Elbow surgery shouldn’t be a ‘death sentence’ for Ben Roethlisberger. Just ask Jake Delhomme

Late in the third quarter during an early-season game against the Atlanta Falcons almost a dozen years ago, Jake Delhomme scanned the field before checking the ball down to fullback Brad Hoover.

Just like that, Delhomme’s season was over and his career was in jeopardy over a pass he threw a yard or two down the field.

“I grabbed my elbow immediately,” Delhomme said by phone Monday. “I knew something tore. You just know. It was a different feeling. I told the trainer that I’m done. It’s done.”

The Carolina quarterback — just a couple years removed from leading his team to Super Bowl XXXVIII — tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He also suffered a “hole” in his flexor-pronator tendon in his forearm to go along with a previously diagnosed bone chip floating in the joint.

Delhomme needed dreaded Tommy John surgery — a death sentence for NFL quarterbacks at that time. And while it’s unclear if Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending surgery will be a Tommy John procedure, many experts suggest that might be the case.

Craig Erickson had the surgery in the late 1990s and Rob Johnson a couple of years later. Neither played another snap in the NFL after undergoing the procedure.

Delhomme was different, becoming the first known success of a quarterback undergoing elbow surgery and having no ill-effects from the injury.

Not only did Delhomme fully recover from his elbow surgery, it was a rapid recovery. Delhomme was throwing a Nerf football within four months and cleared to play within seven months after what he called an “extremely easy rehab,” to the point where the most significant issue he dealt with was boredom.

Delhomme started all 16 games the following year and helped the Panthers to a 12-4 record, an NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs before losing to eventual conference champion Arizona.

“My arm felt better than it did in years after the surgery,” Delhomme said. “I felt relief immediately. The day I tore it is the day I felt relief. It would hurt for me to brush my teeth, wash my face, shake hands with anybody. Once it tore, I remember telling the trainer and the doctor that I slept great. I didn’t have that pain, and my arm didn’t kill me.”

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On Sunday, Roethlisberger grabbed his right elbow in pain on consecutive first-half throws against the Seahawks before leaving the game.

Roethlisberger wasn’t given much, if any, medical attention on the sidelines. He underwent an MRI on Monday morning and a couple of hours later, the Steelers announced he was out for the season and would have surgery on the elbow — all indications that the team’s medical staff was sure of what exactly the injury entails.

“The trick with those injuries is sometimes MRI’s are tough to tell a partial compared to a complete tear,” said Dr. David Geier, a double-board certified orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, S.C. “The best test is what’s called an arthrogram, where they inject dye into the elbow, but that’s pretty painful during the season because you have this big swollen elbow for four or five days. You are going to know well enough to make the decision to go in for surgery or not.”

Other quarterbacks have dealt with UCL injuries but didn’t choose, or need surgery. Buffalo’s Josh Allen missed a month last year with a collateral ligament sprain before returning. Carson Palmer decided to rehab his partially torn ligament in 2008. It cost him 12 games, but he went on to play seven more seasons including a Pro Bowl season at 36.

“It’s not a common injury in football compared to baseball because of the repetitive motion in baseball,” Geier said. “You see it with anybody who has that same fully extending your elbow stress. You can see it in quarterbacks, you can see it hockey players taking slap shots, you can see it in volleyball players in the spike and tennis players with a serve, but it’s pretty uncommon.”

Over the past decade, there have been 12 reported ulnar collateral ligament injuries in the NFL with only one requiring surgery. Even if Roethlisberger’s operation isn’t officially Tommy John, it is significant enough to require surgery and rehabilitation that’s similar.

“Hey, I am not a doctor, but if that’s what he has, I don’t see why he can’t come back from it,” Delhomme said. “You were talking 12 years ago. They’ve perfected these surgeries so much now. I remember the doctor telling me as long as the nerve isn’t involved. That’s where the potential problems arise. It’s definitely not a death sentence.”

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Delhomme was 32 at the time of his injury, and Roethlisberger is 37. Overuse was likely was the culprit in both instances.

Delhomme attempted an average of 460 passes for four straight years before the injury. Roethlisberger threw the ball nearly 700 times last year.

Even though the Steelers put together a practice regime over the past two years limit Roethlisberger’s throws, apparently he still had been experiencing discomfort. It’s unknown how long it has been bothering him.

Teammates said Roethlisberger was dealing with some sort of elbow pain leading up to last week’s game. Roethlisberger missed practice Wednesday, but it was listed as a coach’s decision and not injury-related.

Delhomme can relate to the pain associated with having a sore elbow and throwing a football.

“I was having issues for almost two years with my elbow that a cortisone shot would kind of mask it,” Delhomme said. “It was because of normal wear and tear and a cortisone shot would last four, five, six months and the time span between shots kind of started to become closer and closer. In the back of my mind, I knew that this couldn’t be good and there’s something going on.”

Delhomme decided to rest the injury for a couple of weeks, but not having the ability to throw the ball more than a couple of yards down the field after the rest indicated to him that surgery was the only option if he wanted to control his career.

“I felt comfortable from 10, 12 yards in throwing the ball,” Delhomme said. “Anything more was forced. I couldn’t do it. I remember going out on the practice field with just me and the trainer and I tried to let one go — a 15-yarder — and I grabbed it again. We knew.”

Delhomme had surgery Oct. 18, 2007. It was performed by Carolina team physician Pat Connor, a shoulder and elbow specialist.

Even though his injury was a true Tommy John variety, where a tendon was grafted out of his leg and put in his elbow, the forearm and bone chip made it even more challenging, decreasing the chances he could once again throw the ball, let alone at the level of an NFL quarterback.

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Delhomme was anticipating a grueling rehab. It was anything but that.

“Pat told me that I was going to be bored with this rehab,” Delhomme said. “In essence, it’s just time. I had to do a lot of flexion and ascension, because I had the bone spur to make sure I had my range of motion, but the rest of the time you are just letting that ligament sit. The rehab was easy. Very easy. You are just strengthening the forearm and letting the ligament set. I was ready to go by May.”

In the first game of the 2008 season, Delhomme restarted his career by coming back on the San Diego Chargers with a touchdown pass on fourth down as time expired to win the game. A year later, he signed a five-year extension with the Panthers worth $42.5 million with $20 million guaranteed.

Delhomme played four more years in the league after the surgery with Carolina, Cleveland and then Houston. He threw 26 touchdowns and 37 interceptions over that span before retiring in 2011.

“The issue I had after that was more about my age. My right hip started to bother me and stuff like that,” Delhomme said. “My arm was never an issue after that. Even to this day, I have a buddy whose kid is in high school and we do some drills and my arm feels great.

“Surely Ben’s is not the same exact as mine. It could be something different, but my experience was great, to say the least. This isn’t a death sentence and I am proof of that.”

Roethlisberger said in a statement on Monday that he has no plans to retire.

“I am completely determined to battle through this challenge and come back stronger than ever next season,” he said. “The Steelers committed three years to me this offseason and I fully intend to honor my contract and reward them with championship-level play.”

(Photo: Nick Laham / Getty Images)

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