“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.