Heitinga: 'I will never play against NAC again'

It has already been three months since Johnny Heitinga injured himself badly for the second time. In the league match against NAC the talented defender tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. After an operation in the USA, Heitinga is doing his rehab in the sports center of the Royal Dutch Football Association since seven weeks. ,,I have to get through this'', the young Ajax player sums up his thoughts.

Heitinga's injury occurred five weeks after he had fully recovered from his previous injury. In November from last year Heitinga twisted his knee in the warming up for the match Ajax - NAC. He played out the match, but the knee kept feeling sore. In April of this year it was found out he needed an operation, because there was a slight tear in his meniscus. With that the 2001-2002 season was over for Heitinga. With high spirits and a clean bill of health he started the preparations for this season. After regaining his rhythm with Ajax 2, he was ready to join the A-squad. Coach Ronald Koeman called him up for the Champions League match in Milan against Inter and he played one half of football against NAC. Seven minutes before time it happened again. Heitinga hurt his knee when making a sliding. Examination in the hospital showed that he had torn his ACL. Recovery time: six to nine months.

Heitinga often thinks back to the moment he got hurt. ,,Especially in the weeks after the injury. I thought about it every day. I had to wait a month for the operation. I used that time to deal with 'the moment'. Terrible. I felt right away that someting was wrong, but I didn't know what. The physiotherapist could not tell either, so I went back into the game. That did not make it worse, my knee was hurt anyway. Only if I had sprained it again, it would have been worse. Then I would have damaged cartilage. Thankfully that did not happen.”

After the operation Heitinga had to stay in America for a few days. Altough sick from the anaesthetic and the altitude - Heitinga was operated in a city 2400 metres high - he had to excercise. ,,The doctor demanded it. I was on a couch, doing exercises. When I had to throw up, I would walk away and as soon as I was back from the bathroom, I had to continue. I could hardly see anything, but I had to exercise. After about four days I started feeling better and it wasn't so bad anymore.”

The defender has chosen to remain in Zeist for his rehabilitation. ,,It feels good to be here. The traffic alone would make it difficult to get here on time every morning. And it would take me more time than necessary to go back home in the afternoon. It is also better for my knee to rest after a full day of workouts. Now, when I am finished at the end of the afternoon, that happens automatically. And if I would do my rehab at Ajax, I would only see healthy guys, or players who only have to spend a couple of days in the weight room. That won't cheer me up either.”

The hardest part of the rehabilitation has yet to come. Heitinga has been in Zeist since November, and there are still many more months to go. Now, long and monotonous weeks face the footballer. ,,It's awful”, says Heitinga, ,,but I have to get through this. and I know I'll come out stronger.” Heitinga is not the only football players recovering from an injury in the sports centre. Club mate John Nieuwenburg and Zongo (Vitesse) and Smolarek (Feyenoord) go through the same. ,,I am glad I chose to do my rehab here. There are footballers here with the same injury. It's good to be able to talk to them about it. Especially when somebody has a bad day, lots of pain or something, and is sent home in a wheelchair. Then you can talk with the others about it and you get some support. Luckily, I haven't had a bad day like that.”

Heitinga's day consists mainly of exercises. At 10 a.m. het starts with 20 minutes on the stationary bike. Then the physiotherapist comes to loosen the knee. After that Heitinga stretches, followed by weight exercises on the bench, balance exercises before a mirror and the last thing he does before lunch is to jump into the pool for more exercises. Around noon there is one hour of rest. After lunch it's back on the stationary bike and weight and balance exercises. He concludes the day on the treadmill in the fitness room. The schedule is the same from Monday to Friday. Each week a drill is added or the exercises are heavier.

Heitinga's family and friends visit him regularly. ,,My grandfather comes to see me every week. Then we go out for lunch in the area. Other relatives also visit me often. My teammates don't come here much, but we are keeping in touch. I call and text them regularly. I can imagine that they don't come around here often, I want to go home after training myself. But I think when I am fit again and someone else has to recover, I'll come and see him. I know now what it means to recover from such a big injury.”

Heitinga attended Ajax's home match against PSV, even though it is not easy for him. ,,I find it very difficult to watch football, and especially going to the stadium. It hurts to see them play, while I cannot. I do it more for the lads, just to see them, than for myself. If there is a ball here, I am not allowed to do anything with it, even if it's right before me.” His head turns toward Nieuwenburg en Zongo who are kicking a football. ,,They are further than I am”, Heitinga says wearily. ,,I have to be patient. I haven't set a date for myself when I can go outside or do something with a ball. I'll be in here for now. This injury takes six to nine months. I won't leave Zeist until I can train with the group.”

Despite the difficult period he is going through, Heitinga sounds cheerful. ,,I have been here for seven weeks. I expect it to get really hard after about three months. I still get a lot of attention, but I expect that to diminish. And I haven't had a 'bad day'. I can toss the towel, but that won't help me. Will it? One thing I know for sure: I will never play against NAC again, I swear.”