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A Site for Sore Knees
Tim Vanderpool
September 08, 1997
Hobbled, uninsured ex-athletes find help in the hands of Dr. James St. Ville
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September 08, 1997

A Site For Sore Knees

Hobbled, uninsured ex-athletes find help in the hands of Dr. James St. Ville

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Robert Stirewalt, director of communications for the Major League Baseball Players Alumni, calls the program "a big bonus for us. Now we have a weekly section in our newsletter devoted to those kinds of services."

St. Ville's repairs follow common themes, with knee and shoulder surgeries most prevalent among the NFL vets. John Watson, an Oklahoma tackle who went on to play for the San Francisco 49ers (1971-76) and New Orleans Saints ('77-79), has recently had both knees replaced by St. Ville. He is not alone. "At least 20 of them have had total knee replacements, and some have had their hips replaced as well," St. Ville says of the former football players. "Even the younger guys often need knee-straightening procedures. A lot of them don't have much of a knee joint left when they leave the game, especially after six or seven operations, when arthritis starts eating away at it."

Rotator cuff injuries are common among former baseball players, according to St. Ville, with arthritis again being the predominant affliction.

Most of the operations cost upward of $40,000, but even relatively minor treatment can cost $10,000. St. Ville estimates that his program has performed about $2.7 million in services since it started.

The Johns Hopkins-trained doctor traces his interest in helping former athletes back to his days as an all-state high school running back in Tulsa. "Then, after I started practicing medicine, a lot of my heroes started retiring, and I got to know some of them personally," he says. "When I treated Ron, he began mapping out the problems for the retirees, and I found out that when a lot of them leave the NFL and their league coverage runs out, they can't get their arms and legs reinsured. I would run into guys who were 30 years old and couldn't get health insurance."

Baseball, by contrast, does extend insurance to retired players, but only if they can afford it. "Most of them never made big money," St. Ville says. "Some were paid as little as $3,000 a year, and pension plans were minimal."

The NFLPA helps offset medical costs through fund-raisers, and Killebrew's baseball program is also gaining speed. In 1986 Joe Garagiola helped establish the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which extends financial help to needy ex-players and their families. Garagiola, who also resides in the Phoenix area, says BAT has yet to work with St. Ville directly. "But we may need help in that way in the future. We think what he's doing is a great thing."

Even big business has stepped forward, with Nautilus donating weight machines, York donating free weights and Wave and Ferno-Ille contributing rehab equipment to the charity clinic. Conspicuously missing from the donor lists are current football and baseball players. "I think they live in a rarefied world," says St. Ville. "What they don't realize is that often the way they're going to leave the game is through serious injury."

Frank Woschitz, NFLPA director of retired players, agrees. "Right now they think they're invincible," he says. "But when they leave the game, they might find out how much they need [the charity program]. They may not be destitute, but if they have a catastrophic injury, where are they going to get the money to take care of it?"

Also missing is the NFL itself, and St. Ville offers his own theory on why. "If the league participated, it would be an admission of guilt, an admission that there's been no support from the league and club owners, even though they've seen how this program has changed players," he says.

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