Donna Wilkinson: A Comeback Story of Determination

By Rich Cook

This profile was written in 2007.

Far removed from the pre-game clamor and commotion, a solitary figure watches from the sidelines. Dressed in burgundy Divas warm-up gear, her physique, not her attire, strongly suggests that she is a football player. Lean, muscular, sinewy, she is a coiled spring waiting to be released. Donna Wilkinson takes in the scene quietly. She is stoic, pensive, her expression somewhere between disappointment and determination, for tonight she is just another spectator.

It’s an hour before kick-off of the D.C. Divas home opener. The stadium is a whirlwind of pre-game activity: players stretching, coaches conferring, fans mingling. The smell of tailgate barbeques and fresh-cut grass lingers in the chilly spring air. The atmosphere is abuzz with the anticipation of a new season.

It’s been eight long, lonely months since Wilkinson endured major, reconstructive knee surgery. The invasive procedure repaired torn meniscus cartilage and a completely shredded anterior cruciate ligament. The damage was cumulative, dating back almost two years. Her passionate devotion to football had come at a painful price.

The intensive nature of the subsequent rehabilitation program soon became the driving force in Wilkinson’s life. “This entire year I’ve been working out seven days a week; two-a-days for a number of those,” she said. “It was my dream to come back and be able to play in the first game [of the season]. It’s definitely challenging for me to have worked so hard and still be on the sidelines.”

She speaks in a wistful tone, the emotion rising and falling in her voice. “I’ve definitely learned a lot since this injury. It’s forced me to really grow emotionally and spiritually as a person, just to deal with all the traumas I’ve had in my life.”

That additional anguish is just as a painful as any physical injury. The sudden passing of Donna’s mother late in 2005 remains a difficult burden; the aftershocks of sorrow and grief still linger today. The painful loss has left a deep, psychological wound, one that may never completely heal.

“Sometimes you have to go to the absolute bottom,” Wilkinson said reflectively. “That spot for me was last year. It’s a place that I’ve never been at any point in my life. This has definitely been that experience for me.”

That arduous period pushed Wilkinson to the brink, and beyond. Her entire life was abruptly called into question, prompting deep introspection and profound soul-searching. “Things have always been so easy [for me]. I’ve always succeeded: every sport, college, everything I’ve ever done, it’s just been magic. I’ve had to just stop, regroup, and figure some things out. I got to the point where nothing felt right…it’s been so hard, but I’ve really started to know who I am and what I’m about.”

With those realizations came a fresh perspective and a steely, back-to-basics resolve. A certified Wellness Consultant by trade, Wilkinson remains a staunch advocate of a complete, healthy lifestyle. Applying the ‘harmonious balance’ belief to her rehabilitation gave way to a variety of medicinal approaches, some conventional, others more esoteric.

“I’ve been seeing chiropractors, I’ve been going to get cold laser treatment, I’ve been using magnets and other alternative therapies,” Wilkinson confessed. “I’ve started doing meditation as well…just to free my mind and let whatever energies possible come in and heal me.”

Her non-stop assault on recovery seems to have no end. Aquatic workouts and Bikram Yoga target the body, providing additional core strength, enhanced flexibility, and improved range of motion. Dozens of self-help and personal empowerment books focus on improving the mind. But the reparation of the spirit is a different matter, one that requires a more transcendental approach.

“The power of the mind over the body is so great…whatever you believe will happen,” Wilkinson explained. “I had one pain-healer tell me that as I deal with the death of my mom, I’m still going to continue to feel things in my knee. Emotional pain is locked into your physical body. I can’t allow myself to be limited coming back because of where I am mentally or emotionally.”

As the conversation focuses on her almost completed recovery, Wilkinson’s true nature bubbles to the forefront. Her easy smile, genial disposition, and can-do personality make her instantly endearing. She is a woman who refuses to submit to a defeatist attitude, regardless of circumstance.

“You create your own reality by how you think,” Wilkinson observed. “If you don’t understand that, you’re going to keep being negative and you’re going to keep having a lot of problems. Whatever comes up now, I try to look at it in a different way and find the positive.”

That sort of favorable spin might seem like new-age psycho-babble to some, but the sincerity of Wilkinson’s belief is compelling. Disingenuousness is simply not a part of her personality. “It’s all just another experience to keep me learning. I wouldn’t want to be in a position where I got complacent. Hey, I’m always up for a challenge.”

Perhaps that is why the coaching staff is erring on the side of caution concerning her return. An original member of the franchise, Wilkinson has long been one of the Divas’ most valuable and versatile players. “For the first two years I played defensive end and fullback. I played both sides of the ball. There were several games when I took every snap – special teams too – and never came off the field.”

Her value was soon realized, prompting a position switch to running back in 2003. Wilkinson responded with a year for the ages, becoming the first woman in history to eclipse one thousand yards rushing in a single season. Over the next two years, she continued her breakneck pace, compiling twenty-six touchdowns and nearly two thousand yards of total offense.

The 2006 season brought about an unexpected change: a move from offense back to defense. Her experience running the football made her ideally suited for a switch to inside linebacker, a hard-nosed position comprised of more guts than glamour. Wilkinson took to the change unselfishly, putting the success of the team above any personal accolades. But four weeks into the experiment, her entire world was turned upside down: while making a routine tackle, the ACL in her right knee suddenly gave way.

As Wilkinson vigorously rehabilitated the injury, her teammates put together the finest season in franchise history. Soon the Divas were one win away from being crowned national champions. The temptation was simply too great to ignore…with an elusive title finally within reach, Wilkinson somehow found the courage and strength to play.

The cost was dear. At some point during the course of the game, she felt another pop in her already injured knee. Lost in the moment, high on adrenaline, she played through the pain to help bring the Divas a national championship.

“It felt really good, really good just to be able to contribute,” Donna recalled without a hint of regret. The elation was relatively short-lived. Surgery soon followed, a complicated endeavor requiring the removal and reattachment of an adjacent tendon. Afterward, the knee was fitted with a cumbersome, impact-plastic brace, designed to restrict full range of motion. Far removed from the cheers of an adoring crowd, the grueling business of restoring her mind, body, and spirit began.

Despite the championship ring she now wears proudly, Wilkinson refused to contemplate retirement. “That never entered my mind,” she declared. “Not even once. I always knew that I was going to come back.”

And so the exhaustive and mind-numbing process of rehabilitation continues. “I’ve been training two, three, four hours a day, every day. Now I know that when I go back out there, I will be in the best shape of my life. I’m faster than I was last year, stronger than I was before. It’s been a mission. I’m going to be back and better than I’ve ever been.”

Wilkinson falls silent, allowing the decree to resonate and hit home. She pauses to take in the moment, to breathe in deeply the sights, sounds, and textures of gameday. Perhaps she is considering the enormity of all that has happened or further contemplating what is yet to come.

“This has forced me to be humble, truly humble,” she finally said, her voice just above a whisper. “Coming out of it, I just know that it’s going to be a great year.”

It’s half an hour after the Divas’ fifth win of the season. The traditional post-game gathering is a bit more subdued than usual this week: tonight’s game was supposed to be a rout. True to form, the competitive portion of the contest was over five minutes after the opening kick-off.

There is still a euphoric commotion: players, coaches, family, and friends all take part in the victory celebration. Game exploits are relived as embraces are shared. A cacophony of joyous sound soon envelops the emptying stadium.

In the heart of the crowd, one player takes a long, deep, contented breath. Lost in her own quiet reflection, she is savoring this magical moment for as long as possible. It has been a very long time in the making.

Surveying the playing field one last time, she nods a bit, almost imperceptibly. Perhaps she is remembering a years’ worth of pain and suffering, or the long, difficult, and lonesome road to recovery. She pauses one last time, as if to dispel the few remaining remnants of pain, anger, and self-doubt. It’s as if a small measure of peace has finally been found.

Donna Wilkinson is now a woman reborn. Suddenly she is a hyper-kinetic bundle of raw energy and emotion, a simmering fireball finally released. Her speech comes in staccato, rapid-fire bursts, emphasized by a whirlwind of dramatic gesticulations. She seems ready to go another four quarters, right now if necessary.

“It’s like I’ve been in a cage for so long,” she explained. “It’s just been building and building inside of me. This feeling is more intense than anything I’ve felt in a long, long time.”

Wilkinson’s return from major knee surgery is, at long last, complete. In her first extended game experience, she played like a woman possessed. “I wanted to go out there and just crush people. It felt so good. I don’t know who it was, but a couple of times I put somebody on their ass.”

Finally being able to contribute is a welcome change of pace. The early portion of the season was an exercise in futility, a tedious and discouraging struggle punctuated by a loss of self-confidence. Despite an exhaustive rehabilitation routine, Wilkinson wasn’t able to get through a practice pain-free. Erring on the side of caution, the Divas’ coaching and medical staffs wisely chose to keep her on the sidelines.

The numerous setbacks forced Wilkinson take a more methodical approach towards her return. “It’s just a matter of everyone believing that my knee can hold up. That means me, too. It’s such a mental game…believing in yourself means everything. I want the coaching staff to have the same faith in me as always. I want them to know I can still do everything I’ve been doing for the last six years.”

After weeks of disappointment, her body finally began to respond. The discomfort and swelling that had become so commonplace soon began to disappear. For Wilkinson, the drastic turnaround is due to an intense holistic belief, along with a daily five-hour training regimen. “It’s amazing, but now there’s no pain at all. None. Really, I feel great!”

It has been an arduous and perilous journey, one that has pushed Wilkinson’s body, mind, and spirit to the breaking point – and beyond. And yet somehow she has emerged from the chaos a better player and a stronger person. “I don’t think I know what I’m capable of yet. I’m expecting big things. The season is just getting started for me, so this story is far from finished,” she said.

Her enthusiasm is infectious, as is the confidant swagger that’s beginning to reemerge. Wilkinson smiles, perhaps envisioning the myriad of possibilities that lay before her once again. “Heck, I’m just getting warmed up.”