To James Andrews, Robert Griffin III is another in a long list of star patients
By Kent Babb,
The quarterback sat across from James Andrews, hoping for relief. A career was in jeopardy, a city’s expectations on hold. The player’s knee had become disconnected, and the gray-haired orthopedic surgeon with a Southern drawl was promising to fix it.
In 1999, Trent Green tore multiple ligaments in his left knee, and like so many before and after him — New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, former NBA superstar Michael Jordan and golf legend Jack Nicklaus among them — he had made the pilgrimage to the South to speak with sports’ most famous healer. Green, a former Washington Redskins quarterback who at the time played for the St. Louis Rams, recalled Andrews’s honesty and optimism.
“We don’t have a lot of patience,” Green said, referring to professional athletes. “I need to get an answer now, because I need to get back to work.”
In the past seven days, Andrews found himself caught in another vortex of concern, another quarterback’s future in the balance, and Andrews’s hands were expected to make it right. This time, though, a miscommunication between him and Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan made things more complicated.
Andrews, the Redskins’ senior orthopedic consultant, was on the sideline five weeks ago when Robert Griffin III sprained his right knee. Shanahan recalled later that Andrews had cleared the rookie quarterback to return to that game. Andrews was quoted as saying last week that he never even examined Griffin. The exchange was later called a miscommunication.
Regardless, Andrews was again on the sideline last Sunday, when Griffin tore the lateral collateral ligament and damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in the same knee he injured weeks earlier. The injury, which was seen on national television and would require surgery, ignited so many questions. Would Griffin be the same, and when? Who was to blame, and more than that, what could’ve been done to prevent the injury? Andrews, a doctor with impeccable credentials, found himself questioned; what role did that miscommunication play?
The first answers came this past week, when Griffin and those closest to him traveled to Florida and sat across from Andrews, who in his 70 years has taken risks, built relationships, and transformed himself from rural Louisiana native into the most famous doctor in sports.
Years ago, Andrews told Green that this was only a setback. If Green did what Andrews said, he’d return to the NFL with only a memory of this sad episode. He has given that talk many times through the years.
Griffin heard some of the same things this past week, and a short time later, the 22-year-old became the latest big-name athlete to put his future in Andrews’s hands.
‘He just puts you at ease’
Decades ago, Andrews whittled wood, watching the shavings fall away to reveal something recognizable. Sometimes the knife bucked out of a divot, catching the young man’s skin and teaching him that a project can be finished many ways, but it can only be done right if a man takes his time.
His fingers steadied as the years passed, and his interest drifted toward medicine. Andrews’s grandfather was a backwoods healer, and sports were always important to the youngster.
Andrews, who didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, found a way to marry his interests. In the 1970s, sports medicine was beginning a new chapter, and Andrews aligned himself with the pioneers. Gone were the days that a torn ligament or rotator cuff ended a career; this fear was replaced with advancing science and new hope.
Lanny Johnson, one of the first orthopedists to embrace arthroscopy, said last week that a young Andrews “did jeopardize his career” by studying arthroscopic surgery, which at the time was looked upon as something of a fad. He traveled to Michigan every month or two to stand on a stepladder and watch Johnson operate.
“Leaders take a big risk,” Johnson said, “but they get a huge reward.”
Johnson said Andrews’s technical skills are extraordinary, and his judgment is sharp. But what attracted athletes to his clinic was Andrews’s empathy and willingness to communicate.
“Everything is real positive,” Green said. “He’ll sit there, whether you’ll have 30 seconds of questions or 30 minutes of questions, he’s going to take his time. He’s just very reassuring and very positive. He just puts you at ease.”
Baseball agents, including Scott Boras, began sending clients to Andrews in the early 1980s. Andrews saw a young Roger Clemens in the mid-1980s, diagnosing a torn labrum in the pitcher’s arm and repairing the problem.
Andrews, who later moved his clinic from its original site in Columbus, Ga., to Birmingham, Ala., mastered Tommy John surgery — at the time a revolutionary procedure in which a ligament in an injured pitcher’s elbow is replaced by a tendon from elsewhere in the body — and became one of the nation’s foremost elbow and shoulder experts. A former pole vaulter at Louisiana State University, he leaned on his experience as an athlete to look patients in the eye, understand the importance of their health and futures, and assure them that they would be taken care of.
By the time an injured athlete left Andrews’s office, shaking a strong hand that still carries those scars from whittling, their attitudes had changed. Soon they were telling teammates and friends about the doctor down South. Others made their way to Birmingham, word-of-mouth spreading throughout sports.
“We’re going to get you back,” Boras recalled Andrews saying often. “Immediately, they’re there, they’re receiving horrible news, and yet, they’re already looking forward to playing again. That unique magic is not taught in medical school.”
Big name, big jobs
Over time, the Andrews legend grew. Baseball players made up the practice’s core, but soon NFL and NBA players were making the trip to Birmingham, then college players and professional wrestlers. Going to see Andrews meant two things: The athlete’s injury was serious, but also that he or she was also taking a proven path to recovery.
With the legend, Andrews’s practice kept expanding. The Andrews Institute, a $50 million, 140,000-square-foot complex near Pensacola, Fla., opened in 2007, and the Birmingham office has a separate holding area for star athletes — “You can’t just put Michael Jordan in the waiting room,” Jeffrey Dugas, a partner at the center in Birmingham, said — and signed photographs and handwritten notes cover the walls. Andrews became almost as famous — and wealthy — as the athletes he was operating on.
With the name recognition, teams wanted the Andrews peace of mind as part of their home-field advantage. Both the Auburn and Alabama college football teams use Andrews as a sideline consultant, with the understanding that he’ll be called upon only in the case of significant injuries, and he’s the Tampa Bay Rays’ medical director. In 2004 the Redskins and former coach Joe Gibbs asked Andrews to join the team as its senior orthopedic consultant. Other teams have specialists and consultants on their sidelines, in addition to team doctors and trainers. But the Redskins have a history of bringing the biggest names to Washington; there is no bigger name in medicine than Andrews.
On the game-day hierarchy, Redskins head trainer Larry Hess is first to examine a player after an injury. If it’s serious enough, Hess calls over the corresponding member of the sports medicine team. Andrews, who handles only the most serious injuries, is rarely called into action. Teams just like having him available — even as his schedule keeps expanding.
This past week, for instance, Andrews took his private jet to be on the Redskins’ sideline last Sunday evening, then joined Alabama in Miami a night later for college football’s national championship game, and was in the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday evening to prepare for Griffin’s surgery the next morning. In between he made appearances to promote his new book, “Any Given Monday,” and checked on his American Sports Medicine Institute, which is geared toward injury prevention.
“We get on him,” Dugas said. “ ‘You look tired; you need to get some rest.’ ”
Usually, he won’t hear of it. But on a Monday morning in 2006, after returning home after a Redskins playoff game, he had trouble catching his breath. He was suffering a heart attack.
Days later, he still visited with patients and checked in on others. Dugas said his mentor has slowed slightly — maybe taking on two-thirds of the 1,200 to 1,300 procedures he used to perform annually — but not by much. He attends all of the Redskins’ home games, though his wife, Jenelle, said he has cut his appearances at road games.
Regardless, most who know him don’t bother trying to ease him toward retirement.
“What he does, makes him who he is,” Jenelle said. “We’re all given to a higher power, and I’m not going to spend my years with my husband trying to regulate his. I pick my battles, and sport is his life. He’s good at what he does. He helps people, and I wouldn’t change any of it.”
Focusing on Griffin
Last Tuesday evening, Andrews and Jenelle sat at dinner, celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary. The next morning at 6, Andrews would operate on Griffin, a routine procedure to Andrews but one that has caused plenty of anxiety in Washington. Jenelle said it wasn’t lost on her husband.
“He worries about everybody,” she said.
She said they shared laughs and memories, but as always, as the evening turned late her husband began getting into character. She said Andrews is quiet most nights before surgeries, and he’s focused on eating dinner and getting to bed.
“You can just tell in his mind that he’s thinking,” she said. “He’s getting ready. He wants to get a good night’s rest. He’s getting ready for the next day.”
A few days earlier, things had grown more complicated for Andrews, when USA Today quoted him as saying he had never examined Griffin after the quarterback sprained his knee in a contest against Baltimore on Dec. 9. The newspaper quoted Andrews saying that Griffin’s return to the game “scared the hell out of me.” Shanahan had publicly described a conversation with Andrews, in which the doctor had cleared Griffin to go back in.
In an interview with The Washington Post this past week, Andrews said that Griffin had avoided doctors on the sideline and that he and Shanahan had simply misunderstood each other.
“Coach Shanahan didn’t lie about it, and I didn’t lie,” Andrews told The Post last Monday. “It was just a communication problem.”
Jenelle said her usually unshakable husband was troubled by the controversy, and perhaps it raised the stakes further for Wednesday morning’s surgery, which Andrews would deem a success.
“I don’t like misinterpretations,” she said. “Of course it bothers you, and it bothers me when things bother my children.”
On Tuesday evening, Jenelle talked about the return of normal life, now that the holidays were over and football season was almost finished. Maybe they could spend a few nights at their home in Birmingham.
Then they finished dinner and stood. The thing is, this is normal life for Andrews. Another crossroads moment, no matter the day or time or name, is always just a few hours away.
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