Comeback Season

Jason Law suffered a severe elbow dislocation at UCLA's rugby field. That's the same field where he made his return.

Photo:
Evan Walbridge/Staff



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It was a cloudy April morning when the Cal bus pulled alongside the UCLA rugby field, and Jason Law was anxious.

It was more intense than standard pre-game jitters, and the fifth-year senior was the lone man on the bus feeling it.

As Law looked out the window and gazed at the field, he couldn't help but think of the last time he was on that patch of ground. It was here that Law last played rugby, and the road that led him away from the field that day had brought him back full circle.

Law took that field on Jan. 15, the first day of the Pac-10 Tournament. Facing Utah, he was making his second start of the young season.

Play was nearing the end of the shortened 20-minute first half. Law had the ball in his right hand, and used his left arm to support himself as he scrapped for a few more meters, hoping to extend across the goal line.

Then it happened. Somebody hit him, and the only thing he remembers is hearing a pop.

When the co-captain looked down, he found his left elbow about halfway between his shoulder and where it should have been.

This season was supposed to be Law's swan song, one he entered with a little extra fire after being overlooked as an All-American last year. Law, who plays lock and flanker, came back for his fifth year for one last go at another national championship. And in an instant, it seemed it all was going to be taken away from him.

None of that was going through his mind at the time, nor has it since. No fear, no sorrow, no anger. As the coaches and sports medicine staff stood over him, his thoughts were about what it would take to play again this year.

"He wasn't withering around in pain or self-pity, like, 'Oh, my season's over,'" coach Tom Billups says. "He was demonstrating mental toughness, at least by our definition, which is the ability to focus on the next most important thing."

Despite attempts from Cal's sideline physician, the elbow couldn't be jerked back into place, and the movement caused Law quite a bit of pain. Coaches thought his collegiate career was over.

He was carted off in an ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he had to be put under so doctors could put the elbow back in place.

Standard elbow dislocations do not require surgery, but this injury was severe. The elbow popped completely out of the side, tearing the tendons and ligaments.

It wasn't until he saw Dr. Laura Timmerman, an orthopedic surgeon in Walnut Creek, a few weeks later that he realized his season could be salvaged. She assured him that he would at least be back around the time of the national championships in mid-May.

At the time of the injury, shock buffered Law's body from the onslaught of pain. The team was not so lucky.

"We were pretty gutted," head coach Jack Clark says. "The biggest loss was an emotional one because Jason is a very important character within the team."

Adds Billups: "We've got other good players, but we only have one Jason Law."

The Cal rugby culture is rooted in selflessness, humility, hard work and respect for the game. Law is the embodiment of that culture.

"We talk about being known by our deeds around here, and all that matters is what you do and how you do it, on the field and off," Billups says.

"Jason's got the ultimate amount of respect of anybody on this team because of how he conducts his business, who he is as a person."

Law was forced to deal with a whole new set of circumstances for the ensuing three months. While his teammates were preparing for the Scrum Axe match against Stanford, Law was preparing for surgery. When they were anticipating the beginning of league play, he was anticipating getting the bulky brace off his elbow. While they were working on tackling, Law was working on staying in shape.

"He pushed sleds up and down here until he was almost passed out," freshman Tiaan De Nysschen says. "He's one of those guys, he just goes 100 percent all the time. You wonder how he can do it."

But the road to recovery didn't take him away from the team.

Law essentially pulled double days. In addition to the extra hours of physical therapy, rehab and conditioning, Law continued to attend the vast majority of team practices and matches.

Sometimes he would sit on the bench and talk to other sidelined players about rugby, the team, school and life. Other times, it may have looked like there was another coach on the field.

Law isn't one for yelling from the sidelines, but he'd pick his moments to impart some of his wisdom to his teammates. To do so, he had to develop a more vocal side rather than just leading by example. In the process, Law discovered aspects of himself that previously laid dormant.

"I've always been an emotionally reserved player, more of a stoic player, I guess," he says. "Since it's been taken away from me, I realize how passionate I am about (rugby), and I've developed more of an emotional side to who I am and my game."

But having to stand on the sidelines still wore on him.

When the Bears were being outplayed in the first half of a February match against British Columbia, Law contemplated instructing the trainers to tape him up so he could get on the field.

"I was losing my mind," Law says. "It's only human. You gotta realize what's going on in your head and realize that's not where you need to be mentally."

There were times when he found a way to sneak on the pitch. Law and nine of his teammates made a homecoming to their alma mater, Jesuit High School in Carmichael, Calif., for Cal's match against UC Davis. Law just couldn't stay off the field where he picked up the sport.

After one of Cal's tries, Law stormed the field. His arm in a sling, Law brought water bottles to his teammates as the sports medicine staff does at every prolonged break. It was all an excuse to relay some instructions from the coaches - but he also had some instructions of his own.

Needless to say, his teammates listened to him, as they always do.

Even when speaking about the injury, he exhausts most of his words heaping praise on his support network of coaches, trainers, doctors and teammates.

When he does talk about the injury in relation to himself, he takes a matter-of-fact, almost detached tone. It happened, no reason to dwell on it.

But when he talks about running back on the field for the first time on that April day, the same UCLA field where the injury occurred, a little vulnerability comes through as a grin overtakes him.

When the signal came for Law to enter the match, the Cal sidelines and stands erupted, and the magnitude of the moment overwhelmed the field and the co-captain.

His eyes dance as he looks down for a little privacy to relive the moment.

"It felt super-rewarding to put in all the work and go through all the emotional stress and finally get back on the field and play again," he says.

The imposing figure softens again with a smile, but then he looks straight ahead with piercing conviction.

"It was a feeling I don't think I'll ever forget."

Tags: CAL RUGBY, JACK CLARK, JASON LAW, TOM BILLUPS


Christina Jones covers rugby. Contact her at [email protected]



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