By Donna Cornelius
Journal features writer
Dr. James Andrews has given advice and care to sports stars like John Smoltz, Tom Brady and Bo Jackson. The orthopaedic surgeon is one of the most respected people in sports medicine. He’s earned numerous honors and a lot of press, too.
And you won’t find many doctors whose names regularly appear on ESPN’s Bottom Line.
But Andrews said he never forgets some words of wisdom from a source that’s close to home.
“My wife, Jenelle, tells me almost daily when I get an award or something, ‘If you’re still talking about what you did yesterday, you’re not doing much today,’” he said.
The world-famous doctor, however, is likely to savor a recent award a little longer than usual.
Andrews was presented July 12 with the 2014 Robert E. Leach Mr. Sports Medicine award during the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s annual meeting in Seattle.
The award is given annually to honor those who have made significant contributions to sports medicine. Andrews was the 41st recipient of the award.
One reason the honor is special to him, Andrews said, is that two of his mentors, Dr. Jack Hughston and Dr. Frank McCue, were among the AOSSM’s founders.
Andrews has been active in the organization, too.
“I was president three years ago. I’ve been involved all these years and have watched it grow. It has close to 3,000 members in the United States,” he said.
Andrews is one of the founding members of Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham. He is also founder, chairman and medical director of the American Sports Medicine Institute, a nonprofit institute dedicated to injury prevention, education and research in orthopaedic and sports medicine.
He is a founding partner and medical director of the Andrews Institute and the Andrews Research and Education Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla. He now splits his time between his homes in Mountain Brook and Pensacola, Fla., he said.
Andrews, born in 1942 in Homer, La., said “the seed sprouted early” as he planned his life’s work.
“My father was overseas in World War II, and my mother and my sister and I were living with my grandparents on their farm in northern Louisiana,” he said. “My granddaddy had migrated from North Carolina and had settled a bunch of that land.”
Even though his grandfather was “a very talented man and successful economically,” he had dreamed of pursuing another career, Andrews said.
“He wanted always to be a doctor, but he lived 11 miles from the nearest grammar school and had to walk to school,” Andrews said. “He was a self-proclaimed country doctor. He’d mix up salves and lotions and took on that role. He would tell me I’d be his ‘little doctor.’
“I never thought of doing anything else.”
Andrews said he’s never forgotten his grandfather’s confidence and encouragement.
“I’ve learned it’s very important to plant seeds when kids are at a young age, to say, you’re going to be successful as a football player, lawyer or whatever you choose to do,” he said.
Andrews’ father, who returned safely home from the war, had been a football player, Andrews said.
“I was involved in athletics when I was in high school in Homer, which was near the farm. Athletics was our whole social activity,” he said.
At Louisiana State University, Andrews won the Southeastern Conference indoor/outdoor pole vaulting championship.
He was admitted to medical school at LSU after his third year of undergraduate studies, he said.
While “sports medicine” wasn’t the familiar term then that it is today, Andrews aimed his career in that direction.
“I gave up my senior year in pole vaulting in order to go to medical school. Mixing medicine and sports was a compromise,” he said. “I wanted to be a team physician. I was at Tulane (Medical School) for my residency in orthopaedic surgery. Dr. Jack Hughston was the team doctor for Auburn. I finagled myself into spending the third year of my residency in Columbus, Ga., in sports medicine with him. His specialty was knees.”
Hughston “got me situated with Dr. Frank McCue, who was the team physician for the University of Virginia,” Andrews said. “He was an upper-extremity guy.”
Hughston sent his young protégé to Lyon, France, to study with Dr. Albert Trillat, who’s known as the father of European knee surgery, Andrews said.
“When he returned to the U.S. in 1972, I worked with Dr. Hughston for 13 years. I had the opportunity to go to Birmingham when I was recruited by several hospitals. One of them was South Highlands Hospital, which later became HealthSouth. I started the sports medicine program there in 1986,” he said. “From there, I migrated to St. Vincent’s to start the sports medicine clinic there.”
Now, Andrews is in Pensacola Monday-Thursday and at St. Vincent’s in Birmingham on Fridays, he said.
The American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham has trained 378 fellows, including about 100 nonsurgical sports medicine physicians. The Pensacola Andrews Institute continues to train additional fellows.
Andrews described sports medicine as “the care and treatment of active individuals in recreational or athletic endeavors.”
“It’s for all ages—from the Sunday golfer to the starting Major League pitcher,” he said. “The lesson I’ve learned is that you treat everybody special. You treat the professional athlete just like you’d treat an ordinary patient. You follow your routine.”
Andrews has achieved so much professional success that it’s likely some of his famous patients are in awe of him. While his patient list has for years included athletic luminaries, he remembers his early experiences with well-known sports figures.
“I had two signature patients early on,” he said. “When I was with Dr. Hughston, I was operating arthroscopically on Jack Nicklaus’ knee. I thought, this is Jack Nicklaus’ knee–I hope I’ve got the right one!
“Another was Roger Clemens. I operated on his shoulder.”
Andrews is quick to praise others for his own success.
“You have to give patients credit. You’ve got to guide them, but their desire and motivation to get well makes you look good,” he said.
Effective patient care involves other team members, too, Andrews said.
“I’ve associated myself with some high-level athletic trainers and physical therapists. Kevin Wilk is one of our sports physical therapists at St. Vincent’s. He’s one of the best in the world. Patients will come to me to get to work with Kevin,” he said.
Andrews said rehabilitation for an athlete or any patient can be more important than the surgery.
“Athletic trainers and physical therapists work with patients for hours, day after day after day, and I just do the operating,” he said.
Two other key members of Andrews’ team are orthopaedic surgeons Dr. Jeffrey Dugas and Dr. Lyle Cain, who work with him at Andrews Sports Medicine.
“I handpicked them about 10 or 12 years ago to carry on my legacy. They’ve been instrumental in carrying on the quality of care. We’ve been fortunate to be able to keep them in Birmingham,” Andrews said.
Dugas traveled to Seattle when Andrews was presented with the Mr. Sports Medicine award.
“I wouldn’t have missed it,” Dugas said. “He’s been like a father to Lyle and me. He’s been part of my life for 15 years.”
Dugas said he knew Andrews by reputation before he met the Birmingham-based surgeon.
“I did my residency at one of the biggest hospitals in New York. It was a big sports medicine hospital, so of course Dr. Andrews’ name was mentioned in the same circles as those of other top people in the field. But I never met him until he interviewed me,” he said.
Dugas said he was struck immediately by Andrews’ demeanor.
“He’s pleasant—always a gentleman. I grew up in North Carolina and always wanted to come back to the South, and that kind of thing is important to me,” he said.
Dugas said one of Andrews’ greatest strengths is his skill in decision-making.
“There are a lot of people with great hands, with technical gifts. But that doesn’t make you a great surgeon. What separates him is his ability to make decisions. He has the diagnostic skills, the ability to listen in order to provide the best results for the patients,” Dugas said.
Although Andrews’ professional schedule is full, he said he finds time to step away from his busy professional life.
“I like quail hunting so I can get outdoors. I try to improve my golf game, but I’m not very good,” he said, laughing.
Yacht racing has long been one of Andrews’ passions. His 50-foot racing sloop, Abracadabra III, won the 1990 International 50-foot Yacht Association World Cup and was named the best offshore racing sloop in the last 100 years by Sail magazine.
Andrews is senior consultant for the NFL’s Washington Redskins and orthopaedic medical director for Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
He is medical director for Auburn University Intercollegiate Athletics and its team orthopaedic surgeon, senior orthopaedic consultant at the University of Alabama and orthopaedic consultant for Troy University, the University of West Alabama, Tuskegee University and Samford University.
“This time of year, covering college and professional football is our big social activity,” he said. “I take my wife, kids and grandkids. During the season, I spend seven days a week watching or covering games.”
He and his wife, Jenelle, have six children.
“The Washington Redskins are my favorite NFL team since I spend Sundays with them, but I like the (New Orleans) Saints, too,” he said. “When I watch a game, I can usually pick out a player on either side that I’ve operated on. That’s the joy of sports medicine.”