They examine X-rays instead of game film, carry stethoscopes instead of whistles. But while the tools of their trade might be different from those of coaches, the everyday doctors who double as physicians for sports teams also play an important role in a club’s success.
“We are kind of the coaches of medicine,” says Dr. Jeffrey Dugas, an orthopedic surgeon at Andrews Sports Medicine who has worked with a variety of organizations over the past 20 years, from Troy University athletics to World Wrestling Entertainment. “Sometimes we have to push athletes (in rehab), and sometimes we hold them back. I’ll high-five you and I’ll cry with you. But we’re going to get you where you need to be.”
Doctors such as Dugas, who have this type of dual role, spend much of their time working in a regular practice. Their patients might be a jogger who fractured an ankle or a construction worker who injured a shoulder. Exams are held in a quiet room, and surgeries are planned in advance.
But when game time arrives, the structure of a private practice no longer applies.
An injured football player, for example, might initially have to be examined in front of 100,000 fans and a television audience, and surgeries can sometimes take place that same day.
“We have to be prepared every second of every game, because if there is an injury, you have to make some quick decisions,” says Dr. Irfan Asif, chair of the UAB Department of Family and Community Medicine, who also serves as a sports medicine physician for UAB Athletics and the Legion FC soccer team.
Those decisions can involve an athlete who the physician has come to know beyond the typical doctor-patient relationship. In a standard practice, a surgeon treating an injury might visit with the patient only two or three times during the entire process. But doctors who work with sports teams are around the athletes on a regular basis, making an injury seem more personal.
“We see them every week for several months (during the season), so we do build a rapport with them,” says Dr. Amit Momaya, assistant professor in the UAB Department of Orthopedic Surgery and section chief for UAB Sports Medicine. “But we definitely try to remain objective whenever we’re treating athletes. Ultimately we just want to give them the best care.”
Having that close connection can be beneficial, according to Dr. Norman Waldrop III, the foot and ankle specialist with Andrews Sports Medicine and a physician for the University of Alabama athletic teams.
“It makes things a little easier if you’ve gotten to know them, because it adds an element of trust,” Waldrop says. “They feel like they’re in good hands and remain calm in the face of a stressful situation.”
For most of these physicians, working with sports teams is a labor of love. They enjoy attending the games and being part of the team. They become fans, rooting for victories and no injuries.
“I love seeing Troy win. I love seeing those kids achieve their dreams,” Dugas says. “You absolutely do become a fan.”
Asif agrees. “I’m passionate about soccer and have been playing since I was 5 years old,” he says. “So the joy of doing this (with Legion FC) is that it doesn’t feel like work.”
That’s important, because working with sports teams definitely can be time consuming — especially during the fall.
“It’s like tax season for an accountant. You just assume you’ll be working every day that time of year,” Dugas says.
For Waldrop, that usually means taking care of his regular practice duties during the week, then attending a high school football game on Friday night and the Alabama Crimson Tide game on Saturday (home and away), followed by any potential surgeries on Sunday (and sometimes Saturday night as well). Then he starts it all over again on Monday.
“I don’t consider it to be extra time. It’s just part of my job,” Waldrop says. “I go into any game knowing there’s a real possibility we may have to operate that night or the next day. So I always have it in my schedule to be able to do that on Saturdays and Sundays. We don’t clear anything out, we just add it to the list we already have.”
In Waldrop’s case, there also is the extra challenge of conducting these surgeries under the intense scrutiny of Crimson Tide football fans (not to mention head coach Nick Saban). Waldrop admits there was something a bit intimidating about that at first.
“You don’t become a physician to be in the public eye. It’s definitely something that takes getting used to,” Waldrop says. “Fortunately, I had a lot of partners who had been through it who helped me navigate it early.
But there’s nothing that can really prepare you for it until you go through it. It’s something you just have to learn to deal with.”
In addition to surgery, sports teams also can need physician assistance for regular medical issues. Some doctors help teams with the creation of exercise and nutrition programs designed to prevent injuries. Others conduct preseason physicals and provide prescriptions to combat basic illnesses.
“Sometimes you just need a regular doctor to take care of everything else,” says Dr. Steven Alsip, a physician in Mobile who worked with the Mobile Bay Bears minor league baseball team until it moved. “The trainers would track me down when they had issues. They’d hand me an EKG result to interpret or have me (analyze) a player for a concussion, things like that. I was basically just their regular medical doctor.”
One of the reasons doctors enjoy this type of work is for the chance to work with elite athletes. It is the equivalent of a mechanic who goes from changing the oil in an SUV to repairing the engine in a Porsche.
“With any patient, we’re going to do what we can for them so they can return to their daily activities. It’s just in this case, those activities are elite athletic performance, so that requires a whole new level of rehabilitation and sophistication to return them to that level of activity,” says Dr. Steven Theiss, chair of the UAB Department of Orthopedic Surgery. “Because while we’re eager to care for recreational athletes and weekend warriors, working with the elite athlete is always very satisfying.”
In the end, regardless of the sport or the level of competition, all these doctors have the same goal. As Momaya says, “The best game is when everything goes smoothly, nobody gets hurt and we get the win.”