This was Tim Elko’s grand slam swing that gave Ole Miss all the runs it would need Friday night. (Ole Miss Athletics)

OXFORD — An athlete’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) has always been considered vital to performance. Back in the old days, a torn ACL was often career ending. Even now, it can be career threatening. Normally, it takes nearly a year for an athlete to return to action.

Little wonder: The ACL runs diagonally down the middle of the knee. Simply put, it connects the thigh bone to the shin bone and provides rotational stability to the knee. 

So, how to explain Ole Miss’s bionic slugger Tim Elko? Elko has a torn ACL in his right knee, the one he uses to push off his back foot and launch home runs. He suffered the tear on April 5, a severe blow to the Rebels’ high hopes for the 2021 season.

Rick Cleveland

But there Elko was Friday night, under the bright lights before a packed house at Swayze Field, launching a grand slam home run in the third inning to break a scoreless tie and launch the Rebels to a 6-3 victory over Southeast Missouri in the first round of the Oxford regional. It was one more thrilling chapter in what has become almost a fairy tale story starring Elko.

Afterward, Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco was asked if he could have dreamed back on April 5 that he would still be getting this kind of production from Elko. “No,” he answered. “I don’t think anybody could. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

What has happened since April 5 is fairly mind-blowing. It’s hard to explain how much different the Ole Miss batting order looked without Elko in the middle of it. He led the SEC in RBIs at the time of his injury. Twelve games later, having not played a lick since, he still led the Rebels in RBIs. Elko knew the injury would require surgery, but once the swelling receded, he wanted to try and play. Once the ACL is torn, you can’t really hurt it any worse.

Elko points to the Ole Miss student section as he circles the bases with a torn ACL in his right knee. (Ole Miss athletics)

The Rebels were 22-6 at the time of his injury. They lost seven of  the next 13 games, before a still-gimpy Elko returned as a pinch-hitter against South Carolina on May 1. He popped out in that first at bat, but seven days later he slammed a three-run home run against Texas A&M. He returned to the starting lineup as a designated hitter May 20 at Georgia. Since then he has hit four more home runs and managed to jog around the bases each time. Robert Redford, in “The Natural,” has nothing other than a bloody jersey and blonde hair on Elko.

Elko entered Saturday’s game hitting .331 with a team-leading .669 slugging percentage and a team-leading .448 on-base percentage. The grand slam tied teammate Kevin Graham for the team lead in home runs. Those are insane numbers for a guy essentially playing on one leg.

But let’s get back to Friday night’s heroics. This was no slouch on the mound Elko and the Rebels were facing. SEMO starter Dylan Dodd, just this week named a second team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, entered with a 9-1 record and 113 strikeouts in 90.2 innings. The tall, lanky left-hander looked every bit that good over the first two innings, blanking the Rebels on one hit while striking out two. 

And then Elko, who had struck out in his first at bat, stepped to the plate with Ole Miss runners at every base. Elko deposited Dodd’s first pitch over the right field wall for an opposite field home run into the Ole Miss student section, which resulted in no telling how many gallons of beer showers. 

Elko said he was looking for a first pitch fastball and got it. “I knew it was gone off the bat,” he said. “It was crazy. I wish I could have heard the crowd going around the bases. I think I had too much adrenaline.”

Said Dodd, “I tried to throw him a fastball away and I thought I got it away. He just put a good swing on it.”

Said Bianco, “I was like everybody in the crowd, hoping for another one of those Elko moments, and we got it. It was a no-doubter.”

So now the Rebels, 42-19, move on to play Florida State in the winners’ bracket at 5 p.m. Saturday. Which brings up two questions: One, what more can Elko possibly do? Two, are ACLs overrated?

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.