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Tuesday, October 9, 2001
The man without an ACL

By by David Fleming

Just like Jamal Anderson and Jamal Lewis and all the other players who have suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2001, Carolina Panthers cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock also has serious problems with his anterior cruciate ligaments.

He doesn't have any.

Yes indeed, while it can take some players two years to come back from an ACL tear (next up on VH-1's Where Are They Now? ... former NFL MVP Terrell Davis) Hitchcock, 30, has carved out a nice career for himself -- sans ACLs.

"This is extraordinary and unique," says Panthers strength and conditioning coach Jerry Simmons. "I haven't come across anything like this in my 14 years in the NFL. And if I hadn't actually seen it firsthand, I'd say to you, 'Come on, give me a break, there's no way this could be true.' To be honest, I really don't understand it."

Those of us unfortunate souls who have blown out a knee (for me, it ended a collegiate wrestling career that was remarkable only for its unremarkableness) know that when an ACL goes it makes a loud, sickening sort of knuckle-cracking pop which leaves you with the distinct feeling that the only thing holding your leg together is skin.

Now, imagine having that feeling in both legs and then going out and covering Rams wideout Torry Holt -- on the Panthers' sawdust field no less.

Hitchcock first heard that telltale sound and felt that wobble when he was a sophomore in high school in Concord, N.C. He rehabbed his right knee without the benefit of surgery, and was back on the field a year later when he blew out his left knee while celebrating after a blocked punt.

"We just didn't have the money or the medical insurance," says the 5'10", 190-pound Hitchcock. "We just couldn't afford to fix 'em. Sometimes we underestimate the body's ability to adapt. I just think of it this way: What did people do before there was knee surgery?"

Well, if they were anything like Hitchcock, in order to stabilize their knee joints they developed the kind of quad muscles that would make Arnold wear long pants. "Plus," Hitchcock says with a straight face, "all the arthritis in there helps hold 'em together."

Then they would build up an incredible tolerance for pain. "Some days they don't hurt at all," says Hitchcock, "and some days the pain is excruciating."

Then they'd go on with their careers as if nothing had ever happened. (And in the process make the rest of us feel like surgically-repaired crybabies.)

"All these guys who have hurt their knees recently, in the back of their minds they're thinking, 'Can I come back all the way or have I lost that little edge that made me special?' " says Simmons. "Well, those guys should point to Jimmy and think, 'Hell yeah I can come back. My situation may be bad, but heck, at least I've got an ACL.' "

Hitchcock not only earned a scholarship to North Carolina, in 1995 he was projected as the top cornerback in the NFL draft. That is, until doctors got a look at his knees and Hitchcock developed a severe case of draft-day vertigo, falling all the way to the Patriots in the third round.

In 1997 he picked off a Dan Marino pass and returned it 100 yards for a TD. The following year he swiped a career-high seven passes and returned three of those to the hiz-ouse, furthering his rep as a cover guy who can get you as many big plays as he gives up. After a short stint with the Vikes, Hitchcock signed with Carolina where he has helped fill the void left by the departure of Eric Davis. Thus far in 2001, Hitchcock already has 14 tackles and a pick, playing mostly on passing downs.

"I think of my knee like a door," says Hitchcock, who draws strength, and old family herbal remedies, from his gramma Roberta. "The hinges at the top and the bottom are gone and the middle hinge is the only thing holding the whole door together. I've been lucky to be able to use that door for a long time but sooner or later that one hinge is gonna give way and pop out."

Eventually Hitchcock will probably need two-for-one knee replacement surgery. But he has no intention of getting his wheels re-wired until he's retired. Especially after the nasty spill he took in training camp this year while covering a tight end.

"I'm pretty sure that would have been an ACL tear," he says. "That is ... if I had an ACL to tear."

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at flemfile@aol.com.