At the snap of the ball, Jonathan Williams sprang out of his stance and slipped through a gap in the middle of the opposing offensive line. As he tackled Southern Boone High School’s quarterback, he felt a split-second thrill … and then he felt something terribly wrong.
As Williams took the quarterback down, his left leg landed on the helmet of a School of the Osage teammate.
“I heard a loud snap like a twig breaking,” Williams said of the injury that occurred on Sept. 13, 2013. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, my ACL’s gone.’ I thought that’s what it was. I tried to get up and limp off. I stood on it for a second and instantly went down.”
Williams’ grandfather drove him from Ashland to MU Health Care’s Missouri Orthopaedic Institute. He was still wearing his football pants when a doctor looked at his X-ray and pointed out his femur was broken in half. That explained why he nearly passed out from the pain every time he tried to stand. Although he was sent to the emergency room for surgery, the news was almost a relief — a broken leg would heal quicker than the torn anterior cruciate ligament injury he feared.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can get back late in the season,’” he said.
His femur healed fine, but the pain in his knee persisted, requiring him to walk with a crutch. Puzzled, his doctor decided to look inside the knee arthroscopically and made an unusual discovery. The cartilage in his injured knee had badly deteriorated. He was a junior in high school, but he had the arthritic knee of a much older man.
This problem defied a quick fix. Because Williams was young and wanted to be active, a traditional knee replacement wasn’t a good option. He was told he might have to simply limp through life. It was discouraging enough that he wouldn’t be able to compete in football as a high school senior, but he also wouldn’t be able to play recreational sports, jog or surf — his favorite vacation activity.
“I was numb. Depressed is more like it,” Williams said. “I felt like, ‘Holy crap, my whole youth is over.’”
There was another option, though. Williams was referred to James Stannard, MD, of MU Health Care’s Mizzou BioJoint® Center. Stannard and the BioJoint team can use donated cartilage and bone to repair joints — a procedure known as an osteochondral allograft — rather than replacing the joints with metal-and-plastic devices.
The procedure has been performed for decades, but University of Missouri researchers — led by James Cook, DVM, PhD, OTSC — improved it. They developed the Missouri Osteochondral Allograft Preservation System (MOPS), a solution that extends the storage life and improves the viability of cartilage grafts before implantation.
In January 2016, midway through his freshman year at MU, Williams decided to become the first patient to receive implanted cartilage preserved with MOPS.
After spending a full year following the strict rehabilitation schedule that allows the grafts time to take root, Williams eased back into his favorite activities. More than three years after his surgery, he takes boxing classes at the student rec center and jogs on Columbia’s trails.
“So much of what I enjoyed and appreciated in life had been cut out,” Williams said. “I totally thought I was never going to go on a long hike or surf again. It’s made me very appreciative.”
Williams completed his bachelor’s degree in physics at MU and was accepted into graduate school at the University of South Carolina. He hopes to earn a PhD in biophysics and eventually become a professor.
“I’ve always loved science, and I attribute a lot of my drive to continue research in science to my knee being injured,” Williams said. “I saw first-hand the effect good research can have on people. That was inspiring to me.”
Before deciding on a BioJoint procedure, it’s important for patients to discuss with their doctor the risks and benefits of surgery for their condition.