Dr. James Andrews still at top of his game

Sports superstars have trusted the medical know-how of Dr. James Andrews for decades.

For years, Dr. James Andrews has enjoyed a sterling reputation for his treatment of the nation’s elite athletes.

Yet, if his magical hands can bring Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III back to the spectacular status of his rookie season, then Andrews’ reputation could become as gilded as the net worth of some his patients.

While Andrews’ name can be found in myriad news stories when athletes seek consultation for a variety of ailments, the orthopedist took on added — and perhaps unwanted — prominence in the news in the aftermath of the grisly knee injury Griffin suffered in the NFL wild-card round against the Seattle Seahawks.

That a team doctor — the kind of team employee that is rarely, if ever, heard from in the news media — would get involved in such a public disagreement with Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan over a player’s treatment only serves to underscore Andrews’ stature.

But it also illustrates the touchy nature these days of the relationships between team doctors and players. On Thursday, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was expected to announce a survey conducted by the union that showed four out of five NFL players do not trust their team’s medical staff, The Washington Post reported.

For further proof, there is Sports Illustrated’s naming of Andrews as one of the 40 most influential people in the NFL in 2010.

“He has a gift for talking to very high-profile players and making them comfortable with who he is and what he’s going to do,” said Dr. James Bradley, who has known Andrews for 25 years and is head orthopaedic surgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Said Dr. Champ Baker, one of Andrews’ former partners: “He’s the man.”

Bradley said Andrews excels at tiny nuances of what to do and what not to do with each particular athlete based on the individual’s history, diagnosis and sport. Some of it is based on Andrews’ long tenure in the field, but it also comes from intuition. Bradley also credited Andrews, a native of Homer, La., for his “Southern, laid-back personality” that helps Andrews to communicate with his patients.

But it’s more than just Andrews' bedside manner.

“That’s only part of the problem,” Bradley said. “Then you’ve got to go in the (operating room) and you’ve got to be able to have a good enough skill level to do these operations, so I think he’s very gifted in both categories.”

The list of Andrews’ patients reads like a “who’s who” of American sports over the past few decades: Brett Favre, Charles Barkley, Jack Nicklaus, Donovan McNabb, Drew Brees, Dwyane Wade, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz among them — almost too many famous names to list. His affiliations include serving on the board of Little League Baseball, acting as medical director for the Tampa Bay Rays — he shares the same title for the LPGA — among numerous others.

Baker said all of the fanfare that comes with illustrious patients could deter some doctors, but not Andrews. In that way, he thrives in the limelight and under pressure in the same way as the athletes themselves do.

“High-profile patients don’t scare him because they’re patients to him and they’ve got a problem,” said Baker, who is based in Columbus, Ga. “Anybody says, ‘Yeah, I want to do RG3,’ until 3 is there and the newspapers are there and the press is there and agent is there and all of the sudden, ‘I don’t know if I want to do that or not.'

"And that’s the big difference. Everybody wants to do it. He steps up and does it for years, and so he’s very comfortable with those athletes. And more important than that, they’re comfortable with him.”

Earlier this month, Andrews seized upon his renown to publish a book (co-authored with Don Yaeger) called “Any Given Monday.” The purpose of the book, Andrews wrote, is to help young athletes, their parents and coaches prevent sports injuries.

(Attempts to gain an interview with Andrews through the book publisher were unsuccessful.)

In publicity for “Any Given Monday,” Favre, Bo Jackson (another Andrews’ patient) and Barkley provided testimonials.

“I could not have played 16 years in the NBA without him,” Barkley wrote, “and most importantly he’s always been my friend.”

About 12 years ago, Andrews also became a senior orthopaedic consultant with the University of Alabama, which is about an hour away from Birmingham, Ala., where his practice was concentrated for many years. Now, Andrews works one day a week in Birmingham and four in Gulf Breeze, Fla., near Pensacola. He also serves as co-medical director at Auburn University, putting him on the winning side in the past four BCS national football championships (though he is graduate of both LSU, where he was a Southeastern Conference pole vault champion, and its medical school).

While Andrews has relationships with those college powerhouses in his home state, it was his relationship with the Redskins, for whom he is a senior consultant, that drew him into a media furor earlier in January.

After Griffin suffered an apparent knee injury against Baltimore on Dec. 9, Shanahan told the media that Andrews examined Griffin and cleared him to return to play. But Andrews’ colleagues in the medical profession say one of his keys to success is his honesty and his integrity. Perhaps that’s why Andrews was not afraid subsequently to tell USA Today that he did not get to examine Griffin before the QB returned to play in the Baltimore game and that the situation, “scared the hell out of me.”

The issue blew up on Jan. 6 when Griffin continued to play in the playoffs against Seattle despite hobbling around on his injured knee while wearing a brace. Finally, groping around for a fumbled snap, Griffin suffered extensive injuries to the knee, including a tear of his lateral collateral ligament, which, depending on estimates, could take eight to 13 months to heal.

“He had a direct repair of his LCL and a re-do of his previous ACL reconstruction,” Andrews said in a statement issued by the Redskins after performing Griffin’s surgery. “We expect a full recovery and it is everybody’s hope and belief that due to Robert’s high motivation, he will be ready for the 2013 season.

“The goal of his treatment is to give him the best opportunity for a long professional career.”

Bradley, the Steelers’ top surgeon, said such decisions are difficult for team doctors to make.

“What I would say to you is this: If I’m coming off the field, you couldn’t ask for anyone better to evaluate you,” Bradley said. “Never talk about the thousands of times he’s done that and everything’s turned out fine. You look at the video monitor, you go through all your tests, you make them do your tests. You’ve got to decide if he’s fit to play or not. You can’t supply a game plan to the coach. It’s a judgment call. Every team physician makes them a lot. In a bad game, I could make 19 or 20 decisions. In a good game, it would be five.”

Like any high-profile coach or athlete, Andrews has learned to take the heat that comes with his position. But that has not kept him from his job. Within days of the NFL season’s ending, Andrews not only performed surgery to repair Griffin’s (list ligaments) knee but also to Seahawks sacks leader Chris Clemons and Green Bay Packers’ rookie Jerel Worthy, the 51st overall pick in the NFL Draft last year.

On Jan. 17, Clemons tweeted of his procedure: “Surgery was a success today, Thanks for all the support. Dr. Andrews did the B Boy stance after when he walked out like he sacked me.”

Some doctors were made to do research and find cures of disease and others were made to treat fatally ill patients. Andrews, it seems, was meant to treat elite athletes.

He acknowledges as much in his book, writing, “There are doctors out there doing far more to save lives and combat serious illnesses than I have ever done or will ever do.”

And that Southern humility shows itself in the book, as well.

“I have just been fortunate enough to work with famous people,” he wrote, “who throw or bat a ball for a living.”

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