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McDavid began developing his brace in 1967. "I was a little skeptical myself, especially after people tell you for years and years that you can't get anything that's going to work on the knee," he says. "But I put my brace on a player at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I was teaching, who had the worst knee I'd seen up to that time. He had medial and lateral damage that wouldn't let him do anything strenuous.
"So I put the brace on him, and he felt absolutely good and wanted to play ball right then and there. He was so enthused he got his cleats and put them on to see if he could make some cuts. I said, 'Be careful, be careful,' because I didn't want his knees to rip out. But he ran zigzag patterns quite easily. I was pretty convinced then my idea was working."
By 1970 McDavid had a patent for the brace, though few shared his confidence in its effectiveness. "At first, I sent out flyers to all the trainers and coaches in the professional leagues," he says, "and also sent them a prototype of the brace and asked for some feedback. I never heard a word from anybody, but I wasn't discouraged."
Instead, he tried to interest a sporting goods company, and again struck out. "I found they didn't understand the structure," McDavid says. "Other companies had chances to market it, too, but refused. So I got my own mold and began to make them myself. I made them in my basement until about three years ago and I sent out about 300 per year in the early years. But now, with our success, my son, Robert McDavid III, is manufacturing them at a plant in Conway, Arkansas. And demand is increasing so rapidly he has a full-time job on his hands."
The other brace, the Anderson Stabler, was designed by L.A. Raider trainer George Anderson and named after quarterback Ken Stabler. It's manufactured and distributed by Omni Scientific Inc. of Lafayette, Calif. Omni spokesman Jim Mercer contends that the Anderson, first marketed in 1981, is more effective than the McDavid. "We've improved upon it," he says. "It has a hinge that pivots at the knee joint, which allows greater flexibility. Also, it has a steel-reinforced bridge over the knee that can take greater stress than plastic. Our brace is preferred at the University of Southern California, UCLA and all the other Pac-10 schools. And studies are being conducted. For example, North Carolina purchased 75 of our braces and 75 of McDavid's design. They used them both for one year and chose ours."
Several knee-brace designs became available in the 1960s. Some were marketed by large sporting-goods companies, including MacGregor, Wilson and Bike. Most of the braces utilized thin metal or plastic straps sewn into elastic, which didn't give much support. The elastic would slip from the knee and couldn't support the knee against medial or lateral extension. The elastic expanded with force and allowed the knee joint to separate, making the braces ineffective.
Until the development of the McDavid and Anderson, the Lenox Hill was the brace most used in sports. Invented by Dr. James A. Nicholas, the New York orthopedic surgeon who treated Joe Namath's famous knees, it was designed to support and protect unstable knees. But a report in the September-October, 1983 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine says the Lenox Hill brace may not be as effective as first thought.
Other braces are available, including ones produced by companies such as Zinco and Can-Am. These and the Lenox Hill are usually considered postoperative or post-injury braces. Proponents of the McDavid and Anderson braces stress their value in injury prevention.
"You're investing $40,000 in education for a young man on scholarship," Faust says, "and if he can't play, the $40,000 is down the drain. If you pay $30 to $40 for a brace, it's worth the investment." The cost of medical care for an injured player is also substantial. "You have the surgeon's bill, the hospital bill and the anesthesiologist's bill," Whitmer points out. "Fortunately, we don't have to pay for rehabilitation because we do it here."
The McDavid Knee Guard costs about $40, the Anderson Knee Stabler $29 to $50. Both can also be used in other sports, such as hockey and skiing. Knee braces also are being used by construction workers who have to climb up and down scaffolds all day. Football players would seem to need them most, though.