My Sportsman: Dr. James Andrews
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
It is taken for granted now that athletes can be repaired. That their shoulders and elbows and hips and knees and ankles, torn asunder in the many ways that sports can destroy the human body (in a football collision, throwing a baseball, screaming down a ski slope), can be restored to something resembling their original condition. That an athlete -- carted-off, air-casted, bedridden and full of pain and self-doubt, contemplating life after athletics -- can be returned to the field as if transported through time to the moment before he was hurt. It was not always thus, however. In fact, it is a relatively new condition, one that has altered not just the physical and emotional, but also the economic paradigm of modern sports.
Of all the athletic advancement in the last half-century, none matches the breakneck evolution of orthopedic surgery. Not the better grass on which the games are played (when they are played on grass at all), not the domes that cover the fields, not the speed and power with which the players perform or the complexity of their playbooks and not the technological advancements that have fundamentally altered the manner in which we consume the games. Nothing has changed sports quite like the ability to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
And no surgeon has put together more expensive and talented bodies than Dr. James Andrews, the 71-year-old Louisiana-born orthopedic surgeon with the syrupy drawl and the multi-million dollar hands. It is Andrews who has become not just the sawbones to the stars, but a human buzzword whose very mention anoints a circumstance with medical gravity and fervent hope in the same breath. If your name is in the same sentence with Dr. James Andrews, a) You're injured and b) You're getting just about the best orthopedic medical care on earth. For these reasons, I nominate Dr. James R. Andrews as Sports Illustrated's 2013 Sportsman of the Year.
It is Andrews who best represents the galloping surgical breakthroughs of the last four decades that have created a nation (a world?) of sports fans fluent in the language of the sports medicine subculture. ACL. MCL. Meniscus. Microfracture surgery. Rehab. Timetable for recovery. When Lombardi walked the sideline, this tongue did not exist. A player was injured and he was out. Or he was in. If he was repaired, it was publicized as the beginning of a long (or short) decline toward retirement and lifelong pain.
Consider Gale Sayers. One of the most breathtaking talents ever to play in the NFL, Sayers suffered a devastating injury to his right knee in November 1968, his fourth season with the Chicago Bears, when defensive back Kermit Alexander of the 49ers drove his helmet into Sayers's kneecap. The morning after the injury, the Chicago Tribune reported that "Dr. Theodore Fox, who performed the operation, described the injury as a total rupture of all the ligaments on the inside of the knee and cartilage damage." Forty-one years later when Sayers's right knee was replaced, the surgeon doing the work found all manner of medieval damage inside the joint, including half-inch piece of his tibia having been sawed off to balance Sayers' gait. All of this was representative of knee surgery in the 1960s.
James Andrews was, at the time, a resident in orthopedic surgery at Tulane Medical School in New Orleans. He remembers the Sayers era, though he never worked on Sayers. "In those days," he told SI in 2010, "our ability to fix an ACL, MCL, PCL was in the dark ages." So in this way Andrews grew up as a surgeon alongside the profession of surgery itself growing up.
Consider Drew Brees. On the last weekend of the 2005 NFL season, Brees, then a fifth-year quarterback with the San Diego Chargers, was tackled in such a way that his right (throwing) shoulder was driven into the turf, tearing it out of the socket. After Brees was helped off the field, his shoulder dangling at a gruesome angle, Andrews saw a replay at home in Alabama. "My god," he remembered thinking. "What an injury.'' Hours later, his cell phone rang. Brees was on the other end. "I thought I might be hearing from you," said Andrews. Upon examining it, Andrews found a full, 360-degree tear of Brees' labrum, a horrific and unique injury. Andrews repaired it in a 90-minute arthroscopic procedure and Brees has gone on to eight Hall of Fame-caliber seasons with the New Orleans Saints. The difference between Brees and Sayers (other than the injured joint), is Andrews, and 37 years of medical advancement.
Now it is Andrews to whom many A-list athletes turn to rescue their careers. A small sample: Adrian Peterson. Roger Clemens. Bo Jackson. Charles Barkley. Marcus Lattimore. John Smoltz. Trey Hardee. Nerlens Noel. Rajon Rondo. Robert Griffin III. The list continues.
Andrews has become so ubiquitous that it's fair to wonder if his celebrity has outrun his surgical skill. Yet it seems not. "Jimmy Andrews is not a media creation,'' says Dr. Bill Mallon, president-elect of the American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons. "We know who the best surgeons are, and there are some very good surgeons. Jimmy is highly thought of in our profession.'' Other surgeons quietly say the same thing.
And it is not just Andrews' surgical skills that endear him to his clientele, but also his accessibility; it seems as if every agent, team physician and general manager in sports has his cell number, ready to dial in desperation and hope. And even then, Andrews' peers marvel at the swiftness with which he returns those calls and how reliably he sustains relationships with patients after fixing them. Additionally, the dynamic of Andrews and his rehab sidekick, clinical physical therapist Kevin Wilk, is considered the standard by which all such vital relationships are measured, the bridge on the road from operating room to playing field.
For all the joy of sports, its most jarring transformative force is the power to destroy the human body. For a generation, Andrews has worked along a new frontier, staked out through ingenuity and practice, in which the body can be saved in a surgical suite so that more games can be played. It is a gift, worthy of recognition.