For Denihan, a pleasure worth the pain

Mysterious knee condition hinders Hopkins senior, but not resolve to play

College Lacrosse

May 18, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

On a good day, Conor Denihan grabs a lacrosse stick and does what has come naturally to him since he was a little boy. He sprints, he dodges, he shoots. And the pain that has become his partner over the past 18 months is hardly noticeable.

Then there are the other days, which Denihan has lost track of since that first time he felt swelling in his left knee.

Denihan is amazed that playing his favorite game can be such torture. When he followed his older brother, Dan, to Johns Hopkins from Manhasset High School in Long Island, N.Y., Denihan envisioned himself stacking up one great season after another for a championship team, then moving on to play professionally.

Things have worked out quite differently for the senior midfielder, who will try to help Hopkins make its third consecutive final four in Sunday's NCAA tournament quarterfinals against Notre Dame.

Denihan is facing a cold reality at age 22. Because of an arthritic condition he still does not fully understand - nor do the doctors who have offered differing opinions - his playing days could end with the next Hopkins loss.

"Basically, I have a 60-year-old man's knee, and no one really knows what it is," said Denihan after a recent practice. "One doctor says it's arthritis. Another doctor says it might be a rare form of Lyme disease that causes inflammation in the joint. I've seen a rheumatologist, two orthopedic doctors and a chiropractor.

"It's kind of a gray area in the medical world. It has made me realize that there isn't always an answer. I wish I could be a normal player for one day, just throw my cleats on and play without worrying about getting treatment for my knee. You can't have arthritis when you're 22, right?"

Denihan looks down at the knee, shaking his head. Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala looks at Denihan's senior year and marvels at his resolve to play.

Denihan is more than an inspiration to teammates who have watched him live in the trainer's room for the past two seasons, more than a curiosity who spends at least 90 minutes extra each day paying special attention to the knee - stretching it, warming it up, icing it down.

The hobbled two-time All-American is not the player he once was, yet he can still play. Denihan is tied for third on the team in goals (16), fourth in scoring (23 points), and has put together three consecutive three-point games heading into Sunday.

He has become a better passer than ever, with five assists in his past three outings. He has started all but one game this spring. He has never missed a contest in four years. Through two seasons of pain, Denihan never seriously considered sitting out a year.

"Some days, he can barely jog on the practice field. What's refreshing about Conor is he's a tough kid. He doesn't say boo. He feels like he has to be out there contributing," said Pietramala, the third coach at Hopkins in the past four years and the one who recruited Denihan as an assistant under former Blue Jays coach Tony Seaman.

Pietramala said Denihan usually fights him when he asks his player to avoid running or to take an entire practice day off. Although Denihan was not originally elected as a co-captain, he now does on-field stretching up front with the other captains.

"It's our way of saying you've earned the respect of everybody here. A lot of guys would have stopped playing, but that was never a thought in [Denihan's] mind," Pietramala said. "The word that comes to mind when you talk about Conor's career is adversity. He's been through a lot of it. I feel bad that I don't completely understand what he's going through."

Denihan's unexpected journey began in fall 1999. He was coming off a sophomore season in which he was named honorable mention All-America by finishing fourth on the team in scoring with 29 points. He remembers going to write a paper after a workout. His left knee began to stiffen. Then, he could barely move it.

A magnetic resonance imaging test revealed no structural damage, but the pain persisted. That December, he had an exploratory arthroscopy, which revealed damaged tissue that was later removed. But by the start of last season, Denihan's knee was still killing him, and it showed in his sluggish play. He missed 19 of his first 20 shots and eventually was benched. He started six of 13 games, finished with 17 goals, and hoped for a healthy senior year.

Instead, he fractured his right ankle during the fall season and was back in Long Island in December, undergoing another knee surgery. Initially, it felt better, but the pain returned. Some days, it was worse than ever. Running and pushing off with the left leg once again were major chores. His shooting percentage suffered. Only in recent weeks, with the onset of warmer weather, has Denihan felt some relief.

He takes anti-inflammatory medication daily. He has taken two cortisone shots to help him get through his final year.

"We know he's as skillful as any player in the country," said senior defenseman Brandon Testa. "If he didn't have the injuries, who knows where he would be."

Denihan said the injury has made him a more well-rounded, unselfish player. Because he often lacks the explosiveness needed to beat defenders one-on-one, he has improved his field vision and become more adept at drawing double teams and passing to open men.

He plans to graduate with a sociology degree after the fall semester, and Denihan might get into coaching sooner than he expected. He cannot see himself walking away from the game yet.

"There's a reason I have this. What it is, I don't know," he said. "I'm probably going to have to fast-forward my life a little bit. Maybe I have to try a different avenue, but I don't want to let go [of the game] too quick."

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