For the Detroit Lions, it’s a new season in a host of ways. There’s a sideline full of new coaches and coordinators (most notably head coach Jim Schwartz), a reshuffled front office, a new quarterback rivalry (veteran Daunte Culpepper vs. No. 1 draft pick Matthew Stafford), and a fresh determination to exorcise the memory of a string of dismal seasons at Ford Field. Providing some continuity behind the scenes is Dr. Kyle Anderson, an orthopedist who is in his 10th season as a member of the team’s medical staff. Anderson, 43, grew up in Waterford Township cheering for the boys in silver and blue, especially otherworldly running back Barry Sanders. A graduate of the University of Michigan medical school and a sports medicine specialist at William Beaumont Hospital, Anderson spoke with Hour Detroit about life in the Lions’ den.
Is there any way we can blame you for last season’s 0-16 record?
No. But plenty of my patients have tried.
Why make sports medicine a career?
Like a lot of people who go into the field, I’d had injuries playing sports in high school and college. At U-M, I tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] one day in football practice. I went through the rehabilitation process and thought it would be cool to help athletes get back to what they enjoy doing. It’s very gratifying work, whether I’m treating professional athletes, high-school kids, or weekend warriors.
What’s a typical week with the Lions like?
I have my own practice, working through Beaumont Hospital, though my Lions activities go through Henry Ford Hospital. Any injury that the training staff considers significant, they’ll want me to look at it as soon as possible, often that day. It’s not unusual for me to see a player between surgeries or between patients. A couple of times a week, I’ll drop in on the team and get an update on any ongoing injuries. On game day, I’m right on the sidelines. Lots of times I get caught up in watching the action, just like the average fan. But often I’ll concentrate on a particular player or two, see if they’re coming back from a certain injury OK. When a player goes down, I’ll go with the trainer to the locker room to assess the injury and make a recommendation as to whether he can return to play or not.
What types of injuries do you see?
Oh, all kinds. From the neck down, there’s what we call “stingers” or “burners” — a hit that sends a shock down the cervical cord — and lots of shoulder injuries, especially dislocations. Also broken fingers and hip dislocations. Knees take the worst beating, with plenty of minor contusions and ligament injuries.
And from the neck up … a touchy but timely subject considering the number of retired players from the 1950s and ’60s suffering from dementia.
I don’t think people made the connection between concussions and long-range effects on the brain. The league took a while to come around, but now it’s in the forefront of testing and doing a better job of monitoring concussions. Years ago, a player could actually lose consciousness during a game and then be sent right back in. Clearly, that’s not a wise thing to do. We tend to be very conservative about returning a player to the field after he’s suffered a concussion.
Part of the problem with injuries has always been the sport’s warrior mentality.
Oh, yeah. There have been plenty of times where we had to literally hide a player’s helmet so he couldn’t go back into the game. One time, a guy on a kickoff return came to the sideline with some abdominal pain. He wanted to get back in, but we took away his helmet. At the hospital we discovered he’d suffered a liver laceration.
Have you found the game becoming more brutal over the years?
Yes, and that’s why we’re not seeing players’ longevity increasing. If anything, players’ careers are getting shorter — about four or five years, on average. You’d think we’d be prolonging careers with all the medical advances, but the players keep getting bigger and faster. It’s such a speed game now. A couple of decades ago, a player might have a nagging little injury and still be able to compensate, but no longer. I don’t know what the end point is. Twenty years ago, the largest linemen were about 270, 280 pounds. Now, they’re all over 300 pounds — and they keep getting faster.
The average fan has to wonder how much of that is natural and how much can be linked to PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs].
Steroids, PEDs, are a continuing problem in all sports. The problem with tests for HGH [human grown hormone], for example, is that it’s a naturally occurring substance that can be chemically modified, which allows a user to come up negative in testing. Certainly, there are players who are cheating and getting away with it, but overall, I think the league’s drug program is the most progressive of all organized sports. With education and testing, I’d be surprised if 5 percent of all NFL players are using illegal substances.
And if there weren’t any testing?
Well, there’s a very large temptation among athletes to improve one’s performance to make as much money as possible. I’ll leave it at that.