Could modern medicine have saved their careers?


My name is Chris, and I am a sports junkie.

I love it all.  I love basketball, football, baseball, hockey, cricket, rugby, handball, water polo, lacrosse and as many obscure Olympic sports as I can name.  I can’t get enough.  Give me an athlete who is at the peak of his or her profession, and there’s a very good chance that I’m a devoted fan.

And yet, when I watch, there is always the fear of serious injury.  Injuries happen in every sport, and I will admit that I have learned the majority of what I know about anatomy from ESPN.  The terminology has become commonplace – a torn ulnar collateral ligament, a shoulder subluxation, a damaged MCL, or a Lisfranc injury.

We hear these terms thrown around today, but what of 20, 30 or 50 years ago?  A guy “blew his knee out;” that was all we heard.  When we look at how far medical technology has come over the past several decades, it makes one wonder if – and how – injuries to superstar athletes could have been prevented or treated with the technology we use today.

Here are 10 examples of players whose careers may not have ended so soon had they had access to today’s medical procedures.

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax was the very definition of an “ace” pitcher - a Hall of Fame inductee, three-time Cy Young Award winner and the National League Most Valuable Player in 1963, a rarity among pitchers.  His run during the mid-1960s is generally regarded as one of the most dominant by any pitcher ever, yet he  pitched for only 11 seasons, retiring at age 31 after an arm injury.

In the 1960s, elbow injuries ended careers.  Today, a torn ulnar collateral ligament and arthritis in the elbow are treated with reconstructive surgery.  Commonly referred to as “Tommy John surgery,” the procedure was invented in 1974 and earned its name after being performed Tommy John, the first baseball player to undergo the surgery.  Today, the surgery has an estimated 85 to 92 percent success rate.

Bill Walton

After leading UCLA to two national championships in basketball and winning three consecutive Player of the Year awards, Bill Walton was supposed to be one of the greatest NBA players of all time.  At 6’11”, Walton was picked first in the 1974 NBA Draft, but before long, Walton would suffer from debilitating foot problems.  He ultimately underwent 36 surgeries over a 14-year career for stress fractures and bone spurs in his feet and ankles. Walton had an on-and-off career in which he played 10 seasons over 14 years.

Walton undoubtedly could have greatly benefitted from modern medicine.  MRI, ultrasound and CT scans could have helped detect problems before they got out of control, and new rehab techniques could have prevented several of Walton’s injuries.

Bobby Orr

Considered by some to be the greatest hockey player of all time, Orr actually played in the NHL for only 12 seasons, including injury-shortened seasons in his final four.  Orr had cartilage damage and bone chips in his knees, which required numerous surgeries during his career.  Some suspected that he had a torn ACL, though medicine at the time did little to diagnose the issue.

If Orr played in the 2000s instead of the 1960s and 1970s, he may have had a longer, less painful run at the top.  Early detection and greater use of diagnostic imaging could have detected the knee problems earlier, preventing the issues from developing into career-threatening ones.   Surgical advances, too, could have helped Orr lengthen his career.

Magic Johnson

Magic  Johnson is one of the most charismatic athletes to ever play basketball, reaching full-blown celebrity status during his 1980s run with the Los Angeles Lakers.  But he also is infamous for his lifestyle choices that led to his diagnosis of HIV in 1991, forcing him to retire early.  Though Magic made a return in 1996, his career was cut short due to his diagnosis.   For Johnson, HIV was a wildly misunderstood and undertreated condition; at the time, a diagnosis was thought to be a death sentence.  Today, medicine is far more advanced, much of the progress coming around Magic’s diagnosis.  However, had the condition been better treated at the time, there would be little reason for Johnson to step away from the game for as long as he did.

Gale Sayers

Like Bobby Orr, Sayers was an electric player in the 1960s.  Also like Orr, he suffered from knee problems that ultimately led to early retirement.  Sayers was a running back for the Chicago Bears who was ultimately named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, despite playing a mere 68 games, a testament to his exceptional talent.  Sayers suffered his first knee injury in his fourth NFL season, tearing many ligaments in his right knee.  He underwent surgery and a rehab program, but was able to return to form the next season.  However, he suffered a second knee injury in his sixth season, ultimately leading to his retirement. Sayers’ injuries were not preventable, though more advanced surgical methods and evolved rehab techniques could have helped in his recoveries.  Sayers is the classic case of what could have been.

Joe Theismann

In 1985, Theismann suffered a brutal broken leg while quarterbacking the Washington Redskins.  Theismann was sacked by Lawrence Taylor and suffered a compound fracture of both his tibia and fibula.  Most football fans are familiar with the gruesome video of the event, broadcast nationally on Monday Night Football.  The quarterback was forced to retire from his injuries, though modern medicine might have prevented that.  Case in point: Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware, who may be able to  return to the basketball court mere months after suffering an equally catastrophic injury.

Mark Fidrych

Mark “The Bird” Fidrych shot to popularity in 1976 when his wild pitching antics nearly carried him to the Cy Young Award.  Fidrych was known for talking to the baseball, patting the mound periodically, and hammering the strike zone – factors that helped him become an overnight superstar.  While his rookie year should have been the sign of a great career, instead, he spent most of the rest of his career pitching  in the minors.   Why?  It turns out that Fidrych suffered a torn rotator cuff during his disastrous sophomore campaign.  But it was not diagnosed until 1985 – by then, his career over.  Using modern imaging techniques - including MRI, a common diagnostic tool for injured shoulders -Fidrych could have had surgery to repair the damage in his ailing arm.  Instead, his career fell apart just as quickly as it began, and Fidrych became better known for his behavior than his pitching mastery.

Hank Gathers

Hank Gathers tragically collapsed  on the basketball court and later died of a heart muscle disorder at age 23.  Gathers was a superstar forward for Loyola Marymount who fell down on the court during a game in 1990, and was dead upon admission to the hospital.  Gathers died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  He had actually been admitted to the hospital four months earlier,  where he was diagnosed with a restriction in the blood supply to the heart and some abnormal heartbeats.  However, he was allowed to play again.

Modern medicine likely would have called for the use of a defibrillator sooner, rather than the several minutes it took to be used in 1990; by that point, it was too late.  Today, athletes also would be given extensive physical testing –including EKG and ECHO tests - to detect any potential heart issues before they caused problems, as occurred in Gathers.  The silver lining to the Gathers tragedy is that some of the in-arena care available today came in response to his death.

Ernie Davis

After winning the Heisman Trophy at Syracuse University in 1961, Ernie Davis was the top pick in the 1962 NFL draft, the first black man to be taken number one overall.  However, before joining his team, Davis passed away at age 23 from acute monocytic leukemia.  In the early 1960s, chemical treatments were available to treat Davis’ form of cancer, but medicine has advanced significantly since then.  Intensive modern chemotherapy and radiation are often used for treatment, and some patients undergo bone marrow transplantation procedures.  Though the survival rate is still low (24 percent at five years after diagnosis), advancements in medicine have increased significantly since Davis’ death.

J.R. Richard

J.R. Richard was a phenom.  In 1976, the Houston Astros pitcher became a recognized pitching ace after winning 20 games and being named the team MVP.  He finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting three times in a four year period and was named to the 1980 All Star team.  Then, in July of 1980, Richard experienced some soreness in his shoulder and forearm, had trouble seeing his catcher’s signs,  then felt numbness in his fingers a few days later.  He ultimately went to the hospital and was diagnosed with an obstruction in the arteries leading to his shoulder;  however, doctors decided that no surgical treatment was needed.  He instead went to a chiropractor to fix the flow of blood. He would soon suffer a major stroke on the field during warm-ups.

Richard underwent emergency surgery that night to correct the blockage, and it was learned that he had actually experienced three separate strokes due to carotid artery blockages.  He also suffered from extensive thoracic outlet syndrome. While Richard did undergo rehab and attempt a comeback, he never returned to form and retired.

Today, more extensive diagnostics would have been performed earlier in his symptoms so that things would not had escalated to the point that they did.  Richard likely would have undergone more extensive testing – including scans of his brain – before he suffered from an episode.  Had the doctors originally diagnosed his problem correctly, Richard’s promising career likely would have continued.