As Matt Hasselbeck headed to the sideline, the first person to greet the Seahawks quarterback was Stan Herring.
Hasselbeck, who had missed the previous game because of a concussion, was injured while running a sneak in the team’s Week 11 game against the Saints in New Orleans. Herring, the team doctor who specializes in head and spinal injuries, feared the worst.
“The first thing Matt said was, ‘Where’s Ed?’ ” Herring recalled recently. “I’ve never been more relieved.”
That’s because Ed is Khalfayan, an orthopedist who deals with joint injuries. And Hasselbeck had a cracked bone in his left wrist.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was not happy that Matt was hurt,” Herring said. “I’m never happy that any player is hurt. But I was happy that it was not his head; not his brain.”
Welcome to the world of a team physician in the National Football League.
Herring is one of four doctors who work in concert with head trainer Sam Ramsden and his staff to get injured players back on the field as soon as possible without risking further damage. It’s a potentially slippery slope, but one that Herring, Khalfayan, Jonathan Drezner and Mike McAdam traverse with a surefooted approach.
“It’s a fine line, and a tough line,” Drezner said. “That’s why working with a group like our athletic training staff – that are so good at what they do, really at the top of their class – that’s one of the main differences.
“The communication between physician and athletic training staff, and the way that’s carried into daily treatments and supervision of the athletes, that is so much of what gets them back faster.”
Hasselbeck has become well acquainted with the medical staff in recent seasons, when his ailments have ranged from a herniated disc in his back, to cracked ribs, to the concussion, to the cracked bone in his wrist.
“Around the league, sometimes there’s not a lot of trust between the team doctors and the players, because the players feel like, ‘Hey, can I trust this guy? Or is he looking at me like a piece of meat? Does he really have my best interests at heart?’ ” Hasselbeck said.
“It’s totally different here. There’s a great working relationship with our doctors and players, our doctors and coaches. These guys are very forward thinking, they’re very cutting edge.”
The relationship is so good that Hasselbeck also offered, “I joke with them. I say, ‘Hey, you guys have a high tolerance for our pain.’
“But they get it. On game day, or when something goes down, they very much are like trauma doctors. They’ve got to be cool under pressure. They’ve got to make quick decisions. And also understand how football works, because the healing time for injuries has to happen way faster than in normal life.”
That’s where Ramsden comes into play with his staff – Donald Rich, David Strickland and David Anderson. They work countless hours in a state-of-the-art corner of Virginia Mason Athletic Center to help get the players back to work.
“We work very, very closely with Sam and his staff,” McAdam said. “I think that’s where the success that we have comes from – really making sure that everybody is on the same page in terms of figuring out what the injury is, how to best treat it, how to best rehab it and how to get the player safely back on the field with the best outcome.”
Herring, Khalfayan, Drezner and McAdam do have day jobs. Herring works with the Puget Sound Sports and Spine Physicians at Harborview Spine Center. Khalfayan and McAdam are with the Orthopedic Physicians Association. Drezner is with the Department of Family Medicine at Hall Health Sports Medicine Clinic.
So deciding to also deal with injured athletes at this level is a collective labor of love.
“The hours are bad. It is stressful. And it destroys your practice,” Herring said – and yes, he was smiling. “But the challenge to provide appropriate care at this level is significant. You have an opportunity to advocate to athletes – in a competitive situation, where there are many factors that will determine their performance or their career.
“You see people performing at the highest physical level possible. You see the best access to training, diagnostics, treatment and rehab. You try to package that, keeping the covenant of your relationship with the player paramount while allowing them to perform.
“It’s a pretty good ride. It’s the only reason we do it.”
Each makes the trek from their respective Seattle offices to VMAC several times a week, and two of them accompany the team on its road trips.
Treating their oversized patients at VMAC is not that much different than dealing with their regular clientele. To a point.
“I sort of treat every patient the same,” Drezner said. “But when you get down to return-to-play issues, the clock is ticking a little faster. So that’s the challenge of sports medicine – if you let all things rest, a lot of it gets better. But when you‘re in-season, you really are trying to get people healthy as quickly as possible.”
But, at the same time, it is definitely different.
“Helping a professional football player in this capacity is just like writing about one, it’s much more valuable if you know what’s going on all the time,” Herring said. “To come here one day a week is different than being here every day. If you know the players – who has more needs than others, who doesn’t need as much – you’re more effective and it helps you treat them and get them back on the field faster.
“You have to know the players, and they have to know you, as well.”
The busiest day of the week in the VMAC training room? That’s easy. It’s Monday, and the morning after most games. That’s when Khalfayan, Drezner and McAdam all are on hand.
“Any Monday morning, when we’re here for three or four hours, we’ll see anywhere from 10 to 20 players,” said McAdam, who estimates he puts in 10 to 20-plus hours a week with the Seahawks, depending on the demands of the week and the number of injured players.
“We’ve just got to check everybody out thoroughly and get a good plan together for the rest of the week to get them better.”
And that is the point to everything the doctors and trainers do: Getting the player back on the field ASAP.
“I’m lucky enough to do the thing I really love, being involved with the Seahawks,” Khalfayan said. “And it’s really gratifying to see that what you do helps the player compete at a high level once again – whether it’s rehabbing an injury or operating on it.”
Each doctor reached his present situation from a different avenue.
Herring started as a team physician for the San Francisco 49ers in the mid-1980s and then switched to the Seahawks after moving to Seattle.
“I had known the Seahawks doctors because they played the 49ers,” Herring said. “So when I came up here, they said, ‘Hey, you’re the spine guy.’ Or, ‘You’re the headache guy. Can you see this player?’ So it wasn’t long before I started the relationship and then within a couple of years I was back on the sideline.”
Khalfayan’s plan was to become involved in pediatrics – young kids, not oversized ones.
“It’s a strange story,” he said. “All along in medical school I was thinking I wanted to do primary care medicine, family practice or pediatrics. Later on, I was thinking, ‘I like pediatrics. I like helping kids.’
“It wasn’t until my last rotation in medical school that I did orthopedics, and I had fun. It was actually something enjoyable, rather than what I considered work. That convinced me, right there.”
Drezner also started in family medicine and then did a fellowship in sports medicine. That led to him being a team physician at the University of Pennsylvania and now at the University of Washington, which paved the way for his involvement with the Seahawks.
“This is an opportunity to practice sports medicine at its highest level,” he said. “It’s a challenging group in a sport that certainly has its injuries, and its challenges to keep players safe and healthy to get back on the field to do the thing that they’re good at and that they love. It’s exciting.
“A lot of my career is in academics, and research and influencing policy and safety issues for athletes. So working with the Seahawks really only enhances that in terms of the opportunity and the platform that I have to reach out to the community.”
An injury that ended McAdam’s competitive-sports career in high school served as his springboard.
“I had a neck injury my junior year in high school,” he said. “I’d already become interested in sports medicine and had been working with an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist for about a year. That really blossomed into kind of a growing love of taking care of athletes, since I couldn’t continue my career.
“The more I became involved in it, the more appealing it became.”
Leave it to Herring to provide the bottom-line assessment of what it’s all about.
“The thing that’s really good about being a team physician is,” he said, “you’re essential and unimportant – all at the same time.”