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AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 2, 2019

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Football and Neurosurgery: More in Common than You Think

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I would not be where I am today without having played the game of football. I was very fortunate to participate in the sport at all three levels: high school, college and professional (rookie camp, Chicago Bears, 1973). During my time in football, I experienced tangible evidence of the intense physical nature of the sport, namely, a broken finger, a torn medial meniscus and three concussions of which one resulted in an overnight stay in the hospital. Yet, I never experienced any sequelae as a result, such as cognitive decline, personality disorder, memory loss, arthritis or cardiac disease beyond what is normally expected per the aging process.

Football Made Me a Better Neurosurgeon

However, the intangible benefits of playing football put me in very good stead to excel in academic and clinical neurosurgery. First and foremost, the game of football taught me the meaning of discipline and stamina. Practice sessions are intense and physically taxing along with being repetitive. This is especially true having played high school football in the steamy subtropical climate of Miami. I had to learn how to survive the physical demands of being dressed in padded clothing and having a heavy helmet on my head in torrid heat and humidity. I soon realized what it was like to be dehydrated and tired along with having physical pain and fatigue. This is not too dissimilar to performing a long case in the operating room (OR) without a water or bathroom break in scrubs, sterile gown and mask. Football is a contact sport and so is neurosurgery. By this I mean that one must be physically and mentally fit to endure long hours in the OR and wards, while working through the back and neck pain or fatigue and muscle cramping that occur during a long case or day on the job. 

Discipline Promotes Focus

With discipline comes the ability to focus and concentrate under adverse circumstances in which you have to bring your “A” game every day or get hurt (football) or make a medical mistake. I learned to give 110% each and every day and strive for excellence. I never could have learned this without having played the sport. And then there is the game itself, in which all eyes are upon you to perform at your very best. Does this sound familiar in our day-to-day lives of operating in complex and risky areas of the nervous system with the patient and their family expecting you to perform at superhuman levels? And if that is not enough, like football practice, you have to get up and do it again the next day. Over and over again. Failure and defeat is not an option.

Team Sports

Football is the ultimate team sport and so is neurosurgery. The game taught me how to embrace the concept that I was only one member of a multifaceted team in which everyone has to “do their job” (a la Bill Belichik of the Patriots). And although the neurosurgeon is understandably considered the quarterback, he or she could never operate (or play) in isolation. The game itself, as well as the operation, succeeds only if the team members are on the same page and carry out their specific roles.

Football Taught Inclusion

Another intangible bonus of having played football is learning early on how to appreciate and embrace diversity and inclusion. In the game of football, as in the game of life and in the OR, it should never matter who you are or where you come from or what your beliefs are. Everyone is created equal and you are judged on performance, work ethic and mutual respect – not on ethnicity, creed or religious beliefs. The OR, as in the field of medicine, has become beautifully diverse and inclusive. This leads to greatly respecting and appreciating anyone and everyone who is there to get the job done and win (football) or have a great surgical result with the least possible degree of morbidity. Which brings me to the competitive spirit that we as surgeons, as well as football players, embrace and strive for. What would neurosurgery or football be like if your goal was to NOT be the best you can be – it would be downright dangerous. The competitive spirit is part of our DNA as a surgeon and drives the football player to excel and ultimately win. While losing or not achieving the desired result is not the ultimate goal, it is necessarily one of only two possible outcomes, e.g., winning or being defeated. But what makes a successful surgeon or football player is getting back up when you are defeated, despite giving 110%, and getting ready for the next challenge, which is always about to unfold before your eyes.

So, I learned a lot from playing the great game of football and it taught me all the lessons I needed to succeed in neurosurgery. I would hate to think of what my professional or even personal life would be like if I had not played the game. Luckily for me, my family and my patients who depend on me, I will never know….

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