Paul Sparling, who began the 2020 season accepting athletic training's highest award, had a brief but telling conversation with the man holding college football's highest prize.
It was in the grim late November dim of a tomb-silent bus heading to the airport just a few hours after Bengals Heisman Trophy quarterback Joe Burrow's ACL had torn along with such a bright rookie season. Sparling, the Bengals' always unruffled long-time head certified athletic trainer fresh off being named the Outstanding NFL Athletic Trainer of the Year, told Burrow what he's been telling severely-injured players since before Burrow was born 24 years ago.
He would give Burrow just 24 hours to pout. To be angry and upset about the knee injury. After watching Burrow play for 10 games, Sparling wasn't surprised with the response.
"There's no pouting here."
"I don't even think he'd come to grips with it quite yet. But clearly he was focused forward," Sparling says. "And I think that's his makeup and that's what makes him special in many ways. I think it's going to be a blast to rehab him. In my mind he's going to make everyone look good."
Burrow's rehabilitation and drive to take the Opening Day snap began Monday, a process that Sparling oversees with his director or rehab, Nick Cosgray, putting the hands on.
It's a process that Sparling has seen been quite successful. No one in the NFL has seen more rehabs than Sparling. Except maybe the Giants' Ronnie Barnes and the Broncos' Steve Antonopulos.
They are the only two in the league that have been in training rooms longer than Sparling, promoted from the laundry to ligaments as a college student trainer at Wilmington College in the Bengals' 1978 training camp. When it comes to reconstructed knees, Sparling has seen the incisions go from zippers to pin pricks. Back then when they tried to re-build a knee, the entire side of the leg would be sliced away and it would be in a cast for six to eight weeks.
Now six weeks after surgery, Burrow isn't far away from running on an underwater treadmill.
"We've been getting people back from ACLs for decades," Sparling says. "They come back and play. Do they get back better now? You'd be hard pressed to say that they don't."
What Bengals fans want to know is if Sparling and Cosgray can work their magic like they did 15 years ago, when quarterback Carson Palmer took the first snap of the 2006 season eight months after a similar injury. He doesn't know. No one knows. Each rehab, each knee, each surgery is different.
They can only begin at the beginning. Sparling knows Burrow had a top-flight surgeon in Rams doctor Neal ElAttrache. He knows Burrow has suffered no complications. He saw the video Burrow posted the other week and the fact he was up and around walking showed he was able to go through the early stages.
"We've had good reports. I see no reason why he won't do well," Sparling says. "Based on the surgery he had and based on the injury he had, he's got a very predictable recovery. I think he can anticipate a full and complete recovery."
Sparling says some of the exercises may have changed and some of the strategies are different, but the hard-rock principles are still written in stone. Burrow is probably looking at five days a week for several hours a day in the Paul Brown Stadium training room.
"If rehab is done right, there is going to be pain," Sparling says. "There is going to be toughness, grit. It's not for the timid. It's not getting a haircut."
Sparling knows Burrow won't shy away from the shears as they attack the injury with the fundamentals.
"You got to get the motion back. You've got to get the swelling down," Sparling says. "You've got to get the strength back. You've got to the balance, the agility the coordination back. You've got to get the player's confidence back. Knowing they can plant that leg and knowing they can put stress on it and not worry about it buckling like it did before."
Sparling says there are no exercises for the mind. And that's OK because they believe the voraciously competitive Burrow has a corner on that. The challenge, Sparling says, is to mix up the routine and make it more challenging than the day before and with Cosgray in his 15th year on the job, he'll have plenty of surprises for Burrow.
"The people who have that personality, that love the challenge, the work, they do well," Sparling says, "and I think Joe will do very, very well."
But Sparling says rest is just as important as the work. It's why going seven days a week doesn't translate into a quicker recovery.
"You have to be sure to mitigate the swelling in the joint," Sparling says. "Everything has to be graduated. Everything has to be protected. You have to make sure the graft (replacing the ACL) isn't too loose for instability or too tight to prevent range of motion."
Besides modern medicine, Burrow has another advantage in his comeback on a reconstructed knee.
"The position of quarterback is probably the most forgiving of positions," Sparling says. "More so than wide receiver or running back or defensive back."
Sparling wants to keep Burrow pretty much under wraps. If you don't think coaches like distractions, trainers are probably No. 2 on that list. He knows that it is only the mundane (quad sets, leg lifts, hip turns) that give rise to milestones.
And there could be one soon when Burrow starts jogging underwater.
"Hopefully we can get him running in the water very soon," Sparling says. "You can do things in water that you can't do on dry land. The gravity has a minimal effect with the buoyancy of the water but you also have the resistance of the water as you're trying to move through it. It allows you to do things sooner than on land."
The other day Sparling heard Burrow predict he would be back for the opener. And he remembered the conversation on a grim, dim November bus.
"I wouldn't bet against him," Sparling says.