Defensive tackle Keith Millard was slumped over on a trainer's table in the Minnesota Vikings' locker room on the afternoon of Sept. 30, 1990. He had two ice bags on his right knee. Minutes earlier, in the third quarter of a game against Tampa Bay in the Metrodome, he had injured the knee while trying to sack Buc quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Leaping to avoid a cut block by center Randy Grimes, Millard had landed hard on his right leg, buckling his knee inward and tearing the anterior cruciate ligament. Now, agonizing over his misfortune, Millard buried his head in his hands and cried so hard that his 6'5", 265-pound body shook.
"My knee's shot. My knee's shot," he moaned. "There goes my whole career. It's over. I'm through."
"You'll be all right," said his wife, Sallie, with tears in her eyes. "It's not that bad."
"My knee popped all the way out!" Keith said. "It's over. We've got to think about what we're going to do with our lives."
Later that evening, at home with Sallie, his oldest brother, Steven, and teammates Scott Studwell and Rick Fenney, Millard tearfully recounted his football career. He lamented that he wouldn't be as good at anything as he had been at football. "Keith was so scared," Sallie says. "He was petrified by the pain he was feeling, and he wondered how much more he could handle."
On Oct. 2, Millard underwent major reconstructive knee surgery at Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis, and the next eight days in the hospital were among the most troubling of his life. He was impossible to be around, lashing out at nurses, refusing to eat, slamming his crutches to the floor instead of learning how to use them. "Just close the door and leave me alone!" he would bellow at the hospital staff.
Sometimes he even asked Sallie not to visit because he was too depressed. On the Sunday following his injury, he made her leave his room, and he put up a DO NOT DISTURB sign so he could be alone to watch the Vikings play the Detroit Lions. But he became so upset at the thought of not playing in the game that he flicked off the TV in the first quarter. Embarrassed by how vulnerable he looked in bed, Millard was so uncomfortable when Viking coaches and players came to visit that he finally phoned Dan Endy of the team's p.r. department and dictated a terse letter specifying no more visitors.
"I had all these desperate feelings," Millard says. "I kept thinking, How will I ever play football again if I can't even get out of this bed? I was an invalid. Football had given me everything: identity, money, confidence, friendships. I wondered what kind of man I would be without it."
Millard's anxiety served to intensify his physical pain, and as a result, he asked for more painkilling drugs. During his first few days in the hospital, Demerol dripped into his system around the clock, and every four hours he swallowed two Percodan tablets. After he was discharged, he continued to take two Percodan every four hours as prescribed, but then he started taking two every three hours, then two every two hours and finally two every hour and a half. Three weeks after the surgery, Millard's prescription ran out. But Millard still couldn't tolerate the pain, and he asked a teammate for some Tylenol with Codeine #3 that the other player had left over from treatment for earlier injuries. Millard went to two doctors and obtained new prescriptions for Percodan, on which he would become increasingly dependent.
When Millard began rehabilitating his knee at the Vikings' practice facility in mid-October, he acted tough and invincible and didn't let on to his teammates that the pain was excruciating. He would purposely leave his crutches in the car and parade around the locker room to show everybody he could get around on his own. And he brashly predicted he would be back on the field by December. The only person Millard was fooling was himself. The hours he spent off crutches translated into torturous nights. His knee throbbed so badly that he had to take warm whirlpool baths at 5 a.m. in order to fall asleep.