Riley Mulholland shines for Miners two years after devastating injury
Mulholland needed knee reconstruction, nerve transfer surgeries before returning to lacrosse
In the opening minutes of Park City High School’s boys lacrosse team’s matchup against Mountain Ridge, junior Riley Mulholland set himself up in the middle of the Miners’ attacking zone, right around the 15-yard line painted on Mountain Ridge’s football field. As he watched his teammates move the ball from the right side of the field to the left side, he suddenly cut in that direction and, in one fluid motion, caught a pass, leaned on his right leg and quickly flicked a shot past the Mountain Ridge goalie and into the back of the net.
From a distance, it doesn’t look too different from the other 15 goals the Miners scored in their 16-6 win over the Sentinels on April 8. The average spectator can’t tell that Mulholland tore practically everything in his knee two years ago, that he has to lift his toe in order to lift the right foot that he used to score that goal and that he wears two different cleats to keep himself from slipping. The only sign that Mulholland isn’t quite like everyone else on the field is the ankle-foot orthotic that runs just below his knee down to his ankle.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said. “It’s my first season back in two years, and it’s been a while since I’ve played. But I’m definitely feeling pretty good, and now that the season is going, I’m comfortable now.”
Back in May 2020, Mulholland was two months removed from his junior varsity lacrosse season ending just as the season was getting started due to the coronavirus pandemic. He and some friends were wrestling at a park when one of them fell on top of Mulholland’s leg. Mulholland immediately called his parents and told them he thought he had broken his leg. But he learned that it was even worse than that when his dad told him to move his foot, and he couldn’t.
“I blew out my entire knee – tore my ACL, my LCL, my PCL, my IT band and then tore one of my nerves, called the peroneal nerve,” Mulholland said. “That controls your dorsiflexion to lift your foot, which is essential when walking and running and everything. It was pretty much all hope lost for me playing a sport for a long, long time.”
Mulholland underwent knee reconstruction in June, but regaining movement in his foot was still a work in progress. His family was hoping that it would come back with time as his knee injury healed, but after seven months, that still wasn’t the case. Out of fear that the muscles in his foot would become too atrophied, the Mulhollands started looking around to see if there was anything that could be done.
They got in touch with the Healthnetwork Foundation, which connected them with Dr. Mitchel Seruya of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Seruya performed a nerve transfer surgery in April 2021, which involved taking the nerve from his big toe and attaching it to one of the muscles in his leg to bypass the injury. A few months after the surgery, Mulholland could finally flex his foot.
“It was a beautiful moment after going through a really rough road of watching him not only go through the rehab, but during COVID, it was quite isolating,” said Jennifer Mulholland, Riley Mulholland’s mother. “It was a really hard time to not feel like you’re part of a sport that you’ve been playing and not have the support that you normally do.”
Both of Riley Mulholland’s parents were Division I college athletes, and he’s always been an athletic kid. Having sports taken away from him because of his injury was tough.
“Going from a really athletic kid doing every activity I could possibly get my hands on and translating from that to nothing – I couldn’t even walk properly,” Riley Mulholland said. “I had to relearn my gait and just walked with a limp. It was brutal.”
Learning how to walk again was the hardest part of rehab for Riley Mulholland. With the nerve transfer surgery, the process of walking was completely different.
“They took that toe nerve from this incision and cut the nerve and transferred it over – pretty much dug a tunnel through my leg – and then connected it into the muscle,” he said. “So now, when my brain tells my toe to move, then my foot moves. Because that nerve that was once connected to my toe is now connected to my muscle that moves my foot.”
Riley Mulholland dedicated himself to months of rehab and countless hours in the gym and slowly started seeing progress. Though he couldn’t practice or play, he would still hang around the lacrosse team and show up for games and practices.
“He watched and he learned and he participated and he supported his team members,” Park City lacrosse coach Michael Persky said. “When a kid suffers that kind of injury, he can sort of give up, but Riley never did.”
After the nerve transfer surgery, Riley Mulholland looked at the timeline of when he would heal and felt that he was doing well in the gym and getting closer to coming back to sports. Lacrosse was his motivator, and he just wanted to be back on the field. Whenever he had a tough day or wanted to give up, he thought of his friends on the lacrosse field.
“There were definitely times where I was like, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m done, I can’t deal with it, I can’t deal with it,’” he said. “It’s something that I had to keep pushing through and just being more vigilant against my goals and what I had to do and what I wanted to achieve in the future.”
He stepped foot on the practice field for the first time in December and worked his way toward playing significant minutes for the Miners this year. Still, he deals with obstacles that other players don’t have to.
“That mental block is still there, and that muscle memory of having every step I take, to me telling myself that I have to move my toe to lift my foot up is very mentally challenging with every stride I take,” he said. “It’s definitely difficult when translating that over to lacrosse, and I have to wear a brace to help lift my foot up and run normally.”
Sometimes, the little things are more complicated for Riley Mulholland, like buying cleats for lacrosse. He wears a football cleat on his left foot and a baseball cleat on his right foot. The baseball cleat has a longer spike for better traction and is wider so that his brace can fit into it.
“They’re different heights, so my hips get unaligned, but (there are) a lot of problems that come with having something like this,” he said. “Finding shoes is really difficult. Just everyday stuff that you would normally think of. I’ve definitely learned to appreciate the little things.
“I never knew that walking was so important or how much brain power it actually takes to do a stride. Thinking about having to walk with every stride and left, right, left, right, it doesn’t really wrap around your head unless you experience it.”
On the field, Riley Mulholland has been a valuable player for the Miners. He’s come into his own as a scorer lately, and he’s one of five Miners with double-digit goals this year. He recorded his first hat trick of the season on March 30 against Green Canyon in a 13-3 win for Park City.
“He’s a key role in our offense,” Persky said. “He plays on the man up, his determination and his physicality help us. He’s a strong kid, great work ethic and he’s always trying to figure out ways that he can be better and contribute more.”
Riley Mulholland felt that he was truly “back” in the aforementioned Mountain Ridge game. The junior scored three goals in the first quarter to get the Miners going, and they never looked back after that.
“Sometimes, we’ve struggled to start quickly, and Riley took that to heart,” Persky said. “He just lit it up in the first quarter and then continued to play a great game.”
Jennifer Mulholland could feel that her son was feeling it that day. After a long two years, seeing her son excel in the sport that he loves brought immeasurable joy to her as well.
“You’d never know if you’re watching him that anything was going on,” she said. “I love seeing the joy of him being out on the field and feeling comfortable out there playing against big kids, passing and making great assists and having fun scoring. It’s really fun to witness.”
Riley Mulholland knows that there’s still work for him to do both with lacrosse and with his ongoing recovery. There’s always something to improve, whether in the gym or on the lacrosse field working on his shot.
“With my injury, I’ll never be 100% again, I’ll never have full foot function,” he said. “But that’s not going to stop me from pursuing the sport that I want to do, the stuff I want to do in my life.”
But he’s back playing the sport he loves, and that will do for now.
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