Three minutes into the game against the University of Alabama, a familiar face rose from the scorer’s table and walked onto the court for the first time this season for real-game action. The cheers of 7,203 fans filled the William R. Johnson Coliseum as one moment overshadowed the game itself—the return of John Comeaux, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
Comeaux’s debut against Alabama was the conclusion of a grueling rehabilitation process for a microfracture surgery he had on his knee over the summer. A surgery that he has had twice in his life. According to head basketball athletic trainer Chris Elliott, a microfracture surgery involves drilling small holes in the affected bone, allowing the bone to bleed so the body can naturally heal itself by adding extra fiber cartilage.
According to Comeaux, the most recent need for the surgery occurred when cartilage started to break off into fragments from a portion of the bone and caused discomfort in the knee. Comeaux had the first surgery at 14 years old and was told he may never be able to play basketball again.
“I was so young that I thought it was like a test,” Comeaux said. “At the time, I was always in the church. And all the preachers and all of my family said you would be tested throughout your life, and I thought it was one of those [tests].”
It didn’t take long for Comeaux to go back to one of the activities he loves most—basketball.
“One day, I was hanging with some friends and just seeing everything that they were doing and having fun doing what they loved to do,” Comeaux said. “God gave me another chance, and I was like, God didn’t give me the ability for no reason. He wanted to see where I can go.”
Motivated by his family and, more specifically, his younger siblings, Comeaux overcame the odds and stepped back on the basketball court.
During his time at Ozen High School, Comeaux was 56-7 and helped lead the Panthers to the state finals during his junior year. Comeaux also gained First-Team All-State honors and two First-Team All-Region accolades.
After high school, playing basketball wasn’t enough. Instead, Comeaux set his sights on playing at the collegiate level. He signed with Lamar State College-Port Arthur where he scored 19.8 points per game and led the team in assists with four per game and steals with 2.2 per game.
Comeaux’s stand-out play garnered the attention of Division I coaches. On April 12, 2017, SFA head men’s basketball coach Kyle Keller announced Comeaux had been added to the 2017-18 recruiting class.
In his first season as a Lumberjack, Comeaux established himself as a shutdown defender and an acrobatic finisher around the basket. One of the most notable moments of Comeaux’s first year was during the Southland Conference Tournament championship. With 3:51 remaining in the game, and the Jacks down by 2, Comeaux stepped up and made a contested layup to tie the game. The pivotal play helped send the Lumberjacks to the NCAA Tournament.
After the Jacks were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in a 60-70 loss to Texas Tech, Comeaux started preparing for the next season. But one summer day, the unthinkable happened. During a routine jog, Comeaux felt discomfort in his knee—a feeling he recognized from when he was 14 years old.
“We were in one of our workouts, and I was just jogging on the court and I felt something wrong, and I was like, I have to sit down,” Comeaux said. “I was just jogging; you wouldn’t even think it was anything. My little brother was with me at the time, and I was talking to him and I said, ‘did it look like I did anything wrong?’ He said ‘no.’”
“I called Chris [Elliott], and I was like something is wrong,” Comeaux said. “[We] got the MRI and X-Ray’s, and they said it looked like a tornado in my knee.”
Comeaux would once again need microfracture surgery, this time to the other knee. However, there was no fear for the future. Getting on the court again was inevitable. The only thing that was standing in the way of Comeaux and the court was time.
“We started [rehab] maybe two days after surgery,” Comeaux said. “I had dark days, and I had some light days. You have to be strong mentally, and I don’t know if a lot of people would have made it, to be honest, because the pain is what really gets you. And a lot of people don’t really know pain with your body. My body’s been through a lot of pain.”
According to Elliott, the physical and mental toll during a rehabilitation process can be too much to handle for some athletes who underwent surgery.
“With that first week, you’re almost kind of focusing on them mentally almost more than physically,” Elliott said. “It’s kind of about doing exercises that you know they can do. He was literally lying on the training tables just raising his leg. When [athletes] get surgery, they go all sorts of places mentally, because their whole world has flipped upside down.”
With the use of advanced training facilities and equipment, along with the determination to get back on the court, Comeaux was able to start working on gaining back his strength quickly after surgery.
Among the equipment used was a zero gravity treadmill that, once zipped in, can take up to 50 percent of body weight. This allowed Comeaux to start running without having to put his entire body weight on the knee.
“All of a sudden John’s able to start running several weeks earlier, and I mentioned earlier that he was able to come back faster than we had anticipated,” Elliott said. “I think when people hear that they think [we’re] running the risk of coming back too fast, it was really because of this equipment that he met all of his markers that we had for him.”
The training staff also used blood flow restrictions (BFR) that would cut off blood flow and make the body, at a cellular level, think that it was doing more work than it was. This allowed Comeaux to push his muscles without stressing any joints, and avoided losing muscle—something that is common for athletes following surgery.
“Once [Comeaux] was cleared by the doctor, he was able to start doing some on-the-court individual agility stuff with me, I’d have him start doing some jump shooting to get his form back,” Elliott said. “One of the things we really tried to do for all of his conditioning and agility stuff, if there’s a game day we’d wait and do all of that during warm ups. You have a different level of adrenaline and excitement than you do for anything else…It’s not just like he’s in the training room with me and doing stuff and then it’s like ‘alright, you’re ready to play,’ and just throw him straight into the fire. It’s a slow progression.”
With a typical recovery time estimated for six-to-eight months, Comeaux beat that by about a month.
In late December, for the first time since March, Comeaux put on the pristine white uniform and ran out in front of a sea of purple to play the game that he loves—something that wasn’t always a guarantee. The moment he stepped on the court for the first time is a memory Comeaux said he will never forget.
“It was amazing just to be acknowledged to play for SFA again, just to play for my family again and have ‘Jacks’ and ‘Lumberjacks’ on my jersey knowing that I was playing for God,” Comeaux said. “Everything just came together, and I felt one with the team and one with God again, and it just felt amazing because he gave me the ability to play again.”
Following the game, Comeaux was presented an axe with his name inscribed on the handle, an award given by Elliott to a basketball athlete who played in his or her first game following surgery and rehab. The axe symbolizes triumph and determination to get back to the court.
“In their first game back after surgery, they get presented with their axe as kind of like [the athlete’s] final obstacle they have overcome,” Elliott said. “Obviously that’s what everyone is working toward is being able to play again.”
One could use many different words to describe Comeaux—determined, tough, even unbreakable. But during the press conference following the Alabama clash, Keller used his own description for the player, saying “He’s Superman.”