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Rerouted receiver

Givens's odyssey one of pain, persistence

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / November 30, 2008
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NEWTON - He heard too many different things from different doctors and trainers. None of them were comforting.

Then there was the time therapists were forcefully tugging on his leg, pliers in hand, attempting to remove the stitches from his mangled left knee with no success. If only they knew that the stitches, under the skin, had been tied in a knot.

The sight of David Givens biting a towel between screams of agony should have tipped them off to that.

This was when it all crashed for Givens, who played wide receiver for the Patriots from 2002-05 and was an integral part of two Super Bowl championship teams.

Just 10 months ago, he was confused and fearful, unsure of what the future held. Never mind his once-promising football career. He just wanted to know if he'd ever walk again without a limp, or be able to run.

He had endured three surgeries on his left knee. There was another surgery on his right knee. He feared he was slipping into depression, and he'd also just been cut by the Tennessee Titans only two seasons into a five-year contract.

At that point, the cellphone went off. He shut it down, closing himself off to most everyone in the world, except for his dogs, King and Sampson.

There was nothing anyone could say, because no one could change what unfolded Nov. 12, 2006, the day that forever changed his life. They also couldn't come close to understanding the physical nightmare he'd be living since.

Givens was running a pass pattern in a game against the Baltimore Ravens that afternoon, as he had done thousands of times over his career, whether it was at Notre Dame, with the Patriots, or with the Titans.

As he exploded out of his cut, the inner workings of his left knee had the equivalent of a three-car highway pileup. The anterior cruciate ligament was torn. So was the meniscus - medial and lateral. The femur behind the kneecap broke off and shattered, as the knee shifted in directions it wasn't designed to go.

Four doctors turned him away for surgery because of the severity of the injury, and by the time Givens traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to see noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, the words he was hearing were scary.

"He performed the surgery and basically told me that he hadn't seen such an extensive injury from a wide receiver," recalled Givens, who now has artificial bone plugs in his knee and leg. "He let me know that it was going to be very, very tough to come back from, and that it could be a process of three or four surgeries, or it just may take some time. That was very tough to hear."

Meanwhile, friends such as former Patriots receiver Troy Brown, in the days leading up to last season's Super Bowl, openly wondered about Givens's well-being and whereabouts. Only now is Givens beginning to re-emerge.

"I can now only talk about it briefly; it's been very tough," Givens said this week on a trip back to Boston. "I just didn't know what to think at that point. I was in a wheelchair, and it was hard to talk to anybody. It was just a tough time in my life; I can't imagine I'd ever deal with anything tougher.

"This whole situation with my knee, I relate it to the death of a family member, somebody close to you. I'd been playing football since I was 4 years old and to have that taken away, it changed everything for me."

The 28-year-old Givens has not played since, and is likely to never play again. With the help of local strength coach Mike Boyle, he returned to Boston last week to meet with physical therapist Dan Dyrek, who has worked with top athletes such as Larry Bird and Patrice Bergeron.

"He's given me the most confidence of any doctor or therapist I've seen," Givens said. "I'm hoping he can get me back to running again. You have to crawl before you can walk. That's my progression."

A cut felt deeply
On the football field, Givens was a powerful receiver who delivered top performances on the biggest stages. He had touchdown catches for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX, and fans still stop him on the street and re-enact his muscle-flexing touchdown celebration.

After totaling 56 and 59 receptions in 2004 and 2005, Givens departed New England, signing a five-year, $24 million contract with the Titans that included an $8 million signing bonus (NFL contracts aren't guaranteed, except for the signing bonus).

While he has no regrets, his time in Tennessee was a self-described nightmare because of the injury.

The tipping point came last February.

After losing confidence in the treatment he was receiving from the Titans, Givens was on the brink of heading to a place where some never recover.

He skipped two rehabilitation appointments after a scary, painful incident in which therapists were attempting to remove his stitches with pliers - thinking they were fighting scar tissue - but didn't realize they were tied in a knot under his skin. A few days later, on the eve of free agency, Givens was cut by the team.

The decision rocked him, but what Givens didn't realize at the time was that it was the first step in his journey to re-emergence. It gave him a sense of control.

"I wasn't in the right mode to function at the time," he said. "I was taking all these medicines that were prescribed to me - anxiety medicine, depression medicine, pain medicine - and I think they were really messing me up.

"It just got to the point where I said to myself, 'I'm not taking these anymore. I don't want it. I don't need it.' I threw them all in the toilet.

"I don't think I was really depressed. It was just a feeling that you're going to have when you lose around $20 million, you were just cut, and doctors are telling you that you might never be able to run again.

"I was concerned about my financial situation and what was going to happen, because I had some other business things go wrong outside of football, people taking advantage of me with money, big-money situations, that I'm still dealing with. You go through all that and it's a dramatic situation. It changes your life."

In all, Givens has had three surgeries on the left knee since the initial injury, in addition to a microfracture surgery on the right knee, all performed by Andrews. The final surgery restricted Givens to a wheelchair, and he now believes that procedure might not have been necessary.

What frustrated him over time, in addition to the throbbing, piercing pain he felt after the second surgery, were mixed messages he was hearing.

"I didn't know who was telling the truth, because nothing was adding up," said Givens, whose only comfort came when he was told the injury was a freak occurrence, and that he couldn't have done anything to prevent it.

"I don't blame anybody for it, because my doctor and my team, the Titans, they had never seen an injury like this. But Dr. Andrews was telling me to do one thing, the team was telling me to do something a little bit different [in rehab], and it was just a lot of confusion."

Thankfully, he had King and Sampson by his side. Givens said his dogs turned out to be his best therapy because "they were really all I had out there" and "the only things I felt I could trust."

While hoping to beat long odds and one day return to the football field, Givens is starting with a smaller goal. He hopes to one day be able to run with King and Sampson.

Reinventing himself
A designer bag draped over his left shoulder, Givens walked through the lobby of a local hotel last week dressed in workout gear, looking every bit like the football player who rose from unheralded seventh-round draft choice to marquee pass-catcher while playing for the Patriots.

Still chiseled with muscle, his physical stature remains impressive, but more important was the smile on his face.

He's back.

"Things are more positive now, things are going much better," he said. "People go through situations where it's very tough and sometimes you feel like you're better off not dealing with anything from the outside, or any outside attention, and this changed my outlook and complexion on life. I know some guys have been looking for me, former teammates. I'll be in touch with them."

In addition to focusing on his rehabilitation, Givens is now turning his attention to a variety of business endeavors.

He's started a company called "Doing Good Enterprises," which has multiple meaning. "Doing Good" represents his initials - DG - as well as the lifestyle he said he leads, which encompasses "health, fitness, nutrition, being loyal, and helping others."

Givens has been traveling the country in recent months promoting a product he helped create, called "F.A.S.T. Bands." He passionately describes it as a "bowflex in a bag" and says "F.A.S.T. Bands" - which stands for "fitness and strength training bands" - are unique and helped him gain an edge as a player.

"Right now, because of my knee issue, I'm trying to fall back on what I learned in school," said Givens, who majored in industrial design at Notre Dame. "My love and passion has always been the design field, creating things, and doing what I love has helped me through this situation with my knee. This is something I'm very proud of."

It's also not the only thing occupying his time.

Givens is moving ahead with plans to open several smoothie shops across New England, to be called Doing Good Lifestyle Cafés. And he's already started a company called "Enterprise 87" - the 87 representing his jersey number - which develops and sells homes. If things work out as hoped, he'd also like to open an art gallery.

While he has a regular residence in Scottsdale, Ariz., Givens is currently planning on spending more time in New England. A native of Humble, Texas, Givens said he feels a connection to the New England region from the support he received here as a player, and he noted that he hasn't missed a Patriots game since his injury.

"It's something I didn't necessarily realize as a player, but I think the teams are better here because of the energy of the fans," he said. "I think that permeates through the players. It's something a lot of people wouldn't know until you've played other places, like Tennessee."

As for his health, Givens hopes to have some more definitive answers in the coming months as he now has "sharp pain every time I step."

Doctors have told him they might need to cut a wedge into his shin to take pressure off the inside of his knee, and if that happens, he probably will never run again.

They have also mentioned that he might need a meniscus transplant, which he said would "basically give me a knee of an 80-year-old." He's also been told that he has scar tissue attached to his ACL, creating further complications.

As recently as 10 months ago, such diagnoses might have rocked Givens to the core, but that's no longer the case.

More determined than ever, returning to the area where his star shone brightest, he's running the most challenging comeback route of his life.

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