Editor's note: This article was written before the women's Big 12 tournament.
The doctors told Megan Byford she would never play another serious game of basketball again.
She had damaged her knees enough to derail any dreams of a career in the game she loves, they said.
There was little reason for anyone to believe she should be playing basketball after four surgeries in seven years. Her right knee needed operation in 2003, followed by her left one in 2005. Both needed a tune up in 2008. The 2004 surgery to her wrist seems trivial in comparison.
Now a senior, Byford is playing her last few games as a Cowgirl, and with braces wrapped tightly around the bend in each leg and ice packs never far away, Byford is hoping to help lead Oklahoma State to a deep run in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments.
“I’m sure doctors have all said if it had been anyone else, there is no way they could play through it with the kind of knees that I have,” Byford said.
Byford is a graduate student working on a master’s degree in teaching, learning, and leadership studies. She graduated with a degree in public relations in May 2009 after transferring from Northern Oklahoma College in Enid after her sophomore year. She’s been a part of OSU women’s basketball in the three years since.
A rigorous daily strengthening and conditioning regimen helps Byford stay on the court. It’s uncommon for an athlete to wear braces on both knees, but Erin Gerlich, an athletic trainer for the women’s basketball team, said they were able to help Byford comfortably adjust and keep her mobility.
“She does a lot of stuff in the weight room to help with her leg strength and quad strength,” Gerlich said. First she comes in and gets her ankles taped, because a lot of her instabilities start with her feet and ankles, and travel up her body. She comes in after practice, and gets in the cold tub for 10 or 15 minutes after practice, and we ice her after the game. At this point, it’s just a lot of maintenance work.”
Byford said she’s been fortunate that her knees haven’t required much attention lately, but last year she did rehab exercises three or four times a week to keep her muscles strong.
“I was in there quite a bit. I could do my own rehab,” Byford said. “They used to crack up and go, ‘All right, get upstairs and go do it,’ because I was in there all the time. I’ve been through it with them.”
The effects of Byford’s injuries aren’t limited to her actions on the court or in the training facility.
Although she’s able to function despite her injuries, her knees have a way of conveniently reminding her they require extra attention.
“They get kind of stiff in the morning,” she said. “I have to stretch them out for a little bit, but after that, I’m fine. They normally don’t bother me. Every now and then, if it gets really cold all of a sudden, sometimes they’ll ache a little bit.
Byford said she is limited in her extracurricular activities.
“I sound like an old person, but fortunately, it’s not something where I can’t walk. Walking from day-to-day,” Byford said. “When my friends go to the lake, I can’t do skiing, and knee boarding, and stuff that involves putting pressure on my knees, but it’s the price you pay for playing a sport like this. Car rides aren’t fun. Having to be folded up in a car seat for a long time, they get stiff.”
Gerlich said Byford’s knees aren’t giving her much trouble now and she’s been responsible about taking care of herself. Unfortunately, Byford hasn’t seen her last needle. She’ll need a set of prosthetic replacements by her 40s.
“Honestly, I’m probably going to have new knees by then. It’s just something I know to expect.
“I’m going to put it off as long as possible. I have a really high pain threshold, so I can handle a lot. It’s just the card that I was dealt, so you just got to learn to deal with it and move on.”
Byford’s family has been her biggest supporters even though it gets tough seeing her in pain after operations and after games, and in everyday activities.
“My mom used to load up ice bags in the car so as soon as games were over in high school or in the AAU, I was in the car icing my knees down and getting ready for the next game,” Byford said. “They took all kinds of precautions to take care of me as best as we possible could.”
Her refusal to quit the game paid off when she caught the attention of Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke, who noticed Byford’s toughness and recruited her while she was at NOC-Enid.
Budke said he and his staff were expecting about 10 minutes a game off the bench from Byford, but she willed herself into becoming good enough to become an effective starter in the Big 12.
“We weren’t sure when we brought her here that she’d be a starter in the Big 12 because of her knees,” Budke said.
“She’s turned herself into a starter, she outworks everybody every day, she gives everything she has. She might not look like she’s outworking everybody because of the speed and quickness, but for what she can give with those knees, I promise she’s outworking everybody every single day on this floor.”
Byford plans to take her game to the next level for a year after her college eligibility is up. She hopes to join a professional team in a European league and after her year overseas, she wants to come back to OSU and join Budke’s staff.
“I think there are a lot of good basketball teams over there, a lot of good leagues,” Byford said.
“Basically, you’re getting paid to go play the sport you love and get to see Europe at the same time, so I’m all for it.”
Byford said the pain she has suffered is a small price to pay for her experience at OSU.
“I love basketball,” Byford said. “I’m stubborn and I’ve always wanted to prove people wrong. When the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to play basketball because my knees weren’t good and I’d be in too much pain, I was just like, ‘Oh watch me, I’m going to do it anyway.’
“I’ve had all these injury problems, but I’m still here at a Division 1 getting to play my dream and getting to play all these good teams every night, so it’s still a blessing.'
“I know God has blessed me with the ability to ignore the pain, so he’s been really good to me.”