Makayla Waterman has torn two ACLs during her basketball career, so by now she knows a loud pop isn’t a nice sound.
Compared to her past experiences, what she heard Saturday during the third quarter of Ohio State’s win at Wisconsin wasn’t good. With a little more than two minutes remaining in the quarter, Waterman’s neck bent against a Wisconsin player as she fell to the ground, where she lay for nearly 15 minutes before she was transported to a nearby hospital for further evaluation.
Waterman is fine — she made the trip back to Columbus with the team Saturday and stopped wearing a neck brace after a Monday MRI showed no structural damage — but has some neck stiffness to show for a scary ordeal.
The redshirt junior forward wore flip flops and sweats Tuesday as her team started its practice. It’s unclear whether she’ll play Thursday against Rutgers as she works her way back from a neck strain and tries to increase her range of motion. But, as coach Kevin McGuff put it, “Fortunately everything worked out.”
It’s a sense of relief the Buckeyes now feel after a frightening few minutes Saturday.
“I heard both the pops in my ACL and the pop I heard in my neck was 10 times louder. As soon as I heard that I just started screaming and I held my neck because I didn’t know what was wrong,” Waterman said of the initial impact. “I know neck injuries can be pretty serious so I didn’t really know what to do. I just know (the Wisconsin player) fell on my head and my head went down and all of a sudden my spine or whatever it was just snap, crackle, popped and I went down and laid on the floor.”
Waterman said she never lost feeling in her extremities but did feel pain in her neck and back. She also described a shock that didn’t go away until she met with a doctor in the Madison hospital.
“I’m such a pessimist. Every worst possible thing was going through my mind and all I could think about was (Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker) Ryan Shazier. I know that sounds terrible but I’m just like, ‘What if I can’t walk? I don’t care about basketball, but walking again…’” she said. “Then they came in and said I didn’t have any fractures in my vertebrae and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was happy.”
Waterman was most concerned about her parents, who weren’t at the game. The Watermans relied on updates from Waterman’s cousin, who lives in Minneapolis and was in Madison for the game. Her parents weren’t the only ones checking in, however.
Athletic trainer Chalisa Fonza held onto Waterman’s phone while doctors examined her. Text messages accumulated quickly.
“At first I didn’t have service and I turned my wifi on and I literally got like 107 or (108) messages and all these tweets and I’m still trying to answer people now,” Waterman said. “I wasn’t really concerned about answering them (immediately) because I was just more happy that I wasn’t hurt.”
In the immediate aftermath of Waterman hitting the floor, both her teammates and coaches were worried but hoped for the best.
“It was hard to see her laying on the floor. Obviously that’s really tough to see. She’s obviously beloved, as all our players are, by her teammates and they were really upset,” McGuff said. “So it was tough. It was a tough moment but I was really proud of the team that they kind of rallied around the fact that she couldn’t be with us. So we were going to try to play for her and make sure we put forth our best effort.”
Redshirt senior forward Stephanie Mavunga recalled the quiet of the moment. She said she immediately started praying before joining her teammates.
“Makayla’s such a great person and a great teammate and she was going hard out there for us and so I said, ’It’s time for us to go hard out there for her as well,’” Mavunga said. “I came back in the huddle, said a prayer in front of the team and a lot of tears, everybody started crying and then (we turned that emotion) it into positive energy and competing.”
Players eventually got word after the game that Waterman was OK. The redshirt junior walked onto the Columbus-bound team plane to what Mavunga said was a standing ovation.
“She (was) all riled up,” Mavunga said. “It was funny seeing her emotion for everybody (getting up) for her. I knew she was OK at that point.”