Junior forward Aisha Jefferson gets back on her game

It’s 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in the Duffy Daugherty Football Building weight room, and less than a dozen MSU athletes are working out. Aisha Jefferson, a 6-foot-1 junior forward on the MSU women’s basketball team, has already been going hard for close to an hour, and the perspiration is building on her forehead.

She is finishing her last set of leg extensions and as she begins her final reps, the weights are going up slower and slower.

“One more!” assistant strength and conditioning coach Mike Vorkapich sternly says.

Aisha Jefferson’s workout schedule

This is a typical week for Jefferson at this point of her rehab.


20 minutes of cardio

Lower-body strength training (squats, leg press, leg curls, step-ups, leg extensions, defensive slides)

Agility workout


45 minutes of cardio (Stairmaster, elliptical, treadmill)

Agility workout

Upper-body weightlifting with team


20 minutes of cardio, lower-body strength training (squats, leg press, leg curls, step-ups, leg extensions, defensive slides)

Agility workout


5 minutes of cardio (Stairmaster, elliptical, treadmill)

Upper-body lifting with team

Agility workout


20 minutes of cardio, lower-body strength training (squats, leg press, leg curls, step-ups, leg extensions, defensive slides)

Agility workout

Upper-body lifting with team





David Ingold / The State News
State News file photo / The State News
Nick Dentamaro / The State News
Nick Dentamaro / The State News

The bar sinks slightly down, but Vorkapich won’t have it.

“Come on!”

Jefferson screams and kicks her legs out to complete her lower-body strength training for the day.

When time stood still

While the moment that got Jefferson into this intense rehab was painful, she doesn’t remember screaming Nov. 4 — the day a torn ACL in her right leg brought her junior season to a screeching halt before it even began.

Throughout the summer she had worked herself into the best shape of her career and was showing it through 11 minutes of an exhibition game against Lake Superior. Coming off a sophomore season in which she averaged 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, Jefferson had already scored eight points and collected five rebounds, but it was what happened with 8:13 left in the first half that made her 2007-08 season most memorable.

As Jefferson was making a move to the basket, a Lakers defender beat her to her spot and caused her to collapse to the floor grabbing her knee — instantly knowing what had just happened.

“When I did it I was like, ‘No way, did I really just tear my knee up like this?’” Jefferson said. “I could really feel every ligament and whatever’s in there shift to the left and shift to the right, and I could hear it, and I kind of just collapsed — didn’t brace myself at all — just grabbed my knee and just knew it.

“I couldn’t even scream, I couldn’t even cry — I held my breath until it stopped, and I think I grabbed the referee and asked for help. It was just a terrible feeling and I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Under the knife

On Dec. 7, Dr. Mike Shingles performed Jefferson’s ACL surgery. It went as expected.

“I think everything went really well, and I expect her to return 100 percent,” Shingles said. “She did through other injuries, and I anticipate she’ll do the same with this one.”

At the beginning of her freshman season, Jefferson injured her shoulder but continued to play. She’s also been through two meniscus operations — one in high school and one during her freshman season.

There are three muscle tissues used to repair an ACL — hamstring, patella or cadaver — and Shingles opted to use hamstring tissue for Jefferson’s surgery.

“We take the (semigracilis and semitendinosus) and fold them over on themselves, and that makes them very strong,” Shingles said. “The reason I chose the hamstring is that we’ve had a lot of success with the hamstring.”

After pushing her through workouts, Vorkapich said Jefferson is ahead of schedule and the goal is to have her back playing lightly by April.

“As far as getting her back basketball-wise, I think she’ll be able to be back by April, at least to be able to do the individual skill stuff,” Vorkapich said. “She might be a step slow, but at least she’ll be back playing basketball and doing basketball drills. It might not be a lot of up and down doing full-court basketball open gym stuff, but at least basketball drills.”

Shingles agreed with the April timetable.

“That’ll be four months, and at the rate she’s going she will be able to go,” Shingles said. “Basically, at four months, that graft heals to the bone and her strength and her balance and conditioning equal out on both sides, and she’s on target with that April date and is doing a good job with it.”

The road to recovery

Jefferson stretches with the team during practices and participates in whatever drills she can, which at this time include shooting free throws and jumping in whenever someone needs a passer.

While the rest of the Spartans scrimmage live, Jefferson is down at the other end of the court with trainers doing her rehab. Down by herself, she runs back and forth across the baseline 20 times — improving her time from three minutes to 2:20 in a month — and does line drills where she jumps over the baseline side-to-side, front-to-back and then shuffles her feet.

“It gets kind of lonely, but it benefits me just being here and being able to workout because it gives me a lot of motivation,” Jefferson said. “If I want to get back down there with them I have to keep working hard.”

Although Jefferson is alone, her teammates see her working hard toward a comeback.

They do what they can to help keep her going.

During the middle of Tuesday’s practice, as Jefferson was taking a break and being stretched out by a student trainer, junior guard Mia Johnson was going to get a drink of water and yelled over to her.

“Aisha!” screamed Johnson, while giving her a thumbs-up. “Keep it going, keep it going!”

Johnson, who has suffered two ACL injuries during her basketball career, said words of encouragement help Jefferson know her teammates are pulling for her.

“That’s all you can do is encourage her and let her know that she’s definitely on the road to doing great things,” Johnson said. “I’ve (torn) both of mine, so I know. It’s beyond frustrating to know the only thing that stops you from playing is this, and it’s so common to take six to eight months (to recover).”

While a six-to-eight-month timetable is normal for an ACL injury, it varies from player to player.

It took Johnson four and a half months to come back from her ACL injury last summer. Sophomore center Lauren Aitch, who tore her ACL last season, took 10 months.

Vorkapich, who works with many different MSU athletes, said Jefferson’s competitive nature sets her apart from other athletes.

“If I had to rank all the players in order of competitiveness, I’d put her probably No. 1,” he said. “So far it hasn’t been a battle to restrain her at all.”

With Vorkapich, Jefferson’s motivation to get better has been a key component in her quick recovery to this point. Vorkapich and athletic trainer LouAnne Jefferson have been impressed with her rehab and continue to challenge her to do more.

“I always like to prove Vork and LouAnne wrong because we’ve had so many ACL injuries that all the time frames vary depending on what type of person you are and how you heal,” Jefferson said. “It’s always like, ‘For four to six weeks you won’t be able to do this,’ and I just like to prove them wrong.”

In less than three months after surgery, Jefferson has proven her trainers wrong many times. For instance, she surprised Vorkapich with a 15-second run around the gym.

“Vork wanted to see if I could run around the gym in a certain amount of time,” Jefferson said.

“He didn’t believe I could — I think he believed it, but that was his way of motivating me.”

Jefferson also works out on the road, running stairs while her teammates go through pregame walk-through.

“Every away game — any kind of stair — wherever there’s a stair I’ll run up and down them,” said Jefferson, who ran stairs at Indiana and Iowa — two of the largest arenas in the Big Ten.

“I’ll hear my teammates go, ‘Oh yeah, go ‘Isha!’ all the way to the top of the stadium, so it’s pretty fun — it’s not too boring.”

Hangin’ around

Another reason for Jefferson’s lack of boredom is that she can still attend practice and contribute by giving her teammates advice.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t do those things and feel detached from the team,” Jefferson said. “I don’t interact with them on the floor at all so I try to keep myself active and go up to them during practice. I’m all over practice — I walk around bugging people — but I just try to let them hear something they can’t see.”

Head coach Suzy Merchant said what she is seeing from Jefferson now says a lot about the kind person she is.

“She never stopped leading, and I think that’s a really good sign of a tremendous character person,” Merchant said. “She’s led vocally and by spirit even when she couldn’t play — whether it was in practice or at game time. She’s just another coach on the bench when we play.”

Jefferson said although her rehab has been difficult, the support of her teammates and the thought of having a healthy knee keeps her going during her difficult workouts.

“I’ve had a lot of thoughts about, ‘Oh, I just want to pass out on the couch today,’ but it’s just the support of my teammates and Vork (that helps keep me going),” she said.

“I just want to get better and that’s just my No. 1 thing from my attitude, and I know what I’m doing is for a purpose and this is definitely a motivation for me because I want to come back even better than I was before.”

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