ATLANTA — Isaiah Oliver stood beyond the end zone inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in June, the place where eight months earlier much of his career and future seemed to be in doubt. Where the Atlanta Falcons cornerback went from having a breakout 2021 season in one contract year to all becoming an unknown.
It was there, not far from where he was speaking, that he was carried off the field after a torn right ACL requiring season-ending surgery against the Washington COs.
The road from October 3, 2021 to June 3, 2022, when Oliver was in the stadium participating in an organized team activity, was long and arduous. For a time, Oliver was unsure what to believe in terms of health, confidence, and the future.
“It was a lot to really understand, a lot to really grasp at the time,” Oliver said. “And it just seemed like it was going to be impossible to get back to where I was.”
The impact of a torn ACL on career prospects has changed over the years, thanks to advances in science, medicine, and training programs. But when it happens to a player in the moment, they don’t necessarily think in those terms. It takes treatment.
Oliver, once he knew of the diagnosis, traveled to Los Angeles and had the surgery performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, one of the nation’s foremost orthopedic surgeons. Going to ElAttrache was Oliver’s first confidence, because he knew how others had recovered from his work.
After the operation, Oliver elected to return to Atlanta. The difficulty coping with the injury decreased because he put himself around his teammates during his rehabilitation.
Those same teammates who realized Oliver is invaluable to the Atlanta defense.
“Sometimes you don’t recognize how good things are until you lose them, do you?” safety Erik Harris said. “It was one of those situations. I wouldn’t say we take it for granted.
“But it was one of those things where everything goes well, he’s in there, he’s making calls, he’s queuing and all of a sudden he’s gone.”
Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees attempted to replace Oliver with a host of situationally dependent players: Harris and rookies Darren Hall, Richie Grant and Avery Williams. None played the slots corner as effectively or thoroughly as Oliver, a place he was still learning the nuances when he tore his knee.
Harris understood Oliver’s situation. In 2016, Harris tore his ACL midway through the season. So he faced the same rehab and the same questions. Oliver and Harris spoke often — Harris, then in his first season with the Falcons, had become a team leader — and Harris spoke to him about his own struggles during recovery and rehabilitation.
He gave advice on how things might feel, such as Oliver not trusting a certain bend in his knee or the knee not loading properly for certain exercises. He suggested Oliver watch highlights from the first three games of the season, where he had 11 tackles, three passes defended, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Use it to remember the player he was before the injury and will become again.
Oliver’s wife, Drianna, did “a lot” and was a constant helper and caretaker. Teammates sent consistent text messages.
They would ask him for advice, keep him in group texts, and tell him they miss him. These little things helped a lot. Even injured, Oliver texted “Let’s Go Boys” or “Let’s turn up” before games. Security Jaylinn Hawkins would respond by saying, “I wish you were here, we’ll do it for you.”
“Just make sure you keep it straight and in good headspace,” cornerback AJ Terrell said. “And just let him know we got him and just take care of his body and get back as soon as possible.”
For six weeks Oliver was on crutches. Letting go of them was another issue, another small step in having to believe in himself again.
“Those first few weeks, imagining racing in that time was, like, impossible,” Oliver said. “So playing football was just a whole other level. Then you slowly regain your confidence, the knee starts to feel more normal, things like that.
Three and a half months after the operation, Oliver started running. It was different because he hadn’t done much to the leg in months. But slowly the recovery happened. His teammates continued to keep him involved.
While in rehab, Oliver started thinking about the future. Initially, he viewed the injury as a missed opportunity in a contract year. Atlanta, knowing how integral he was to the defense last season, remained interested.
They gave him a chance to come back – one that Oliver wanted because of the way he was playing before the injury.
“I’m basically getting, like, a redesign,” Oliver said. “That’s kind of how I see it. I start again this year, being in the same system with the same team and the same guys.
He slowly returns to where he was. He participated in a few individual exercises during off-season training and continued his rehabilitation. Terrell said Oliver looked confident as he planted himself on his leg.
The running and movement, Oliver said, was more natural in May. Falcons secondary coach Jon Hoke, who has seen several players in his four-decade career return from injury, said Oliver’s footwork was encouraging. Although he hasn’t fully returned yet, Hoke “can see significant growth” every week.
Oliver is still working on trusting everything, but he now understands that it’s not impossible, just a process. June inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium was a milestone. Another will come in July at the start of training camp, and yet another when he plays a game, makes a cut, a tackle. Each step will bring him closer to the player he was before and believes he can be again.
“There is no secret sauce to make it heal faster. It just takes time,” Oliver said. “But at some point, it will be cured.
“It’s understanding how our body works.”