After major shoulder surgery, Carson Hritsco is back on the gridiron

The pain and swelling happened fast when a practice drill ripped Carson Hritsco’s arm back, causing the cartilage, tendons, and muscles in his shoulder to explode apart. 

He plays linebacker for the University of Montana Western but the team calls his position the wolf — it’s a hybrid linebacker/safety position. In the fall of 2020, he was doing a drill where the players line up and try to win one-on-one. A player running the ball went to the left of Hritsco, and when he tried to make the tackle, his arm got stuck and ripped behind him.   

“I didn’t really know what happened at first, I just hurt pretty bad and my left peck swelled up pretty big,” said Hritsco. 

It turned out, he’d torn the labrum, the capsule, the rotator cuff tendon, and the pectoralis tendon. 

“Probably the shoulder came out of place very quickly and went back in. This was a very significant injury. Any one of those damaged tissues would have been a significant injury - to have them all ripped together in one shoulder was pretty devastating,” said Nick DiGiovine, MD, Montana Orthopedics. 

“My peck was just kind of ripped off my bone there. So they had to put that back on,” Said Hritsco. 

“A number of the things, we could repair with the arthroscope but the pectoralis major tendon required an open incision so we had to really carefully plan our surgery because we wanted to do it all at one surgical sitting,” said DiGiovine. 

The surgery took around two hours but that was just the beginning of Hritsco’s recovery. 

The first couple weeks are spent in a protective sling — an ultra sling. Then the muscle needs to start some gentle passive motion to keep things limber in the shoulder. The second phase of rehab begins after six weeks. That’s when the sling comes off. Somewhere around two and a half to three months is when the strengthening starts. 

Each step provides different levels of stress and it’s important to follow the regimen.  That’s where athletic trainer Zack McCarthy comes in. He knew from the beginning that Hritsco’s injury would be quite the process. 

“I remember when he got hurt, he came over to me and didn’t really know what was going on and I remember reaching up in there — into his pads and actually feeling the swelling occurring as it was happening.”

McCarthy and two other athletic trainers are hired by St. James and work full time in Dillon at the University of Montana Western campus. It’s all part of the St. James Sports Medicine program that Dr. DiGiovine started in 1996. 

“When I came out of my training in 1990, I found that only the most elite teams — professional and division 1 colleges — had athletic trainers in their training rooms taking care of the athletes. So, it was my desire to bring experienced athletic trainers to our high school students and colleges who had not had athletic trainers before.”

St. James has three athletic trainers at Montana Tech, three at Western, two at Butte High, and one at each Butte Middle School, Anaconda High School, and Butte Central. 

“One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job is that I get to work with athletic trainers,” said DiGiovine. “These are very well-educated, intelligent folks to work with and, quite honestly, I don’t think my surgical results would be near what they are without these folks doing their part and doing the rehabilitation and watching the athletes recover for me.”

Hritsco spent an hour a day with McCarthy for six months. 

“Carson is the A-plus example of the person you want to be rehabbing. He comes in every day, wanting to get better, wanting to do the work, and knowing that this is for his benefit and he was just ready to work every day,” said McCarthy. 

Hritsco says he wouldn’t have been able to rehab by himself, that you need someone to tell you how much weight you can lift and how far you can push that muscle. Dillon is 65 miles from St. James so it’s advantageous to have the trainers on campus and accessible. 

Seven months after his surgery, Dr. DiGiovine gave him a final release and said Hritsco entered 2-a-days in great shape. 

He’s already played two games this season and said he even felt the best he has in his five years at Western. 

“We’re just kind of fired up and excited. Like the nervous-excited energy of just not playing for a while and we just want to go and play,” said Hritsco.

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