jarftie by Jeff Laughlin

My body betrayed me.

From then on, my life has been pain and dread. Destroying my knee left me in constant fear that any step — porch steps, holes in the yard, anything — would put me right back in the hospital.

Simultaneously, my injury has forced a subtle shift into professionalism. So few people can equate sports and work — a few professional athletes, some doctors, some journalists — that it’s weird to tell people I get paid to write about them.

I believe athletics are like a recreational drug for 99.9 percent of the world.

Add in that I had to quit sports to begin writing about them. Most critics do not practice the craft they critique. What’s the last Michiko Kakutani novel you read? Bob Ryan’s jumpshot sucked, I am sure. Still, most journalists had been writing about sports their whole lives and studied the art of it all in college. I did not.

I hobbled into my column after tearing my knee up so badly that my doctor laughed at the MRI.

“Well, you did it right. You’ll play again if you want, but you will have arthritis before anyone else you know,” he said.

I don’t even remember his name, because he referred me to a different doctor since he was “scared to go near all that damage.”

I did not redefine my position on sports and journalism based on a terrible visit to the doctor. I had to go way further down the spiral for that. I walked on that battered knee, working retail and saving for surgery at Ed McKay’s bookstore in Greensboro. I had done bookstore work my whole adult life and I honestly enjoyed it. Obviously, I had my complaints. The pay rate left for meager rations, and management, as in most retail jobs, had lost no love for those starving artists who had no sense to better their surroundings.

Still, I was relatively happy. I had a house full of books and records, a league of underextraordinary gentlemen to ball with and some outdoor hoops to walk to on my days off. I shot mercilessly despite no improvement. I shot ball like it was the only tensile string holding my sanity from roaming free about the countryside.

Then my knee revolted against my dedication. Like so many retail workers I had seen take the next job that came along in order to restore their worldview, my knee decided it could no longer hack the world of competition.

I had torn my ACL, MCL, lost my cartilage and done irreparable damage to my meniscus muscles. My doctor told me I could have tried to jump and run off of a speeding motorcycle and had cleaner damage than this. I kept working, despite pleas to rest and get surgery.

When I got fired for going to my only sister’s wedding, it stung a little. So bereft of health insurance, penniless and jobless, I went under the knife. I’m paying the price for that. I’m perpetually broke, hustling in so many forms. I don’t open my bills or answer my phone. Why would I? I know what I owe.

The damage to my knee looked so bad that they decided to do microfracture surgery on the spot — meaning that they cut part of knee out to create new cartilage. The procedure added more cost and more recovery time.

Hobbled, with no shot at manual labor for a while, I answered an ad for an editorial internship. While recovering from surgery, I did the only thing I’ve never stopped doing. I wrote. I’d take hours off of painkillers to complete articles in agonizing pain. But I met deadlines. A year later, for the first time in my life, I get paid to write.

If not for my body’s betrayal, I’d be hoisting jumpshots into the void — something I still miss. And that time will come again. Now, though, I get to study my craft. I watch the struggles of athletes while trying to imitate them.

Preparing to play again feels remarkably odd, not unlike getting a paycheck to write about it. My obsessions entangled, I relive that moment when my ligaments snapped.

In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so painful.

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