a senior quarterback and point guard, he led West Lyon to state championships in football and basketball.
How does he do it?
- T.J. HOCKENSON: Inside the freshman's road to an every-down tight end
- RUSHING REMEDY: Look to the past for potential run-game solutions
- INJURIES AND INQUIRIES: Details on Boone Myers, punt-return mistakes
Recipe to recovery
Well, with this ACL, a fast recovery began with good luck and a good attitude.
Snyder suffered the injury on a routine special-teams drill during an April 6 practice. He was sad at first — barely able to speak when he told his parents that night — but within 24 hours, he was studying everything he had to do to charge back onto the field.
The good luck was that his knee experienced limited swelling.
The good attitude stemmed from knowing he's defied the odds before.
Before ACL surgery, it’s important to strengthen muscles and restore full range of motion in the affected leg to quicken the recovery.
“His nine days’ pre-surgery was probably as critical as anything he did,” his father says. “He worked his tail off to get his (quadriceps) strength back.”
The surgery took place April 19. Brandon set a mental target return of Sept. 23 — Iowa’s Big Ten opener against Penn State.
With the help of Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle, Snyder understood that managing inflammation in the knee could speed up recovery. So, the 22-year-old loaded up on “anti-inflammatory” foods such as mangoes and green vegetables while avoiding no-nos like caffeine and alcohol.
He attacked every segment of his rehab with vigor. He knows no other way.
The Iowa strength staff once asked him to do two sets of 10 with a jump rope. Even though he knew he'd get in trouble, Brandon did several hundred reps.
He fit in some fun, too. Back home in May, a month after surgery, he went golfing with his dad and two brothers. To protect the knee, he played on one leg.
He would lift his left foot off the ground as he swung the club.
“I kid you not,” Tim says, “he was hitting it 300 (yards).”
Yet another head-scratching moment on the golf course.
By the three-month mark, Snyder entered more intense rehab mode while staying up to speed with the mental side of playing free safety — which, at Iowa, means being the quarterback of the defense.
“He knows the whole defense. He knows the calls to make,” starting cornerback Joshua Jackson says. “He’s a good leader.
“I think when he comes back and plays, we’ll be even better.”
He's been ready
Ferentz jokes that Snyder is “going to affect those numbers when they're doing their studies” about ACL recovery times.
Yet the Hawkeye coaches — despite what seems like a fast timetable — have been cautious. They've seen obvious struggles at safety, but they didn't want to rush things.
“I think in his mind, he truly could have been playing three or four weeks earlier,” says Tim Snyder, who added that Brandon is indeed back to his listed 214 pounds. "(But) the timing, in hindsight, it’s been perfect.”
Brandon was actually cleared to play last week against Michigan State but didn't see any action.
It's officially comeback Saturday. Although it’s unclear how much he’ll play against the Illini, Iowa could use him. He’s a proven hard hitter who can create much-needed turnovers.
A 13-game starter as a sophomore, Snyder was the team leader (tied or outright) with three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He also made 85 tackles, third on the team.
Snyder wasn’t made available for interviews this week despite requests, but his father says that because his son's body hasn’t absorbed the punishment of five weeks of fall camp plus five football games: “He’s serious in saying, 'I’ve never felt better as a football player.'”
What if Snyder goes out there Saturday and gets hurt?
Ferentz could catch heat, especially considering the recent comments of former ESPN analyst Ed Cunningham, who lambasted Iowa coaches for continuing to play quarterback C.J. Beathard in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl despite a hamstring injury.
“They’re truly much more concerned about him, than him as a football player,” Tim Snyder says. “… If he gets hurt or does something, it just happens. We’re very comfortable with where he’s at.”
For Brandon Snyder, that's way ahead of schedule — and ready for some Big Ten football.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.