James Andrews: Hall of Fame surgeon not retiring

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A Hall of Fame induction of any kind is usually a moment for reflection. As Dr. James Andrews was inducted into the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine Hall of Fame, he was in no mood to reflect or even slow down. "I'm not retiring," he said in a conversation Wednesday.

Andrews barely wanted to address his past. "It's an honor, to be sure," he explained, "but when you talk about guys like Jack Hughston or Frank Jobe or Bob Kerlan, that's guys who built the profession. Don O'Donoghue did build it and to be alongside guys like that is something." His voice faded off for a moment, considering where he stands in history.

However, much of Andrews' career has been built on advancing the profession. His pioneering use of the arthroscope was the basis of his practice, but it's his focus on education and prevention that he feels will be his true legacy. "There are so many great surgeons out there now. They're as good as I am and in the future it will be better. Guys like Neal ElAttrache, Tim Kremchek, Lyle Cain, Jeff Dugas ... I hate lists because I'll leave someone off, but we've been able to advance things with the fellowship programs and the ASMI conferences."

Andrews may not want to speak about himself, but he's happy to talk about some of his best known successes. "If there's a signature surgery of mine, it has to be Roger Clemens. The success he had after his surgery is amazing and being able to watch that was special. Roger is a guy who is all baseball. I call it the religion of baseball with a guy like that. He actually called me on Father's Day. I got a chuckle out of that."

Another important surgery Andrews performed was on Jack Nicklaus. "Great golfer, but he also led me to Jerry Pate," Andrews explained. Pate wasn't the golfer that Nicklaus was to be sure, but Pate did have a big role in Andrews' career. "I didn't just do surgery on Jerry. He helped convince me to move to Birmingham and set up my practice here. That was a pretty good idea!" Later, Pate helped Andrews set up his other clinic in Gulf Breeze, Florida. "Jerry was instrumental in getting this [the Andrews Institute] built. He was down there convincing then-Governor Jeb Bush that this was going to be good for Florida."

He also mentioned Drew Brees. "A lot of people weren't sure that Brees could ever come back after his shoulder injury," Andrews said. "I know Drew didn't have any doubt and you look for that in a guy. I love turning on a game and watching him play, seeing him throw. I've had some games where both quarterbacks are guys I've worked on!"

Andrews, who grew up in northern Louisiana and still has that very southern drawl, is also close to some other Louisiana quarterbacks. "I just got the best gift," he said. "I don't know how they did it, but Archie Manning – I've worked on him a couple times – and Eli and Peyton, they're all in uniform and it looks like they're standing next to each other throwing the ball. It's awesome looking and I've got it here in the clinic."

Andrews reminisced with me for a few minutes, but he's more focused on the future. "We just met down in Orlando with MLB's Pitchsmart program," he told me. "We're finally starting to get things together, more data than we've had and trying to attack it at every level. It used to be that the major leagues had more Tommy John surgeries than anyone, but that's turned on its head. I used to do 7 or 8 Tommy John surgeries on kids in 2000. Now I'm doing 70 or 80 a year, so we've got to fix this or there's not going to be anyone to draft."

Andrews once told me he wanted to put himself out of business, preventing the arm injuries that make up the bulk of his practice. "I remember saying that," he said. "It didn't work out that way. The whole profession of sports medicine has been remiss at prevention. We spend so much time trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together that we haven't been able to get him off that wall."

Andrews continued. "I don't know how many times I've done ESPN or SI or other stories. I say it over and over and explain the studies we've done and somehow it's not getting to the parents. I remember one kid recently. Big kid, 6'4″ senior and he's got to have Tommy John. He's been hurting for years and I was asking him about it and back years ago, he was pitching on three different teams. He'd pitch Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday. The coaches didn't know. The parents, they just didn't know this was a problem. All the info didn't get down to them."

James Andrews now has a Hall of Fame plaque from his profession, but maybe he will have one in Cooperstown or Canton someday. He'd never say it himself, but many will say it for him, including me. I expect that when John Smoltz heads into Cooperstown later this month, he'll recognize Dr. Andrews as one of the reasons he's there. Thinking about all the surgeries he's done on great athletes, it's hard to imagine sports without him.

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