Liam O’Donnell has a hard time describing the sensation in his knee when he wrestles on his torn ACL.
“It feels funky,” O’Donnell said.
The Crystal Lake Central senior tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Tigers’ season-opening football game against Grant on Aug. 25. The lineman planted his foot on offense and slipped. His foot went one direction while his knee went another.
Seamus O’Donnell, Liam’s twin brother, watched from the sideline as Liam limped off the field. One week earlier, Seamus had torn his biceps tendon in the Tigers’ orange and black scrimmage. Seamus, a linebacker, knew he needed season-ending surgery. After his injury, Seamus planned to live his senior football season through his twin brother.
But that night they learned that Liam had torn his ACL and meniscus and that neither twin would play the remainder of his senior football season.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Seamus said. “Me and Liam were so excited for football.”
The next question was whether the brothers, both 2017 wrestling state qualifiers, would return for wrestling season. Seamus had surgery two weeks after his injury and expected to return to full health midway through wrestling season.
Liam had a longer timetable for recovery. His options were to have surgery on his knee and miss six months – essentially the entire wrestling season – or wrestle through the injury.
His dad bought a brace for his knee, and with a doctor’s OK, Liam gave it a try.
“I tried it on, and it felt funny at first, but then coach (Justen) Lehr helped me practice with it over and over again, and I kind of developed a comfort with it, and it felt pretty good,” Liam said. “It felt normal to get back on the mat.”
If Liam, his parents and the doctor were all OK with it, then Lehr was OK with it, too.
“You take all those coaching tests, and they tell you if Billy’s got a hurt ankle, he shouldn’t wrestle,” Lehr said. “But those tests aren’t for people who we think could maybe get to the state finals.”
‘He’s just beating up on kids’
The 18-year-old twins have been wrestling and playing football for 12 years. They watched the remainder of their senior football season together from the sideline.
“It’s hard not to get hyped up, even when you’re on the sideline not playing,” Seamus said. “And then me and Liam were just talking all the time about how we wished we could be on the field.”
Liam, 12 minutes older than Seamus, qualified for the Class 2A wrestling state meet last year at 182 pounds. He lost his first match before winning one in the consolation bracket.
Seamus, a little taller and a few pounds heavier, qualified at 195 pounds and won his first match before falling in the quarterfinals. He earned a sixth-place medal.
Together they helped lead the Tigers on their third consecutive trip to the Class 2A dual state finals.
“I’ve had brothers in the program,” Lehr said. “But if you include their older brother (Keegan O’Donnell), who was also a state qualifier for me, I don’t know if I’ll ever coach a group of three brothers that are that good. It’s been great. They’re good leaders.”
Liam admits the first time he stepped onto the mat with the brace on his knee, he was a little cautious. But he has gotten used to it and hasn’t had any problems this season.
“It feels a little weird sometimes, but for the most part it feels great,” Liam said. “I don’t feel any different, really. It only hurts when someone wrenches on it.”
With Seamus out for the first month of the season, Liam often wrestled up at 195 in Seamus’ spot in the Central lineup. Even while wrestling up a weight class, and with a torn ACL, Liam was 26-4 entering Saturday.
“He’s just beating up on kids bigger than him,” Lehr said. “He’s doing a great job. Both these kids work super hard, so that was never going to be a question.”
“Those braces are pretty solid. NFL guys play with those braces.”
Liam is just grateful he still can wrestle with his teammates. When the injury first happened, he thought his high school athletics career was over.
“I’m just shocked that I get to be back on the team,” Liam said. “This may sound biased because I’m wrestling for Crystal Lake Central, but I think there’s no other wrestling team I’d rather wrestle for.”
‘One step at a time’
Seamus was cleared Dec. 18, but his shoulder still didn’t feel 100 percent. He sat out through most of winter break and returned to action when the Tigers took on Crystal Lake South on Jan. 3.
“I’m still out of shape compared to others, but I’m getting back into it,” Seamus said. “And I’m just so grateful for this opportunity.”
Seamus conditioned throughout the fall and early part of the season, spending a lot of time on the treadmill. However, he still lost a lot of his shoulder strength.
Even so, he’s off to an 8-0 start to the season. With Seamus back, Liam has returned to 182, while Seamus has filled in at the 195 spot in the lineup.
The brothers have plenty of goals still in sight during the final month or so of their high school wrestling careers. The Tigers can still win the Fox Valley Conference dual title if they win out, but a dual match against defending champion Huntley is looming Jan. 25.
The No. 2-ranked Tigers hope to return to the Class 2A dual state finals and maybe earn another shot at No. 1-ranked Washington, which knocked them out in the quarterfinals last year.
And, of course, the twins hope to return to the individual state finals.
“I realize that my shoulder still isn’t where it needs to be – the strength isn’t the same,” Seamus said. “Going to state would really help me show that I am where I need to be.”
Liam said he’s focused on taking it slow and seeing steady improvement.
“We want to get a good chance at a [dual] state title,” Liam said. “For individual, get downstate, one step at a time, and hopefully we get on the podium. That would be ideal, I guess.”
What would it be like to end up on the podium at state despite the injuries?
“I’d be speechless, honestly,” Liam said. “That would be unbelievable.”