Nicholas Mirijello was brimming with optimism at the start of his second year in Gryphon Football. There was the excitement of a new season and the hope that the wide receiver from Scarborough, ON could make a significant contribution to the team. But in the third week of the 2017 campaign, in front of a big O-Week crowd at Alumni Stadium, Mirijello’s fortunes changed.
With about 10 minutes left in the game and the Gryphons up on Windsor by a massive amount, a seemingly simple assignment – blocking a Lancer free safety – turned to disaster.
“My best guess is that my foot was firmly planted on the ground, but my knee twisted and then I felt a pop, followed by a burning sensation,” Mirijello recalls with vivid detail. “When it happened, I had a sense that the outcome wasn’t going to be good.
“It was difficult to accept that my season was over in the blink of an eye.”
A torn ACL confirmed those initial fears. The promise Mirijello had felt coming into the campaign was quickly replaced with anguish, pain, and ultimately, frustration. The grueling process to get back began with a month of preparation for surgery, all while hobbling around campus on crutches, followed by six months of post-surgery rehab.
Mirijello put in the hard work to return to the field and played with a brace in the 2018 season, without issue. Unfortunately, he re-ruptured the graft in his knee again while running a route at a spring practice earlier this year. The medical advice was clear – put football in the rear-view mirror. But the gritty receiver was determined to get back to his passion.
“I had a big decision to make because I love the game and the organization too much to step away,” says Mirijello. “I decided to start looking for an alternative way to continue to play. After much research and a hard sell to my parents, I concluded that the best option was to postpone my surgery and play without my ACL. In order to accomplish this, I would have to make my knee, quad, and hamstring dependent to stabilize it.
“The odds were stacked against me. The orthopedic surgeon gave me a 30 per cent chance of ever playing football again. As a receiver, he felt the odds were even lower due to the amount of cutting and breaking down I would have to do, and the punishment my knee would have to take.
“My reply to him was, ‘30 per cent is better then zero per cent – and I like defying odds.’”
Gryphon wide receiver AJ Chase had his own scare right before training camp this summer. The third-year man from Montreal was involved in a 7-on-7 drill when he caught a ball on an out route, tried to juke a defender and his foot slipped from underneath him. He immediately started to feel stiff and knew something was wrong. A leg injury had Chase facing an absence of several weeks.
“You don't realize how much you love the game until you can't be out there practicing and playing because of an injury,” says Chase, who was back in action during Guelph’s 39-13 defeat of Waterloo in week 4. “The mental aspect is definitely as big as the physical part when it comes to injuries. I wasn't sure how to process it. Although my goal was to be back for Western I was still uncertain if I would be able to make it back at all during the season based on the pain I was feeling at the beginning while the injury was fresh.
“It was the uncertainty of my injury that was hard to deal with because I wasn't sure exactly what was going on. I ended up going to Montreal during camp to get an MRI and coming back the next day, which ended up giving me some clarity and how to properly rehab with a realistic timeline.”
Former Gryphon quarterback James Roberts can relate to the difficulties of being on the sidelines. The Yates Cup winner and third-ranked passer in school history (5,940 yards) accumulated several injuries in his memorable four-year U of G career, including a hurt knee, an ulnar subluxation, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and multiple concussions. He still feels the toll and while many consider it a delicate topic to broach with Cambridge, ON native, Roberts feels it’s important to discuss.
After a severe concussion in his fourth year, one in which he also played with nerve restrictions that resulted in losing feeling in some of the fingers on his throwing hand, Roberts knew it was time to close his career. But he did so without regret.
“The important message is that you need to do what you want to do until you're ready not to, and by that I mean focus on self awareness,” says Roberts. “Understand what you are doing, what the risks are, and what that means to you. I knew pretty early that football wasn't going to be all sunshine and daisies. I broke my fibula in high school and nearly blew my knee in my fourth year of university, as well. That will leave me with nagging pain for the remainder of my life.
“The key for me is that when these injuries come up, it makes me think of throwing touchdowns against rivals, it makes me think about the times that I got to share the field with so many people I loved and respected.”
For players who suffer the inevitable injuries that come with the game, support is essential. It comes in many forms, from family members to teammates, coaches, trainers, and friends.
“It was both mentally and emotionally hard for me,” Mirijello says. “I was anxious about my position on the team and worried about how I could contribute with my injury. My daily routine changed from playing football and focusing on school to rehab and doctor appointments and watching my teammates practice. I became angry and depressed.
“Fortunately, I have a great, strong support system at home and at school. My family and friends helped me get through it. I also turned to my faith, believing that God had a plan for me, and I just needed to work hard and stay positive and everything would work out. Throughout the experience I built willpower and resilience, making me a better person and player for my team.”
Mirijello leaned on his roommates O-lineman Ben Petrie and fellow receiver Jordan Terrio, the latter of whom had gone through his own experience of overcoming adversity on both the health and personal fronts. They saw their teammate’s struggles first hand and helped keep him on the path to regaining physical, mental, and emotional stability.
“My teammates and friends believed in me and gave me something to fight for to be ready for the season,” says Mirijello. “After many months of rehab and what felt like an endless process, it was all worth it as playing my first game this season was the best feeling in the world.
“Being away for so many months with both injuries, the feeling of buckling up my pads and helmet and getting back to the grind never gets old. It reminded me why I love the game so much and I couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity to play again.”
Chase kept busy by burying himself in the playbook and asking coaches questions so he could absorb the details of every play. Not practicing set him back in terms of play-calling tempo so he isolated himself and concentrated on mental reps. The support from teammates was instrumental to keep him motivated.
“Everybody checking up on me to see how I was progressing and helping out in anyway that they could made me hungrier to get back on the field and to contribute,” Chase says. “I was glad I was able to get back onto the field before my initial goal although it took a few practices to get my rhythm and cardio back up to par. I couldn't be happier to be out there with all of my brothers.”
Whether defying those slim odds to return, or deciding to call it a day, the road back from injuries is a personal choice. For these Gryphons, the ultimate experience was playing alongside teammates and proudly wearing the red, black and gold. It gave Mirijello the motivation to come back, Chase the boost to return early, and Roberts the peace of mind to say goodbye.
“I wouldn't change my experience for the world,” says Roberts, who feels he is the man he is today because of football, the injuries he suffered, and most importantly, rebounding from the failures.
“If I could do it again, I’d hit rewind.
Written By: David dicenzo