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ACL surgery saves wrestling champ’s dream

Written By: Shelley Vanker, UT Physicians | Updated: May 15, 2024
Jackson Herman holding gold medal

Jackson Herman holds the state championship medal he won during his senior season at Cinco Ranch HS. He won the title within a year of recovering from ACL surgery. (Photo by Brad Driver, UT Physicians)

Childhood drawing of Jackson winning a wrestling match in 2014
As a child, Jackson Herman dreamed of wrestling for the University of Illinois. A drawing he made at age 9 manifested his ambitions. (Photo from Mindy Herman)

Proudly clutching his state championship medal, 18-year-old Jackson Herman flashed a smile.

“It was the best moment of my life,” he said while looking down at the shiny, gold disk. “It didn’t feel real.”

The Cinco Ranch High School senior is still basking in the after-glow of his come-from-behind championship win, and he isn’t looking to relax.

His next step: Wrestling at the University of Illinois – the school of his childhood dreams.

But the first-place finish and collegiate opportunity almost didn’t happen.

Torn ACL

One year prior, in February 2023, Jackson competed in the regional quarterfinals for Texas high school wrestling and heard his knee make a sound.

“My leg got caught, and I heard it pop,” he said. “It wasn’t swollen, so I continued to compete.”

Paul Shupe, MD
Paul Shupe, MD

Jackson won that match and the regional title, but out of precaution, he called his orthopedic surgeon. Through years of competitive wrestling injuries, he had already established a relationship with Paul Shupe, MD, at UT Physicians.

“We scheduled an MRI, and the diagnosis came back that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL),” said Shupe, an assistant professor with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “It was completely ruptured.”

The ACL is a major stabilizing structure in the center of your knee that helps keep your leg aligned when you change direction or while walking on uneven surfaces. Left untreated, a torn ACL could lead to further knee damage.

Timing is everything

Recovery from a torn ACL can take anywhere from 9 months to a full year.

“He was devastated that he injured himself before the state competition,” said Shupe. “He was primed to win state as a junior, but that was taken away from him, so we wanted to move quickly to salvage his senior season.”

“Dr. Shupe sped up everything for my son,” said Mindy Herman, Jackson’s mother. “So that just tells me that not only is he a good doctor, but he’s also a good person who treats patients as people.”

Successful ACL surgery

Jackson underwent outpatient surgery to reconstruct his torn ACL.

Through several small incisions around Jackson’s knee, Shupe used a small graft of Jackson’s quadricep tendon to replace the torn ligament.

“Over the course of three months, that tendon became a ligament,” said Shupe. “It’s a really strong, robust graft.”

Physical and emotional recovery

Within 20 hours of surgery, the high school athlete was in physical therapy, but Jackson’s road to recovery began with overcoming his initial shock.

Jackson poses with Paul Shupe, MD after his ACL surgery
Jackson Herman with orthopedic surgeon Paul Shupe, MD, after his successful recovery from ACL surgery. (Photo from Mindy Herman)

“I didn’t understand how serious an ACL tear was. I was really naive about it,” he explained. “The first week or two after surgery, I couldn’t move my leg. I began questioning if I was ever going to wrestle again.”

He found himself isolated and frustrated during rehabilitation and fell into negative headspace.

“I went from wrestling in the state tournament, the pinnacle of my athletic ability, to not being able to walk the next month,” said Jackson.

“This recovery can be extremely mental,” said Shupe. “There is a big psychological component from this type of surgery, especially for athletes.”

Climbing out of that dark hole took mental grit and a sharp shift in attitude.

“I was feeling sorry for myself, but eventually had to flip that into accepting the challenge,” said Jackson.

The teen credits his physical therapist with helping him focus his mindset on small day-to-day wins. His new outlook propelled his progress.

“Every workout, I could do something new,” he said. “At first, it was bending my leg a little more, then I could lift a little more weight, and then I was jogging and sprinting.”

Back on the mat

Jackson competed in his first wrestling match nine months after his ACL surgery.

“I was ready,” said Jackson. “I did the work, I put in the time, and once I got in the right headspace, I was committed.”

He won that first match, then another, and another. During his return to wrestling, he outperformed nearly every competitor, finishing the season with a 51-2 record.

Jackson announced the winner by the referee at the state wrestling championship.
The moment Jackson Herman was named a state champion for the 132 lb. weight class in Texas UIL boys 6A wrestling. (Photo from Mindy Herman)

“Every match I went out there to have fun, and I believed in myself,” said Jackson. “I wrestled every single second for the full 6 minutes, and when you wrestle the whole match, things go your way.”

Wrestling champion

By the time the sate championship match arrived, Jackson’s confidence was high and his athletic ability was at an apex.

“When I came onto the mat, I was just grateful to be wrestling,” he said.

And there on the sidelines was a friendly face.

“When he saw me on the side, his eyes lit up,” said Shupe, who volunteered as the tournament physician to assist athletes from all over Texas. “He gave me a hug right before the match. He was really focused.”

The surgeon who performed the life-changing ACL surgery had a front-row seat to witness his patient’s championship win, culminating in a full-circle moment.

“It was fantastic!” said Shupe. “It was personally rewarding to be on the mat, watching.”

When the final whistle blew, Jackson knew his pain, hard work, and discipline had paid off.

“I immediately ran up to the stands and jumped into my dad’s arms,” he said. “I was crying. All my teammates, including my younger brother, and friends from school were there. It was amazing to share that moment with them.”

Jackson embraced by his father after winning the wrestling championship.
Jackson Herman celebrating with coaches moments after winning his state title. (Photo from Mindy Herman)

Quality care

Jackson and his parents on college signing day
Jackson Herman with his parents, Jevon and Mindy, during his college signing day at Cinco Ranch High School in Katy. (Photo from Mindy Herman)

Coming back from a torn ACL, followed by months of mental doubts and physical challenges, made his first-place finish that much sweeter and reinforced the importance of quality care.

“Everything they had me do transferred into my wrestling,” said Jackson. “Dr. Shupe gave me the best medical advice and my physical therapist set my rehab goals. They didn’t let me return until I was 100%, which made all the difference. I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”

Jackson’s state title in the 2024 UIL boys 6A tournament adds to his long list of accomplishments, which includes three-time district champion and two-time regional champion.

But perhaps his proudest achievement is earning the opportunity to compete on the collegiate stage with the University of Illinois, following in his father’s footsteps.

“Because a busy orthopedic surgeon added Jackson to his schedule when he did, and not a day later, my son was able to meet his timeline to be both mentally and physically strong enough to compete,” said Mindy. “A good doctor can make a difference in people’s lives.”

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.