Mikey Jacobsen might be the most remarkable prep basketball player in the state, but almost no one knows it. A two-year starter at point guard for Woods Cross High, he's averaging about 5 points, 2 assists and 1 steal a game — modest numbers unless you know the rest of the story.
In a game against Layton earlier this month, Jacobsen scored the game-winning basket with 8 seconds remaining, improvising a dash down the lane for a layup after a play broke down. Against Roy, he sank a game-winning free throw with 8 seconds left.
But none of this matches the feat Jacobsen pulled off just to make the team and play the game. Every time Jacobsen makes a shot or a steal, every time he sprints down the floor, it's a testament to his determination and the support of parents, doctors, a personal trainer and a dedicated surgeon.
"I don't think you realize how remarkable it is that your son is playing basketball," a doctor told Mikey's parents. "Do you appreciate how unusual this is? He's a miracle."
A few years ago, Jacobsen couldn't lift an unweighted bar in the weight room, put on socks or shoes, shoot a basketball or do anything more strenuous than walking.
Jacobsen has full-curvature scoliosis, a deformity in which the spine curls from side to side like a country road. Quasimodo, the tragic figure in Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," probably had scoliosis, although this is never stated in the book.
Jacobsen's condition was discovered in the sixth grade when he underwent a physical to play baseball. Nobody had noticed it until then, although Jacobsen's father, Eric, was constantly telling him to stand up straight and pull his shoulders back. For the next two years Mikey wore a tortoiseshell back brace 18 hours a day.
But, as the disease is wont to do, the condition continued to worsen. There are degrees of severity with scoliosis. When the curvature in the spine is between 20 and 45 degrees, a brace is used to correct it. When the curvature is more severe, surgery is required. By the spring of Jacobsen's eighth-grade year, his spine was shaped like an S and one of the curves was a whopping 70 degrees.
From the base of his neck to the base of his ribs, Jacobsen's spine is trying to rotate around itself, the way you'd twist a wet wash rag to wring it out. His spine is twisting from left to right, pushing the ribs upward and backward until they protrude out his upper and mid back to form what many would call a hunchback. Meanwhile, as the left-to-right twisting continues, the left side of his chest is pushed out more prominently than the right side and the right shoulder is pushed forward and downward. The symptoms are often less pronounced in youth, but worsen with maturity — the curvature in the spine bends an additional 1-2 degrees every year.
Lacking the stability of a straight spine results in added stress to the support structure around it, leading to pain and discomfort. At the end of the day Mikey liked to lie on the hard floor for relief. There was only one solution: surgery.
As fate would have it, the Jacobsens knew just the man to help them. While living in Arizona for several years when Mikey was a boy, the family struck up a close friendship with Dr. Dennis Crandall, a surgeon specializing in spinal injuries and deformities. He is the official spinal surgeon for the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns and Arizona State, as well as the Sonoran Spine Center. The entire family flew to Arizona to meet with Crandall about Mikey's scoliosis.
"They were scared to death," says Crandall. "This is their beautiful, healthy, teenage boy who has this horrible spinal deformity. They're a family with a culture of athletics and they're thinking, OK, he's done."
Eric, who owns an investment management firm called Jacobsen Capital Management, was an all-conference safety for the University of Utah football team. His wife Amy was a dancer. Their five children — Eliza, Mikey, Eden, Frank and Luke — are all heavily involved in sports (three of them work with a personal trainer).
"(Sports) was important to Mikey, and we didn't know what the prognosis was," says Eric. "Doctors were saying he would be able to hike and bike; that's not what we were looking for."
Crandall was determined to return Mikey to his old life, with one concession: no more football. A return to basketball was a possibility.
Surgeons straighten the spine by anchoring it to titanium rods with screws, but it is a tricky business. There are risks of paralysis or screws tearing through the bone.
"We correct and straighten the spine as much as we can do it safely," Crandall says.
It is indicative of Crandall's dedication and sense of mission that during his 25-minute commute to and from work, he turns off the radio and music so he can think about "what problems I am seeing, how I can solve them and what I can do better." During these drives he pondered one particular problem — how to do a better job in the correction of scoliosis without incurring too much risk.
Says Crandall, "You hold your breath when you make the correction — that the screws won't tear out and that the spine would work. There's nothing that scares you more than the possibility of paralysis. You have an otherwise healthy teenager and the thought of coming out of surgery with paralysis is terrible."
It was during his daily commute that Crandall came up with the idea for a method to assist the procedure — a device and method that would make equal corrections to the spine yet put less stress on the structure. He took the idea to engineers at a company called Medtronic, and the instrumentation became a reality.
As Crandall explains, "You bend the rod like you want the spine to look and then anchor it to it and gradually pull the spine over, while using 60 percent less stress on the spine itself than anything else available."
During a three-hour operation, Crandall used his instrumentation to make corrections to Jacobsen's spine. He used two 12-inch titanium rods to span the 11 vertebrae that were part of the 70-degree curvature and attached those 11 vertebrae to the rods with 15 screws and two hooks.
"The curved vertebrae were slowly and gently brought back into an improved and straightened position and ultimately attached to the two rods," says Crandall. "That correction was done slowly over about 30 minutes." During the procedure, he fused 10 vertebrae in Jacobsen's upper back, but was able to leave open the five vertebrae below it. Those five vertebrae are the source of most of a person's flexibility.
For three weeks, the Jacobsens lived in Crandall's home while Mikey — who was unable to sit — recovered. The first thing Mikey and his friends noticed when he returned home was that the straightening of his spine had made him taller. During a three-hour operation he "grew" more than 2 inches, to 5-foot-11.
For the next six months he was forbidden from activity as he continued his recovery. "I wasn't even allowed to pick up more than five pounds," says Mikey. "I couldn't carry (a jug of) milk. I had to be catered to. I was not allowed to bend or twist. I had to have my brothers help me get dressed. All I could do was walk — that was my exercise — and play Xbox. When I got in bed, I had to sit down and then lie down with no rotation."
After six months he started easing back into activity and rebuilding strength, with the help of personal trainer Matt Neve. In the fall he participated in an open gym with the school's other basketball players and was gassed after two trips up the floor. "I had to sit down," he said. In the weight room, he had to start over. "I couldn't even lift the bar, with no weights on it," he says. "I had been lifting for years and I had no strength left. Every muscle had gone flat."
Says Neve, "When he came back he was weak — and even before (the surgery) he was weak. Having a spine shaped like it's supposed to is an integral part of where strength and power come from. His balance was horrible. He had steel rods down the side of his spine. In athletics the ability to flex and twist is critical to balance. He would fall or get knocked over easily (on the court)."
Neve had to be creative since exercises that loaded the spine — lunges and squats, for instance — were out. He spent months creating a system of muscular stability that would help support Jacobsen's spine and improve his core strength.
Remarkably, Jacobsen made the ninth-grade basketball team in the fall, about seven months after the surgery. He earned a starting job on the Woods Cross varsity team as a junior, 21/2 years after the surgery.
Says Neve, "I told him, don't be a tough guy; you need to tell me what's going on. He's very, very driven. So I'm not surprised he's done as well as he has. I am surprised at the things he has taken in stride."
Neve is referring to the ridicule that Jacobsen has been subjected to at times. During one game last season opposing fans called him "Quasimodo." Eric was angry and ready to defend his son, but, according to Neve, Mikey defused the situation. "It didn't even faze him," says Neve. "He said, 'Hey, Dad, that's part of the game.' "
Jacobsen is a steady performer for Woods Cross. Last week he scored 11 points to lead the Wildcats past Box Elder, improving the team's record to 6-2. "He's tough as nails," says Woods Cross coach Kasey Walkenhurst. "He's definitely a big key to our team."
Says Jacobsen, "My personal trainer and doctor did an amazing job. There have been only a couple of times where I felt pain."
"What really pleases me," says Crandall, "is that he hasn't mentally allowed his surgery to be a hindrance. Physically, it should not impact him, but mentally, if a kid is not in a good environment and they get the idea they're sick or defective or crippled or incapable of proceeding full speed into life, then he's given himself an out. This speaks to his inner strength and his family's support."
For his part, Crandall lives for such moments as Jacobsen's return to competitive sports. "Most days I would rather do what I do than golf," he says. "It is tremendously gratifying. For me there is nothing better than taking a deformed child or adult and being able to perform a corrective procedure that changes their life for the better. And then to walk into the waiting room and get hugs and handshakes and tears — that's better than golf."