Albany’s Joe Nardella returns after serious knee injury
Joe Nardella thinks about December 11th, 2022 all the time.
During a bye week for the Albany FireWolves, the face-off specialist and defenseman was in Orlando, Florida trying out the U.S. National Field Lacrosse Team. During a scrimmage, Nardella matched up against Mike Sisselberger for the whole game. During what was the last session of the tryout, Nardella and Sisselberger battled through a lot of ground balls until one got away from both of them.
“I was full-sprinting towards the sideline and there was a little bit of traffic,” recalled Nardella during a phone conversation with NLL.com. “I tried to grab the ball while reaching for it and maybe my leg was a little far out and I took some contact and that kind of is what led me to know things weren’t right and life was about to take a turn.”
On that play, Nardella suffered a torn right ACL that would sideline him for the rest of the 2022-23 National Lacrosse League season as well as his 2023 Premier Lacrosse League season with the Whipsnakes. After almost a year of intense rehab, Nardella made his return on Friday night in a FireWolves’ season-opening 12-10 victory over the Las Vegas Desert Dogs.
To say that Nardella was chomping at the bit to step towards the face-off dot on Friday night would be an understatement.
“I couldn’t tell you in words how excited I am to get back on the field and actually be able to play a game and feel good about where I’m at physically,” said Nardella. “A lot of hard work has gone into the past year and I think that’s given me the confidence to feel comfortable coming back. I know I can play at a high level still.”
As it turns out, the torn right ACL was not the only injury that Nardella had to recover from.
During the 2021-22 NLL season playing for the New England Black Wolves, Nardella suffered a tear in his proximal hamstring but he battled through it and actually played the rest of the box season and the whole summer in the PLL. But what was learned at the time of the ACL tear was that Nardella also had a patella fracture that had already healed.
Nardella had no idea he had suffered the injury.
“The patella was strange,” said Nardella, who graduated from Rutgers in 2015 knowing that he had bursitis in his knee.
And that’s what he thought the knee pain was.
“Every time I would get a little swollen in my knee, I kind of just chalked it up to maybe it’s lingering bursitis from when I really hurt my knee in college falling on it and didn’t think too much of it and tried to play through the pain.”
After graduating from Rutgers, Nardella began his professional career playing in Major League Lacrosse but also was named an assistant coach at Harvard in September of 2015. In 2019, Nardella added playing in the NLL to his resume and that added to what was already a busy work schedule for him.
Perhaps there was a silver lining with the ACL tear and the need to take almost a year off from playing.
“I think it was much needed time for my body to heal after going year-round for four years,” said Nardella. “When I was just playing outdoor, I was still coaching college and suiting up with those guys all the time so really in eight years, it’s the first time I had a full off-season to recover.”
While he was rehabbing, Nardella certainly missed being with his teammates. As he worked diligently to get back on the field, not being able to play did give him the opportunity to do some things that he wouldn’t have been able to do had he not suffered the injury. Nardella was able to coach more, travel this this past summer with one of his best childhood friends and also spend more time in real estate, his other career, based in Boston to go along with lacrosse.
“All those things like coaching more with our Faceoff Factory stuff, getting a little bit of me time to read and learn and try to make myself better and then getting to invest in some other things that I think are cool on the business side of things,” said Nardella. “I tried to stay as busy as possible and I think that’s what kind of made things fly by and allowed me to stay positive and hungry.”
And now, Nardella is ready for his return.
He had a great team around him helping him recover and motivating him to get ready for this season. The rehab led him down a road that brought him to the start of NLL training camp a month ago.
“The beauty of the NLL is four weekends of training camp,” said Nardella. “You get a month of lacrosse under your belt at full speed before coming back.”
And there was more good news – Nardella could be better than he was before.
He trains at Compete Indoor Sports in Boston where they do a lot of metric-based testing.
“I was actually faster, quicker and stronger than before my injury,” said Nardella. “We did a lot of band work and accelerating from that low or knee-down position. There was a lot that went into trying to make it very sport-specific especially given the demand of what I do is so unique. I’m pretty excited to hopefully be back at 110%.”
Nardella is hoping to play a big role in the FireWolves taking a big step forward in 2023-24.
Last season, the FireWolves were 3-15, the worst record in the National Lacrosse League. With that rough campaign came changes – a lot of them. The FireWolves head into the new season with a fresh outlook.
Judging from what he saw in training camp, and after a solid opening victory, Nardella is optimistic that the FireWolves can open some eyes this season.
“I think we’re the youngest team in the league by a lot but we have a lot of youthful energy,” he said. “We play at a pretty good pace. We move the ball well. A lot of guys are tough and can push the floor in transition so I think we’re going to be a quick under the radar team that gives a lot of teams trouble.”
Nardella hopes to get back to giving other FOGO’s a lot of trouble.
He has a career face-off winning percentage of over 63% and was just named one of the NLL’s top 50 players placing 4th among face-off specialists, ahead of Las Vegas’ Brandon Clelland, who is on the Hold-Out List. In his place, Nardella faced-off against Zach Cole, winning 15 of 25 draws.
Nardella now has his sights set on Jake Withers of Halifax (1), San Diego’s Trevor Baptiste (2) and TD Ierlan of Toronto (3).
So, while being fourth on the list is nice, Nardella is far from satisfied.
“There are three guys ahead of me,” said Nardella. “I think that’s what it means to me and I gotta show that I belong right up there in conversation as number one.”
Joe Nardella’s competitive juices are still flowing even after being out for almost a year. He has worked his tail off to get back on the field and his hard work paid off with a Saturday night win. Now he’ll always remember two dates… December 11th, 2022 and almost a year later… December 2nd, 2023.