EUREKA — Zach Valentine wasn't well versed in the alphabet soup that comprises his knees.
“I had no idea what any of it was,” he said. “But I learned.”
A senior receiver and defensive back for the Eureka football team, Valentine is all too familiar with medical terminology after enduring a catastrophic knee injury in the fifth game of his sophomore season — his second as a varsity starter. Valentine planted his left leg into the artificial surface at Eureka High when he made a catch. As the Lafayette defender tackled him, Valentine's body twisted. His leg did not.
“I was on the ground and the trainer took a look at it,” Valentine said. “I had so much adrenaline I bent my knee and it gave a couple times. As a couple minutes went by it was complete pain.”
Valentine slung his arms over two teammates who helped him to the sideline.
“I wasn't walking off,” he said.
Driving was out, too. Valentine turned 16 the day before the Lafayette game and got his driver's license. He enjoyed it one day. The next three months he was in the back seat of his dad's SUV with his knee propped up on pillows as he recovered from his first surgery.
It took two weeks before Valentine knew the full extent of his injury. It was a week to get a magnetic resonance image (MRI) and another week to meet with his doctor and go over the results. As he waited, a small ember of hope burned inside Valentine. A football player since he was in fourth grade, this was his first significant injury. He crossed his fingers that maybe it was something he could recover from and return in time for the postseason.
Those dreams evaporated when the doctor walked in with two models of the human knee and told him, “There's a lot here.”
Valentine tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), lateral meniscus, patellofemoral tendon and partially tore his patellar tendon.
“My MCL was completely ripped off on both ends,” Valentine said.
It wasn't the news Valentine hoped for but it wasn't career ending. His doctor believed he could recover and resume playing football in time. But getting him back on the field would require two surgeries.
“The first one repaired everything in the knee but the ACL,” Valentine said. “They couldn't do the ACL because they'd take a patellar tendon graft. But they couldn't do that because (my left) was partially torn.”
In early October of 2017, Valentine underwent his first surgery and it was successful. He began rehabilitating his left knee. After about two months, Valentine started to feel like himself. He walked without crutches for about a month before it was time for his second surgery. This time, the surgeon took a graft of his right patellar tendon to use as his left ACL.
“I was so happy where I'd got and just so comfortable being on both legs again, and having that taken away a second time and going through the rehab I had gone through was terrible,” Valentine said.
Valentine started off 2018 in a wheel chair with two wrapped knees. He said the left knee recovered its range of motion in relatively short order but the right was much more challenging.
And incredibly painful.
“That right knee was so stiff,” he said. “The right knee, the rehab was worse than the left one.”
Five days a week, Valentine put himself through the ringer as he rehabilitated. He had to regain the range of motion in his right knee and rebuild the muscles in his legs. Valentine said he lost more than 15 pounds after the injury due to atrophy.
Under the watchful eye of Eureka's trainer Sharon Henderson, he became a human squat machine. There were pistol squats and Bulgarian split squats. Ankle weights were added to increase resistance. It was a miserable experience but one Valentine continued to show up for because it served a purpose.
“It's something I don't wish on anybody, it's terrible,” Valentine said.
Valentine did some light jogging for the first time that March and in April began basic agility drills. In June he stepped on the field and ran some routes for fun.
“It was slow and sloppy,” he said as he watched a video of himself.
Eleven months after he was injured, Valentine was medically cleared to resume football activities the day before preseason practices began in August of 2018. But it would be another year before he rejoined the varsity full time. Valentine had more work to do to regain his explosiveness. He also had to adjust to the brace that he has to wear on his left knee the remainder of his football career.
Valentine played in five junior varsity games as a junior after becoming one of just a hand full of freshmen deemed worthy of starting on Eureka's varsity.
“It's an elite class of guys over the course of our successful years that have been able to walk in and do what he's able to do,” Eureka coach Jake Sumner said. “It doesn't happen much.”
Valentine made one appearance with the varsity and caught one pass against Seckman. It was a nice moment but not one he's sentimental about. It was a reminder of what he'd lost and what he was working back to achieve.
“In my mind, I'm a varsity starter. I've been starting since I was a freshman,” he said. “This is where I play. I do this.”
Valentine has done it for the varsity this fall. The 5-foot-11 and 185-pounder has 26 receptions for 502 yards and six touchdowns. He's junior quarterback Carter Davis's favorite target.
“Working with Zach changes the game,” Davis said. “Having him on the outside, it makes everybody think twice about who has to guard him, personnel matchups and how fast he is. All he's worked through, it's amazing.”
Valentine has also resumed starting duties as a defensive back. He's one of the few players bestowed a black practice jersey at Eureka. An homage to the University of Nebraska, Eureka adopted black jerseys for its defensive starters in the 1990s and has incorporated it into their culture.
“I was honored to have one freshman year. It's a big deal,” Valentine said. “It's something everyone wants to get. It's nice to have that back.”
The Wildcats will need Valentine at his best Friday night when they welcome rival Kirkwood at 7 p.m. The No. 10 large school in the STLhighschoolsports.com rankings, Eureka (5-1) has been eliminated from the postseason by Kirkwood (4-2) three of the last four seasons including last year. This will be the only meeting between the two teams this season as Eureka is now in Class 5 while Kirkwood remained in Class 6.
The Pioneers bring a strong passing attack that's capable of lighting up the scoreboard. Eureka's defensive secondary will be tested and that includes Valentine.
After all he's been through just to get back on the field, Valentine wouldn't have it any other way.
“There's some stuff in the air, this week is different,” Valentine said. “I'm back to where I was. I'm happy it's all over and I'm back doing this.”