On June 18, it was announced the Chicago Fire midfielder Jeremiah Gutjahr had undergone successful surgery to prepare his right meniscus after he suffered an injury during a training session in the days prior.
After nearly four months, the 23-year-old Homegrown player is optimistic about his recovery and has begun working out on the field again alongside his teammates -- albeit individually. In a forthright Chicago Fire Recovery Q&A presented by NovaCare, Gutjahr opened up about the challenges he’s faced while navigating his knee rehab amid the COVID-19 pandemic, his mentality in the face of the isolation that often follows recovery from injury, and the individual and collective expectations he has for the remainder of the Fire’s 2020 season.
Read highlights from the conversation (edited for clarity) below:
CFFC.com: For starters, tell us about the injury itself: How did it happen, and what what went through your head in the moment?
JG: “It was June 16 in practice. I stepped up, dropped back, and heard a pop in my knee. I’ve had knee surgery before, so sometimes I’ll have little minor pops with the scar tissue. This one definitely felt a little bit different. It was right at the half of a scrimmage we were doing, so I went and got water, then Connor (goalkeeper Connor Sparrow) came up and was like, ‘Nice job, keep it up,’ and I was like, ‘Can you go get (head athletic trainer) Reade (Whitney)?’(laughs).”
“He initially thought it was my ACL again, which I tore in college, so I was in that head space, bummed about that. We got an MRI a couple hours later that said it was my meniscus, which was relieving to hear. The way that it tore, the best option was just to repair it, so I got surgery the next day.”
CFFC.com: What was your timetable for recovery and how has the team supported you so far?
JG: “It’s a four month recovery, so I’m a little over three months into it. It’s been good. It was a couple weeks before Florida, so I was bummed to not go down and be with the team during that spell. But it was awesome to just accept the circumstances. I got to work with Jon (Williams), who’s employed through NovaCare, and spend a lot of time with him. Also Momo (Momcilović, manager of player relations), give him a shoutout. Some people that are important to the club that I hadn’t been able to spend a lot of time with, I went from spending not a lot of time with them to spending a good chunk of time. Tyler (Golden, assistant athletic trainer), too, because he was back. It was fun working with them and getting to know them. The relationships and the people are always the best part of, for me, playing soccer and being a part of the Fire. Getting to spend time with them and learn from them anther their stories was amazing. I just tried to embrace the situation and bring it everyday whether the team was here or not.”
CFFC.com: As someone who’s had a significant knee injury before, how did that impact your approach to rehabilitation?
JG: “I tore my ACL in college my junior year, and right before I played my senior year I broke two of my toes, so I think I ran different for a year and a half than I maybe would have coming back from a knee injury. I was still able to have a good senior year and a good first year with the Fire - great experience -- but there was some irritation every once in a while. So, when I tore my meniscus, it was almost like a re-grounding, another opportunity. I know what it’s like to get knee surgery. I know the challenges of it. Now, I feel like I’m in a better position to do it better this time, the recovery process. It’s a little bit of an optimistic mindset. People were like, ‘How pissed are you?’ (laughs) but I guess I’m in the space of just being present and embracing whatever comes. This is what it is. It was meant to be this way, and I’m going to come back better from it.”
“Going back to Jon and Reade and Hillary (Bell, assistant athletic trainer) and our whole medical staff, they’re really, really good. Doc (Brian) Forsythe, who did the surgery. 'Os' (Steven Burrows), our massage therapist. I’ve spent a lot of time with (performance coach) John Grace. He’s the go-to guy in the gym that I’ve been with.This is my second go-around. I thought I knew a lot then, and I feel like I know even more now. I’m confident. I’m still a little ways away from full-on training, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot from the process. I’m just confident that I’ll be in a better place when I get back.”
"The relationships and the people are always the best part of, for me, playing soccer and being a part of the Fire."
CFFC.com: You live with your teammate Brandt Bronico, so that must have helped combat some of the isolation that can creep in when dealing with an injury. Was that a factor, and how did you get around on your own while he and the rest of the team were in Orlando for the MLS is Back Tournament?
JG: “Living with BB the whole year has just been a joy. Overall, it’s been more fun and nice to have somebody around to chat with. That’s a less isolating thing. But, he was gone for a month early on into my rehab, so I was pretty isolated. It was funny, my event of the day was going to see John at NovaCare, or going to the stadium. They’d be like, ‘We want to give you an off-day,’ and I was like, ‘No, this is all I have. I don’t see anybody else. I don’t care what we do, but I’ve got to get out of my apartment (laughs).’ So it is an isolating experience because you’re not with the team, but it’s just diving into doing whatever’s right in front of me -- whatever the exercise is -- and just doing that really well. Instead of being frustrated, I think a big piece is just enjoying that I’m spending a lot of time with people that are really knowledgeable and that want to help me get back.”
CFFC.com: What’s it been like navigating the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols on top of your rehab?
JG: “It’s (following) the protocol, but also being extra careful. When the team was gone, they said things like, ‘Don’t get in an Uber. Whoever’s driving you needs to be getting tested.’ Again, just being careful. If I get COVID, it’s two weeks of isolation without PT. I was like, ‘I already feel isolated. I don’t want that at all.’ It was big just being able to get out for a couple hours a day to work with Jon Williams or Tyler during the MLS is Back Tournament.”
CFFC.com: While it’s still individual work, how nice has it been to at least get back onto the training field with the rest of the team lately?
JG: “It’s nice being back. I haven’t really done any practice, but right at the beginning when the guys are kicking around, passing, I can jump in and pass with them a little bit. That’s been fun. A lot of my time is spent with Reade on the sidelines. That’s been huge, too. I’ve loved learning from Reade. I pick his brain all the time. He gives me challenging exercises, and then I get frustrated with him (laughs).”
“Hopefully by mid-October I’ll be ready to practice. That would be at four months. I would love to be able to be back in consideration for a game, whether the coach picks me to be in the 18 or not, I wold love to just have a shot. Whether it’s playing, on the bench, or just competing to make our team better. That’s a big goal of mine for this year. Also, holding a high standard -- still trying to be a positive influence and a great teammate even when I’m not able to de everything with the team.”
CFFC.com: As you look forward to earning your medical clearance, what goals and expectations do you have for both yourself and for the team for the remainder of the season?
JG: “We want to make playoffs. That’s a big goal. There’s a lot of games left. It’s a big thing of being the best team we can be -- as individuals, and then collectively. When everybody’s bringing their best selves to practice, to games, to meetings, every moment…wins follow that. If we’re able to bring everything we’ve got, every single game, wins will follow that. That’s my look at it.”