For 3rd year Saints edge rusher Hau'oli Kikaha, the sport of football has been both a blessing and a curse. It's been a blessing in the sense that it's provided the 24-year old with a chance to play the sport that he's loved since childhood, professionally.
But at the same time, it's also been a curse; after Kikaha tore the ACL in his left knee last off-season in the Saints' final session of OTA's, for what was the THIRD time of his playing career, and all within the past 5 years.
And now as Kikaha, the rest of his teammates and the coaching staff come together tomorrow morning at the Saints Training Facility in suburban Metairie for the start of this year's OTA's, he returns to the proverbial "scene of the crime" where the injury occurred --- while he looks to begin the attempt of what would be an improbable 3rd 'come back' in time for the upcoming 2017 regular season.
Yet the question remains: can he actually pull it off???
As it is, Kikaha has already “beaten the odds” not just once, but twice before; by coming back successfully from two torn ACL’s to the same knee (his left knee) in college, to lead the entire NCAA in sacks his senior season at Washington in 2014.
Kikaha suffered an ACL tear to his left knee during a Week #5 game in his sophomore season at the University of Washington in early October of 2011, and then re-injured the very same knee just a few months later during a practice session in fall camp the following year in August of 2012.
But he bounced back with a strong junior season in 2013, while starting every game for the Huskies and finishing the year with 13 sacks, 70 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, and 3 passes deflected / batted down.
He then of course followed that up with his phenomenal senior season of 2014, when he was named a 1st team AP All-American with 19 sacks, 72 tackles (which included 25 of them for a loss behind the line of scrimmage), 3 forced fumbles, and 2 passes deflected / batted down.
As a result, Kikiha became the sixth unanimous All-American in the entire history of the University of Washington Huskies football program.
After then being taken with the #44th selection overall in the 2nd Round of the 2015 NFL Draft by New Orleans, Kikaha finished his rookie season with 52 tackles, 4.0 sacks, and four forced fumbles in limited action; as the Saints started him out originally at strong side / "Sam" linebacker before moving him to his more natural position as an outside edge pass rusher / 9-technique defensive end.
He then was very much looking forward to bigger and better things last year, which then brings us back full circle to the circumstances of last year's injury, as the Saints and Kikaha re-unite to now begin preparations for the rapidly approaching new season ahead.
If — and right now that’s still a mighty big “if” — Kikaha can return to his previous form in 2015, it should give the Saints more pass rushing options, but given that they’re signed defensive end Alex Okafor in Free Agency and then drafted TWO edge rushers last month (3rd Round pick Trey Hendrickson of Florida Atlantic and 6th Round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad of the University of Miami), this could potentially be the “make or break” season of Kikaha’s career.
Which means that even if Kikaha shows the team coaching staff that he can still play, he nevertheless will likely find himself to be in the “fight of his life” for a spot on the final roster.
Actually, overcoming a 3rd torn ACL at the NFL level has been done before; most notably by Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who has successfully overcome tearing the same ACL in his right knee in three different NFL seasons (2009, 2010, and 2011).
Davis returned to action in 2012 for his first full season since the initial ACL tear in 2009, and has posted at least 100 tackles in every season since (2013 through 2016). He was also named to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and again last year in 2016, and helped the Panthers make it all the way to Super Bowl 50 two years ago.
But just because Thomas Davis was able to pull it off successfully, doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be easy for Kikaha, no mater what his specific circumstances are.
Nevertheless, Kikaha remains confident that he make a full "come back" once again; and he has been participating in the Saints off-season workout program, which mostly includes conditioning and weight lifting; and it's been reported that he looks to be recovering well, and doesn't appear to have suffered any noticeable set-backs.
“It’s exciting to see him back in the building, moving around pretty well,” general manager Mickey Loomis said to the assembled media during a press conference right after last month's at the draft. “He was doing some good things for us two years ago.”
While Loomis and Saints brass are sounding optimistic about Kikaha's prospects for a full recovery, skeptics remain all around.
The honest truth is that it won't be until the Saints begin practicing in full pads during Training Camp and then play the first of their 4 Pre-Season games beginning in August, that we will really and truly know where Kikaha stands.
It's one thing having to overcome the severity of a torn ACL injury just one time, much less two times.
But now having to make a 3rd "come back" from a torn ACL to the same left knee again for a THIRD TIME?
That’s a challenge that likely even the greatest of athletes — no matter how hard that they might try — can find difficult to overcome. Kikaha is intent on showing and proving to everyone that he can, and we can only wish him the best of luck.
There are no guarantees in life, and there are certainly not any guarantees in the sport of Pro Football.