Three torn ACLs. Two-sport athlete. But there’s only one Jackie Denny.

To say Denny is a rare breed is an understatement, but her story may be unlike any other once she steps back onto the court.

“I’ve never had an athlete who has had three ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries and continued playing,” said Michael Flicker, senior associate AD/ head athletic trainer who has served on Lenoir Rhyne’s athletic training staff since 2002. “I admire Jackie for her ability to persevere and overcome a lot of psychological hurdles to be able to continue her athletic career.

“It takes a significant commitment on a daily basis to try to get back to the level of athlete she was before her injury and she has done it several times.”

The list of athletes who have torn their ACL is extensive. However, when Denny sees action in volleyball and basketball this year, she can become one of the first — if not the first — two-sport female athletes to return after tearing her ACL three times.

In 2012, the Carolina Panthers’ Thomas Davis became the first professional athlete to return after three ACL tears. In subsequent years, others have done it but it’s hard to find anyone who has come back and played two sports after a trio of ACL injuries.

The North Wilkesboro native plays sports whose seasons overlap and is a standout on both squads. To put that into perspective, Denny is an in-season athlete from August-March.

She first injured her right knee in March 2013 as a sophomore at North Wilkes High School. Shortly after scoring her 1,000th career point — yes, 1,000 career points by her sophomore year — which started a five-and-a-half month rehabilitation process that took her into her junior year.

Fast forward to January 2015 where Denny was in the midst of a standout senior season and just signed her letter of intent to play basketball and volleyball at Lenoir-Rhyne. She jumped for an offensive rebound and landed on one leg, which then got hit on the side as it was planted, tearing the ACL in her left knee.

As luck, or bad luck, would have it, the only date she could get in for surgery was Friday the 13th. Perhaps not by coincidence, after three months of rehab, Denny still didn’t feel right. She had to pause her rehab due to Patellofemoral pain, which can be caused when the patella tracks incorrectly as the knee bends and straightens. In total, the knee took 10 months to get back to full strength and took a mental toll.

“I could deal with the physical pain,” said Denny. “The toughest hurdle for me was the mental pain and having done it twice in a two years. The rehab was tougher and longer the second time because of the setback and I had a hard time staying patient. Especially since I knew my college career was about to begin and that transition was already going to be tough.”

Unfortunately, Denny hadn’t healed enough to participate in either volleyball or basketball  for the Bears during the 2015-16 academic year. After sitting out the entire 2015-16 season, Denny embarked on her college career.

In the fall of 2016, Denny returned in a major way, completing her second comeback by playing in all 30 matches.

With the volleyball season coming to a close on Nov. 15, it was on to basketball for the 5-11 forward. Denny’s first action came in a Dec. 3 win over Brevard where she scored her first collegiate basket in her first basketball game in 22 months. However, the comeback provided to be a lot more difficult than she expected.

“Mentally, it was a lot tougher for me to play basketball,” Denny said. “I never got hurt playing volleyball so I wasn’t as concerned about it. When I started to play basketball again, I thought more about my knee.”

Denny was fully healthy as a sophomore in 2017, playing in 25 volleyball matches and 23 basketball games. Denny’s 1.21 blocks/set ranked second in the South Atlantic Conference as did her 22 solo blocks. She got over her mental hurdles on the basketball court as well, shooting a team-high 56.3% from the field.

The year 2018 was more of the same as Denny’s 82 blocks gave her a career total of 286, moving her into the top 10 in program history. Additionally, Denny’s career mark of 1.01 blocks/set places her third in the team record book. Once again, she began the transition to basketball but a familiar feeling would halt her positive momentum.

“I often felt a little pop during volleyball season but it would always go back to normal so I thought it was just scar tissue,” commented Denny. “One rainy day, I was walking to the cafeteria and my foot slipped on the ground and I was in tears.”

An MRI showed a torn meniscus and the torn ACL was discovered in surgery. Upon investigation, it was revealed that the ACL could have been torn for up to two years. Her diligent work with rehab provided the knee with increased stability, possibly masking this lengthy period of time. Denny was faced with a tough decision but she knew exactly what she was going to do.

“I honestly never thought about not coming back,” said Denny after the third ACL tear. “I love my sports, I can’t imagine not playing them and I want to play as long as I can.”

So, on Dec. 12, 2018, she began the long comeback trail, again.

“Jackie is an uncommon case but her passion for the sports she plays and her mental toughness are off the charts,” said Luis Velez, assistant athletic trainer who has worked hand-and-hand with Denny in her rehab. “She has worked hard to get back on the court.”

The early rehab consisted of simply bending and straightening her leg. She was able to take her brace off two days after surgery and was walking without crutches eight days later.

She progressed to step-ups and walking stairs then to lunges and wall sits. Eventually, she was able to do high-level knee exercises and jumping then on to jogging and running again.

“When you run and jump for the first time it feels so strange, it really messes you up,” said Denny. “I was used to sprinting and hanging in the air to block a shot but when you are rehabbing, sometimes just being able to bend your leg is considered an accomplishment. And there’s no crowd or fans yelling for you, sometimes it’s just you and your trainer in an empty gym doing lunges.”

Despite three grueling rehabs which have totaled 22-and-a-half months and counting, Denny is on track to finish her senior season on the volleyball court in 2019 and has two more years of eligibility in basketball.

The third comeback for Denny officially begins on Sept. 6 when the volleyball season opens and she joins the ultra-slim list of players to return after three knee injuries.

“They say the third time’s the charm. I’m just excited and ready to get back out on the court and play the sports I love,” said Denny.

She’s third all-time in blocks per set. Missed her second full year of basketball. But there will always only be one Jackie Denny.

What her coaches say

“I can’t begin to tell you how much Jackie means to our team,” said Head Volleyball Coach Dave Markland. “She’s the team captain but even that title doesn’t do her justice. The mental toughness she has displayed throughout her career is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

“Jackie is one of the toughest student-athletes I have had the privilege to coach,” said Head Women’s Basketball Coach Cameron Sealey. “She never complains and always wants to be coached and pushed. She is a role model for the underclassmen in our program. Her mental, emotional and physical toughness are things that you cannot teach. She holds a strong presence within our program and I can’t wait to have her back in a uniform.”

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