FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — James Blankenship lingered outside the operating room while an anesthesiologist and nurses prepped his patient for surgery. With nothing to do for the next 10 or so minutes, Blankenship pulled out his cell phone and watched overtime of the ongoing Arkansas-Auburn football game.
Less than an hour earlier, Blankenship had been lounging in his suite on the west side of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, enjoying that very game with family and friends. He was watching in the third quarter when three Auburn defenders collided with Rawleigh Williams III in a way that left the running back lying near the Arkansas sideline with no feeling in his body.
About an hour later, with his team still battling for a victory, Williams laid inside that operating room. Williams was waiting for Blankenship to repair the dislocated disc that pressed against his spinal cord and threatened to affect far more than his fledgling football career.
The No. 17 Razorbacks and 21st-ranked Tigers meet again at 6 p.m. (ET) Saturday inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, almost one year later to the date since Williams was strapped to a gurney and carted off the field, unable to feel anything or control his body’s contortions.
You may remember Williams’ frightening injury and know about his comeback. But this is the story of the man who made it possible, the spinal surgeon and lifelong Razorback fan whose sharp eye, quick thinking and excellent surgical performance allowed Williams to make a full recovery and enter this weekend as the SEC’s leading rusher.
“This is by far and away the most serious injury I’ve had to take care of, thank goodness,” Blankenship told SEC Country during an extensive interview in his Fayetteville office.
“I’d just as soon not see another one like it.”
A quick diagnosis
Arkansas and Auburn were tied at 14 late in the third quarter when Williams received a toss and ran around the right edge. Auburn’s Kris Frost tugged at Williams’ face mask as two other Tiger defenders drove their shoulders into him, bringing him down near the Arkansas sideline.
Watching the television screen in his suite, Blankenship noticed the way Williams was laying on the ground, oddly moving his body in a way that looked uncontrollable. Blankenship then watched the replay of the hit and realized Williams’ injury might be severe.
Blankenship — who has served as the Arkansas athletic department’s spinal doctor for the past several years — called down to the medical professionals on the field and told them to get Williams stabilized and instruct the ambulance to transport him to Physicians Specialty Hospital, a smaller facility that Blankenship co-founded.
Then he left the game — the first time in his career that he’s done that to take care of an athlete — and drove 6 miles to the hospital to meet Williams and his family.
Hoping his first instincts were wrong, Blankenship asked Williams if he’d ever had a stinger before.
He had, Williams replied, but this one felt like an awful stinger.
Initial X-rays showed a straight spine, and some feeling was beginning to return to Williams’ extremities. But Blankenship ordered an MRI just to make sure.
“These athletes are so muscular,” Blankenship said, “that their X-rays don’t look like mine or yours.”
The MRI confirmed Blankenship’s fears: Williams had what the doctor called an “unstable dislocation” of a disc that had pushed back on his spinal cord.
Blankenship recommended an immediate anterior cervical discectomy and fusion — a surgery in which an implant replaces the disc, and a metal plate is screwed in to keep things in place.
It is the same procedure that Peyton Manning underwent to finally — after a couple of years of trying other, more conservative solutions — fix his neck and reinvigorate his career in 2011.
Because Blankenship’s hospital is a smaller facility, his operating room crew — despite not being on call — quickly heard what was happening and rushed in to help.
From the time Williams entered the hospital to the time he was falling asleep for the operation, only about 45 minutes had elapsed.
‘Taking care of him was easy’
The subject of whether Williams would play football again didn’t come up until his follow-up appointments, something that left Blankenship very impressed.
Nevertheless, Blankenship never had much doubt that Williams’ playing career would eventually get back on track — if, that is, Williams and his parents wanted to go down that road.
“I told his folks it was really going to boil down to rather he wanted to play again or not,” Blankenship said. “The most stable part of his neck is where I operated. It’s fused together. To reinjure that (part of the neck) would take a level of trauma he’s not gonna have on the football field.”
When it became apparent that Williams wanted to play again, the healing process became arguably more vital than the surgery itself. And Blankenship said Williams nailed it.
“That kid never did anything I told him not to do, and he did everything I told him he could do, and he did it 150 percent,” Blankenship said. “Taking care of him was easy.”
Williams and his family decided to get a second opinion — something Blankenship encouraged — so the Dallas native went to see the Dallas Cowboys’ spinal doctor.
The Cowboys’ doctor looked over everything and told the family that Blankenship had handled the procedure exactly the right way. It was confirmed that if Williams wanted to play again, there was no extra risk of reinjuring that part of his neck.
Both doctors agreed that Williams probably could have gone through full contact in spring football, but also recommended waiting until the fall for that, just to be safe.
So when the Razorbacks returned to the practice field in August, Williams was a full participant.
Like a movie
Blankenship jokes that he’d “rather operate on a chicken farmer from Huntsville than a Tyson,” but also acknowledges that it’s cool that he gets to work with the Razorbacks.
The 56-year old grew up in the tiny, North Central Arkansas town of Melbourne, riding with his parents to Fayetteville regularly as a youngster to watch the Hogs play. He completed his undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas and — other than six years of training in Little Rock — has stayed in Fayetteville ever since.
“Once I decided to do this, I never, ever thought about practicing anywhere but Fayetteville,” he said.
He regularly attends Arkansas athletic events with his wife and kids and will admit that he’s developed a special affection for the Hogs’ starting running back.
“I don’t know if that’s because I operated on him or because I got to know him,” Blankenship said. “He’s just such a great kid.”
The feeling is mutual among the Williams family.
“It was just a blessing that it worked out the way it did, with him being at the game and being able to do surgery at that time,” Williams said. “For such a bad situation, it really couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Kim Williams — Rawleigh’s mother — said the whole thing feels like something out of a movie. If Blankenship hadn’t been at the game and paying attention — or if he hadn’t been a spinal doctor who knew to double check that deceptive X-ray — things might have turned out differently.
Instead, Williams is enjoying a breakout sophomore season. He rushed for 180 yards in Arkansas’ huge victory last weekend over Ole Miss and currently leads the SEC in rushing yardage.
Saturday evening, he will help lead the Razorbacks into another important game at Auburn, the same opponent against which he suffered that horrible injury.
In the Blankenship home — where you can bet all eyes will be on the television Saturday night — a running joke has developed between James and his 13-year old son, Holden.
“When Rawleigh will break one for about 20 yards, I’ll lean over to my oldest son,” Blankenship said. “He’ll just look back and say, ‘I know dad. You operated on him.’”