Alabama football team doctor explains how Jaylen Waddle, Landon Dickerson returned for title game

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

As impressed as he was with Landon Dickerson’s early recovery trend, Alabama football team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lyle Cain was ready for Dickerson to stop “pestering” him about playing in the College Football Playoff.

“I finally came up with a plan that I thought would never happen but I hoped would,” Cain said. “I told him if we’re up four touchdowns with under five minutes left and we go victory formation, I’m OK with you going into the game.”

With Alabama up 52-24 in the final minute of the national championship game, Dickerson got his wish, trotting onto the field 20 days after ACL surgery.

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Cain, named the SEC Team Physician of the Year in November, discussed the quick recovery timelines for Dickerson and wide receiver Jaylen Waddle with The Tuscaloosa News, largely crediting the bodily excellence of elite athletes for their ability to get back on the field for that game.

“I would love it if every patient had it that easy,” Cain said. “A lot of these guys that are elite athletes like Landon, they have an ability to recover quickly and that’s why they’re elite athletes.”

Dickerson started badgering the medical staff about a return once he regained all of his mobility in the knee — remarkably, six days after surgery. Dickerson was injured in the SEC Championship Game. He was trying to work his way into the College Football Playoff Semifinal on Jan. 1, pleading with the medical staff that he transferred to UA to play in games like these.

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA;  Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) celebrates after Alabama defeated Ohio State 52-24 to win the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Cain was able to reach the agreement with Dickerson, but not after some negotiating: Dickerson tried to talk the victory formation snap up to 10 plays, some of them against the first-team defensive line to make contested blocks.

“All things in my mind that were out of the question,” Cain said of Dickerson’s requests.

The two were supposed to bring the results of their negotiations to UA coach Nick Saban, but never did. As far as Cain knows, Dickerson approaching Saban on the sideline before running onto the field was the first Saban heard of the agreement.

“He was not going to give it up,” Cain said. “He was going to find a way to get into that game, whether I let him or not. He was convinced that he was ready to go, he felt good and his goal was to get in there and snap the ball. I applaud him for his effort, he worked hard to get to that point.”

Waddle also enjoyed a quick recovery process. Cain said the two hurdles that must be cleared for a return to activity from a fracture are complete bone healing and the regaining of mobility in the joint, largely limited by the cast required for bone healing and the stiffness that comes from it. Waddle cleared both quickly, moving him to the third step of regaining function: running, cutting, jumping and landing.

From there, all Waddle needed was confidence in the joint. Cain said it’s common for athletes to need instances of contact with no additional injury to feel confident in the joint, but the medical staff regained confidence pretty quickly.

“His GPS data in practice was very normal,” Cain said. “His velocity and speed were normal compared to pre-injury data. His cutting velocity, acceleration and deceleration were all pretty close to normal.”

There was a level of compensation for what was not quite normal — Saban said after the game UA tried to use Waddle in a way that mostly had him running straight lines, limiting the amount of deceleration and full-speed change of direction Waddle put on his recovering right ankle.

Still, the medical staff was confident it was safe for Waddle to play and it proved useful, as Waddle caught three passes. Cain and the medical staff have been through several similar ankle injuries in recent years, former running back Kenyan Drake’s being the most representative injury, and if anything, playing in the game may have helped Waddle in his process to full health in time for the NFL Draft workout circuit.

“If you talked to him the next day, I think he felt better than he had in months,” Cain said. “Sometimes going out and doing that — running routes, doing practice stuff — is a natural part of the rehab.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson