Taking a Beating: Talented senior quarterback John Robertson has had a tough few seasons with the Wildcats//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
It’s a rainy August morning, days before the Wildcats’ 2015 season opener, and practice has just ended. Quarterback John Robertson is jogging across Goodreau Field with a smile on his face. This season could be even better than 2014, which was a huge one for Robertson.
By the end of last season, Robertson had set a Villanova record of 10,933 career offensive yards. He had 227 carries for a team high of 1,078 yards and 11 scores. His rushing total of 3,643 ranks second in school history, and he’s second in career scoring with 48 rushing touchdowns.
Yes, he’s a quarterback—but the guy likes to run. Robertson had 1,000-yard rushing seasons in each of the first three years he played for Villanova. The only other Villanova player to do that is Brian Westbrook, the former Philadelphia Eagle and Pro Bowler. The two players have something else in common: Both have won the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding offensive player in Division I football.
With all of those accomplishments in his junior year, Robertson’s senior-year season was expected to end with a championship for the Wildcats. That changed on Sept. 19 in the third game of the new season. Robertson tore his posterior cruciate ligament. After the knee injury was evaluated, Villanova head coach Andy Talley announced that his QB would be sidelined indefinitely.
Is it medically possible for Robertson to return this season? Villanova isn’t saying, and neither is the Rothman Institute’s Dr. William Emper, orthopedic surgeon for the Wildcats. Robertson opted for physical therapy over surgery, hoping to take the field before the end of the season.
And everyone—teammates, coaches, students and alumni—is rooting for Robertson. “I can’t say enough about John’s leadership on and off the field, his tenacity and athleticism, and also his intelligence,” Emper says.
The torn PCL wasn’t Robertson’s first serious injury. Emper operated on his shoulder in January 2014 to repair torn ligaments. Football is not a glamorous game, Robertson says. He loves it, but part of playing is accepting the toll it takes on a body.
“It’s not the pain but the realization that you’re vulnerable and things can happen. That’s an awareness that everyone deals with differently.” —Dr. William Emper, Rothman Institute
Emper fixes Villanova’s injuries, and he’s done so with great success. In the 25 years he’s been the team’s orthopedic surgeon, Emper operated on Westbrook and Brian Finneran, a wide receiver who went on to play for the Seahawks, the Eagles and the Falcons. “You have to play with controlled aggression, and you can’t play like that if you’re afraid of getting hurt,” Emper says.
Robertson’s shoulder injury happened in the second quarter of a late-season game against Rhode Island in 2013. “It was wear and tear throughout the season, and then it fully ripped,” he says. “I was running the ball, and I stiff-armed somebody. My shoulder popped out when I pushed on his helmet. But then it went back in, so I kept running.”
After the game, Robertson’s pain didn’t seem unusual. “I’m real sore after games,” he says. “I’m used to being beat up. Usually, my whole body is aching. But I didn’t think anything was really wrong. As long as I didn’t move my arms in certain directions, I was OK.”
As Robertson turned the steering wheel of his car the next day, his left arm went numb. He played the final game of the regular season anyway—a nail-biter of win over the University of Delaware, with a final score of 35-34.
Afterward, Robertson got an MRI of his shoulder. He wasn’t surprised to hear it needed surgery. “I knew that something was torn,” Robertson says. “I get hit a lot in my shoulders, and I know the difference between being sore and something being wrong.”
Emper operated at Riddle Surgical Center in Media. “People on my team have gone through the surgery four or five times,” Robertson says. “My roommate had two shoulders done. Everyone’s shoulders are a little bit messed up from playing the game.”
If Robertson sounds nonchalant about the surgery, he’s honest about his postoperative pain. Though controlled by medication, it persisted for weeks. He returned to campus wearing a soft cast from shoulder to wrist. “My roommates taught me the tricks of the trade, like how to put a shirt on,” he says. “You’d be surprised at how much you can do with one arm.”
“It’s not the pain but the realization that you’re vulnerable and things can happen,” Emper says. “That’s an awareness that everyone deals with differently.”
With his latest injury, Robertson’s future in football is unclear. But if there’s any way he can get back on the field this season, he will. “You don’t stop being a quarterback when the game is over,” Emper says.