Leistikow: Exclusive 1-on-1 with Iowa's Connor McCaffery, on hip surgeries and plans for a two-sport return

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The pain in Connor McCaffery’s right hip began sometime in January. He could continue playing for his father’s Iowa basketball team, but his body’s ability to offer the same explosion that has made him a two-sport Division I athlete — including a power-hitting outfielder in baseball — began to suffer.

Soon, his left hip began to feel a similar pain. McCaffery, speaking in his first interview since Iowa’s season-ending loss to Oregon in the NCAA Tournament, said tests revealed a torn labrum in both hips. But he would keep playing. McCaffery didn’t miss any games as the Hawkeyes matched their best seed (No. 2) in NCAA Tournament history.

McCaffery’s minutes were scaled back to an average of 22 minutes over Iowa's final 15 games (compared to his 30.1 when healthier as a redshirt sophomore), and he played 13:02 vs. Grand Canyon and 12:15 vs. Oregon in the NCAAs. Still, he’s heard the question from many angles (particularly on social media): Why was he out there at all?

To that, McCaffery wanted to make a few things clear.

One, he wouldn’t have been playing if he wasn’t cleared by trainers and doctors … not to mention his father, head coach Fran McCaffery.

Connor McCaffery had his right hip surgery done on March 29 and his left hip surgery is tentatively scheduled for April 26.

“I want to make sure everybody knows I was very capable and still able to play,” Connor McCaffery said in a 35-minute interview this week with the Des Moines Register. “It did affect me in some ways, but it wasn’t something that was going to hold me out.

“Was I as effective? Maybe not in all cases, but I still … could do what I wanted to do. My strength was good, my passing was good, my ball-handling was good.”

He added with a laugh, "Most of (the critics) are probably people that don’t want me to play anyway. So it doesn’t really matter (what they think)."

Two, just about every Hawkeye in the rotation was playing through some kind of ailment by the end of the season. Sprained ankles were slowing stars Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp, not that their production tailed off much. CJ Fredrick’s battle with plantar fasciitis was an ongoing story from January through March. And guard Jordan Bohannon revealed recently on his podcast that he was playing through a torn labrum in his right (shooting) shoulder in the season’s final months.

More:Leistikow: On Jordan Bohannon, Jack Nunge, Joe Wieskamp and Iowa basketball's offseason

Those are just the injuries we know about. Players playing hurt in March is not unique to Iowa.

“This is what happens over the course of a season. You just have to battle through, and I think we did a good job for the most part,” McCaffery said. “We had guys fighting through it, staying tough and continued to play.”

There was only so much head athletic trainer Brad Floy could do to help McCaffery’s hip pain. In his right hip, for example, there was a bone rub in his ball-and-socket joint. That impingement couldn’t be changed without bone-shaving surgery.

He received pain-relieving shots in the hips. He missed practice time. Game days would become strategic and time-consuming ventures, just to take the court. He would start with heat packs and spend time in a hot tub. He would arrive early to the arena (when possible) and lift weights, do some squats and work on his abs. A stationary bike was often an in-game option ... anything to keep the hips loose. Pain medication also was administered to have McCaffery playing as free as possible.

And don’t forget, McCaffery also sprained both ankles in 2021 — the right at Rutgers on Jan. 2, the left at Michigan on Feb. 25. The team-wide confluence of injuries was an unfortunate March development for the Hawkeyes, who were in the national top 10 most of the season but fell well short of the team's Final Four goals. The Hawkeyes finished No. 13 in the final Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll. 

“It’s been difficult for all of us," McCaffery said. "I’d say we struggled with it for a good amount of time. It’ll be something we think about for a long time.”

More:Luka Garza is Iowa basketball's first AP men's national player of year, adds Oscar Robertson Trophy

McCaffery losing baseball season with surgeries 

This is typically the time of year McCaffery transitions to playing for Rick Heller’s Iowa baseball team. But as he watched the final 17 minutes, 44 seconds of Iowa’s loss to Oregon from a folding chair at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, McCaffery knew that his basketball and baseball seasons were over. He would soon have surgery on both hips, a development that had been concealed from the public until Fran McCaffery's postgame press conference.

“I was getting to the point where I had to do a lot to be able to play in basketball,” Connor McCaffery said. “To be able to do that in a baseball season, your hips are arguably the most important part of hitting. And that’s what I do.”

McCaffery had his first surgery on his right hip March 29, exactly one week after the Hawkeyes’ exit from Indianapolis. Surgery on his left hip is scheduled for April 26.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic canceling 2020 spring sports and now multiple hip surgeries wiping out his 2021, Connor McCaffery hasn't been able to participate in a college baseball season since 2019.

McCaffery is on crutches now; he might be off them for a week before the second surgery. The operations are almost identical to what Bohannon had done on his right and left hips in May 2019 and December 2019. McCaffery’s only previous surgery was having his tonsils out as a college freshman.

Doctors have told McCaffery he could be fully cleared for all activities by mid-October — about six months. However, he should be off crutches by the second week of May and can slowly begin rehabilitation. Knowing his work ethic and drive, he’ll be as aggressive as possible.

“Not that I was a high flyer before,” said McCaffery, more known for his assist-to-turnover ratio than scoring, "but to be able to jump better and move better as a whole, I think that’s going to help me all the way around, in every sport."

Iowa baseball:What we've learned through the first third of the Hawkeyes' 2021 season

Looking ahead for a (healthy) fifth year in both sports

Back when McCaffery took an unexpected redshirt season in basketball as a true freshman (after mononucleosis, nights of coughing up blood and the tonsillectomy), he envisioned his Iowa athletics career spanning five years. With that in mind as he neared completion of his finance major as a junior, he added political science as a second major. That stemmed from his increased interest in the 2020 presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement. McCaffery and his father are part of the Big Ten’s Anti-Racism and Anti-Hate Coalition.

McCaffery, a high achiever in the classroom, now is on track to graduate with that double major in the spring of 2022, something that advisers told him will open lots of professional doors. McCaffery could technically come back for a sixth year, given the NCAA didn’t count this last season against athletes’ eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But all of that background helps frame that McCaffery, who will turn 23 in July, has been on the five-year plan for a while.

And he hopes his fifth year at Iowa — with, presumably, two fully functioning hips — is his biggest and best one yet.

“It remains to be seen on my sixth year, but the fifth year is definitely happening for me,” McCaffery said. “I’m excited for it. I think we’re going to have a really good team.”

More:Iowa basketball's Jack Nunge announces decision to transfer

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.