Doctors can perform the surgery to fix a major problem in a player’s elbow so they can play again. The surgery is performed when the injured ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a tendon from another part of the body or in some cases a tendon from a cadaver. The UCL is a ligament that connects the bone in the upper arm to a bone in the forearm.
In recent years, the surgery has helped players that have played sports in the local area extend their careers.
Kyle Buescher, who helped lead Cleveland High to a 3A North Half Title in 2004 as a pitcher, had the surgery performed on him by the famous Dr. James Andrews out of Birmingham, Ala. in 2003 during his junior year.
According to Buescher, his elbow gave out in a game against South Panola.
“I had been pitching with a little bit of pain for a while and just thought it was part of the game and part of playing that position,” Buescher said. “It was just something that I assumed that you pitched through. The overhand throw is an unnatural movement anyway, and I just thought pitching baseball was something that you had to deal with a little pain and you played past it.
“My (injury) was kind of a gradual tear. It had been tearing over time, and it got to the point where I couldn’t throw a pitch 60 feet. I got to the point where I was in so much pain that I started throwing a lot of curveballs, because throwing that fastball was too painful for me. It was the only time where I called coach (Steve) Wies out of the dugout and had to take myself out of the game. That’s when we knew to get it checked out.”
When he went to see Dr. Andrews, Buescher said Dr. Andrews explained the possible cause for his injury.
“He said it was probably the combination of overuse and some flaws in my pitching mechanics,” Buescher recalled. “With me specifically, I had a habit of throwing and dropping my elbow. I kind of had a three-quarter delivery. A lot of times, I would drop that delivery where if my arm was reaching release point, my elbow would drop down below my shoulder which puts a lot of strain on that ligament.”
Before Buescher pitched at Cleveland High, he had lived in Texas and played a lot of summer ball when he was about 12 or 13.
“We had a summer lined up where we played probably over 50 baseball games,” Buescher said. “We were to the point where we were pretty much playing every night. We didn’t really practice much, it was just baseball games. As a kid, that’s just a blast, but I can see where that probably had a lot to do with it (the injury). I hate to say it because it was so much fun for me, but the truth probably is that had a lot to do with me tearing my arm.”
When Buescher moved to Cleveland, he also played junior high and high school football at Bayou Academy before transferring to Cleveland High.
“I played quarterback in football, so really there was no time during the year where I could take a break from throwing,” Buescher said. “If you don’t have the right mechanics with that overhand throw, you’re risking a lot of injury. Even the games where I wasn’t pitching, I was still on the field somewhere. I was in the outfield when I wasn’t pitching, so I was looking at throws from a big distance.”
When Dr. Andrews performed the surgery, he took a tendon from Buescher’s knee and used it to replace the UCL in the elbow.
Buescher said that surgery was performed a little differently than other Tommy John surgeries.
“Mostly, they take from the wrist of your opposite throwing arm,” Buescher said. “The one in my other wrist was too thin. I did notice as I was rehabbing and trying to stretch that arm out, there was a long time where I didn’t have the same flexibility that I did before. I couldn’t even straighten my left arm completely out.”
The 27-year-old said the rehabilitation process was a key learning experience, especially when he went back to the doctor for a check-up several months after his surgery.
“I wasn’t fully recovered yet but recovered enough to where I was throwing the baseball,” Buescher said. “They put me in their computer system, and I was able to see what I was doing with my mechanics and what I could tweak to improve, prevent injury and really what I could do to be a better athlete. That opened up a whole new world to me as far as what proper pitching mechanics should look like.”
In many cases, pitchers have returned to action throwing harder than they did before. Buescher, on the other hand, didn’t have any extra speed on his pitch when he came back.
“That’s something that’s still a mystery to me,” Buescher said. “I’m always playing around with different theories as to why I did not. I believe I followed the training program the way it was laid out for me, and the way I was supposed to get myself back. I was pitching in games my senior year, actually while I was rehabbing and getting it back to full strength. I did probably get back to throwing at the same velocity that I did but not with more velocity.”
Buescher was able to have a great senior season at Cleveland High as he went 10-2 with a 3.05 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 59.2 innings of work. He also posted a career winning percentage of .733 at Belhaven from 2005-08.
Buescher is now coaching at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, where he serves as a pitching coach on the baseball team. He uses techniques and information he learned during his rehab to teach his pitchers the proper mechanics when they throw.
Buescher said he and the rest of the coaching staff keep a close eye on those pitchers, especially on how many pitches they throw.
“I keep a pitch count, especially early on in the season,” Buescher said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re throwing a perfect game, if they reach that pitch count, they are coming out. I talk to them about that before the game starts and let them know that that’s what they’re going to expect. I’m not going to waiver from it and they understand that.”
In the three years Buescher has been coaching at Liberty, no one has suffered any arm injuries.
Buescher said having the Tommy John surgery proved to be a blessing in the end.
“Before Tommy John surgery started happening, there’s no telling how many players ended their careers and weren’t able to keep going and competing,” Buescher said. “I was very blessed to have that surgery done and keep playing. I don’t know if I would be as affective as I am right now as a coach without that surgery.”
Tommy John surgery is widely known in baseball, but it’s been performed on athletes in other sports. Delta State University Assistant Director for Sports Performance Gerald Jordan has worked with athletes that have undergone the surgery competing in football, women’s soccer and cheerleading.
Kendall Sizemore, who was a standout softball player at Cleveland High School and played softball at Delta State University, underwent the surgery in July of 2005 at the age of 14. Sizemore also played a lot of travel ball growing up with the Delta Diamonds softball team, but she never did any pitching.
The 22-year-old said her elbow problems began at a young age when she injured it in February of 2001.
“We were at practice one day for Delta Diamonds,” Sizemore recalled. “We were just catching fly balls in the outfield, and they told me that the reason I hurt my arm was because I was threw sidearm for so long. It wore it out and wore it out and then that one throw basically destroyed it.”
For the next few years, Sizemore wore an elbow brace because it was hard for her to throw the ball. She had gone through physical therapy for approximately two years straight before she had the surgery performed by Dr. Felix H. Savoie. The initial diagnosis wasn’t that serious, but the ligament was in worse shape than expected.
“I had torn my ligament from the inside and the outside,” Sizemore said. “They originally thought it was from the inside. I actually needed it (the surgery) way before I actually did it. They just thought that therapy would heel it. They told me that I severed my ligaments in my elbow, and I fractured or separated my growth plate in my elbow. We went to Delta State when the doctor came there. They told me that my growth plate had healed, but my ligaments hadn’t heeled like it was supposed to.”
After her eighth grade year at CHS, Sizemore underwent the elbow surgery.
Sizemore said she wasn’t sure how the results of the surgery would affect her in the long run.
“Of course being so young, I was especially nervous,” Sizemore said. “The doctor did tell me that when I had it, the surgery could possibly ware off within five years. With me wanting to play college ball, I was a little nervous because with me only being in the eighth grade that would have meant that I would have made it basically through high school. I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I won’t be able to play college ball.’”
Sizemore said the rehabilitation after the surgery was difficult at first.
“I will absolutely admit that rehab at the beginning after the surgery was terrible,” Sizemore said. “I went for the very first check up after my surgery, and Dr. Savoie told me I was doing great. When I started therapy shortly after that, I could barely move my arm 10 to 15 degrees. It was just stuck. He thought he had tightened it too tight. He was like if we don’t get some therapy going and get you moving your arm, we’re going to have to go back in there. I was like ‘No sir. We’re not doing that.’ I literally spent hours at physical therapy crying, but it was worth it I guess. To get me to move my arm, I had to push against my elbow and push it back toward my shoulder and it was awful.”
Sizemore was able to play her freshman year at Cleveland High in 2006 and didn’t stop playing. In 2008, Sizemore was one of the key players that enabled Cleveland High to win the 4A State Fastpitch Softball State Championship in 2008. The following year in 2009, Sizemore had a great senior season as she was instrumental in the Lady Wildcats winning the 4A North Half Title and advancing to the state title series for a second consecutive year.
Sizemore said that when she was rehabbing, she was determined to be a part of the Lady Wildcats.
“As good as we were at Cleveland High and as well as we played together, I definitely didn’t want to miss any part of that,” Sizemore said. “Softball was such a big passion in my life. I just loved being out there, and I’m just a dedicated person all around. I was ready to get back out there.”
After her career at CHS, she played softball at DSU from 2010-13 playing catcher and second base. In 2012, the Lady Statesmen went to the Gulf South Conference Title game with Sizemore playing in 34 games with 25 starts that year. This past season, Sizemore finished out the year as the female winner of the Charles S. Kerg Senior Student-Athlete of the Year Award.
Sizemore said she was grateful that she was able to continue playing after her surgery.
“Looking back over the past eight years, especially thinking back to when Dr. Savoie told me that some of these surgeries can only last up to five years, I really thought that would be me because of how much ball we did play,” Sizemore said. “Seeing that I did make it for eight years really makes me proud of myself for working hard and getting back out there.”
Sizemore added if she ever had children, they will learn proper throwing techniques.
“I would definitely persuade them to correct their throwing habits where this would not have to happen to them,” Sizemore said.
Delta State University has had some really good pitchers come through their program and John Polles was no exception.
In his first two years at DSU in 2001 and 02, Polles went a combined 16-2 with 140 strikeouts in 137 innings pitched. He helped guide the Statesmen to the NCAA Division II World Series in both of those years.
In 2003 at DSU, Polles was making his fourth start of his year junior on Feb. 23 against West Alabama in Livingston, Ala. Polles felt something wrong with his elbow during that game as he was taken out after just one inning of work.
“I was throwing good, and I felt it pop,” Polles said. “I got numb in my last two fingers and it was that ulnar collateral ligament.”
Polles said he tried rehabilitation and visited Dr. Savoie when he was with Mississippi Sports Medicine.
“We didn’t see a tear at first, but I knew something was wrong,” Polles said. “You just know when something is wrong with your body and something is not right. I went in and got a second opinion from Dr. Andrews. Dr. Andrews came to me when I was in Birmingham, and he said ‘John, you’ve got a tear in two places.’ He said, ‘Do you want to play baseball?”’ I said, ‘Yes sir I do.’ He said we need to get it fixed.”
After Polles’s visit with Dr. Andrews, he found out he needed to have Tommy John surgery.
Polles said he was disappointed at first when he found out he had to have surgery, and he thought about his chances of playing. Polles felt confident he would be back pitching, especially with Dr. Andrews performing the surgery.
“I felt good,” Polles said. “I knew my chances right off the bat were strong. I knew I wanted to play baseball and didn’t want to hang my cleats up then. I went to Birmingham and did the surgery.”
Polles worked with trainer Tim Colbert at DSU trying to get his arm and body back into shape. Polles said the rehab process was grueling.
“You’ve got a lot of scare tissue that you’ve got to work out,” Polles said. “Putting that baseball in your hand the first time after you have a new ligament in your elbow with a big scare on your elbow is a little nerve racking. We worked through it and came back after my Tommy John surgery throwing harder than I did when I went in. I had a new tight elbow, and I felt good again.”
Polles said not being able to play for the rest of 2003 was a tough pill to swallow.
“The hardest part of the whole thing was not being able to be out there with those guys,” Polles said. “Watching from outside the fence when they would leave and go to a weekend series and not being a part of it, that was the hardest part. I could get through the physical pain. The hardest part was not helping out the team.”
Polles rehabbed through the rest of the year and the summer months. He was able to earn a medical redshirt for 2003 since he had pitched in just four games.
In 2004, his hard work paid off as he went a perfect 6-0 with a 3.94 ERA, striking out 62 batters in 61.2 innings of work. His work was also instrumental in DSU winning the NCAA Division II World Series for the first and only time in school history. Polles finished his career at DSU in 2005, going 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA in eight starts.
During the remainder of his career, Polles learned that staying in shape after Tommy John surgery doesn’t mean just working the elbow.
“With Tommy John surgery, not only do you have to concentrate on your elbow but your whole body,” Polles said. “A lot of people in Tommy John surgery have shoulder problems afterwards. Later on in my career, my labrum was a little weak. I had a little labrum tear. What they should remember is not only do you have to work on your elbow, but you have to work on your other muscles — your shoulders, your rotator cuff, your back, your abs, everything else.”
Polles, who currently lives in Madison, teaches private pitching lessons from time to time.
The 32-year-old said going through the surgery and the rehab process has had a profound impact on him.
“The Tommy John surgery gave me an opportunity to finish out my career at Delta State, a place I love and I bleed green everyday,” Polles said. “I am so glad that the surgery was around for me to have, so I could come back and play college baseball. It also makes me look at the care that needs to go in as a pitcher. I’m watching the select ball and the amount of games these kids are playing and they’re starting the throw the breaking ball.
“The amount of ball games these kids are playing is unbelievable, but the care needs to go in starting out. They need to stay fit and exercise. They need to ice their arms when they are through playing . They need to stretch really good and work those muscles in their shoulders and their back.”