Dr. Bertram “Bert” Zairns has seen it all when it comes to sports-related injuries suffered by high performance athletes. As team doctor to the New England Patriots for 25 years, 32 years for the Bruins and 14 years healing the wounds of the Revolution soccer team, Zairns has been there, done that.
On November 3, the doctor shared some of his decades of experiences when he spoke at the Mattapoisett Public Library before a full house.
Zairns’ own professional history and expertise in understanding how the human body reacts to injury and how best to heal it for its return to high-level physical activity places him in a very special category. Add to the list of teams he has healed: the 1986 U.S. Olympic Team at the Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo. Yes, Zairns has seen it all.
Far from being retired, Zairns is currently the Augustus Thorndike Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School and the Emeritus Chief of Sports Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
According to Zairns, football players have gotten bigger than when he first entered a football stadium. He said more than 400 NFL players weight 300 pounds or more while standing at six feet, five inches. From the beginning of the game until the early 1970,’s, said Zairns, football players were roughly all the same size. Today, teams are comprised of players who execute specific plays and or functions. While some players are simply big, many today are huge.
Of the many things Zairns has learned as a team physician, the relationship between Zairns and his patients was three-fold.
“It’s not a typical doctor-patient relationship,” he said. “It’s a team relationship: a three-way thing.”
Zairns said complete honesty was paramount to providing the care players required. He never lost sight that players were expected to play even when in pain, but Zairns talked about the necessity of having to do the right thing: if a player needed to come out of a game, Zairns made that happen.
The media, in Zairns’ estimation, often got details of a player’s injury wrong – sometimes on purpose, he claimed.
“Don’t talk to the media,” he said, was one of his take-aways. “It’s impossible to keep a secret.”
That he understood. He recalled one player’s injury, a secret they wanted to keep hidden from the public.
“Everyone on my team kept quiet,” he said. However, the players’ “loose lips” to a taxi driver upon leaving the hospital found its way to the newsroom in short order.
On hand to add his voice to the presentation was former Patriots’ safety Tim Fox, whose ankle Zairns had repaired after an unsuccessful repair by another physician in California. He explained that players today are not trained the same way they were during his years in the game (1976-1986).
“No one hits full force during practice anymore,” said Fox.
Fox believes this is resulting in more injuries today. Furthermore, he said, many injuries sustained during the early years were simply overlooked and considered part of the game.
“Back then, no one understand head injuries,” said Zairns.
Once during a game, Fox was knocked unconscious twice before he was taken out of the game. When he was finally removed, it wasn’t over concern for head injuries, but because the injuries were delaying the game.
Zairns was asked how he would inform a player that their career was over.
“They usually know; it’s not a surprise,” said Zairns. Fox added, “You always think you can recover,” but age and injuries do catch up with the player eventually. Fox played until he was 35.
Zairns offered some other non-injury related football insight as well, giving glimpses of his sense of humor. For instance, in telling the story of William “Lone Star” Dietz, a player and coach for the Washington Redskins, he led up to the punchline that Dietz had passed himself off as an American Indian.
“The problem was he was German!” Zairns said.
Dietz was jailed for falsifying his identity. The controversy as to whether or not the team’s name was forged to honor a fake Indian continues today as does the controversy surrounding the very use of the name “Redskins.”
Fast-forward, Zairns said that in 1970, the American Football League and the National Football League merged. This brought the Boston franchise into the crosshairs of corruption at Boston City Hall. Zairns described how the Patriots’ first owner, William “Billy” Sullivan, sought to secure a home field, a stadium for his new team. During that process, government officials at Boston City Hall wanted payoffs before permits would be released for the construction of a stadium within Boston’s city limits. Sullivan went to Foxboro instead.
But the new stadium had its problems, Zairns shared, with toilets overflowing and parking lots taking hours to clear. Soaring debt plagued Sullivan’s stadium, at one point reaching $80 million. In 1988, Sullivan declared bankruptcy. He said that Donald Trump tried to buy the team, but Victor Kiam of Remington Products ultimately bought it instead. Robert Kraft bought the stadium’s 10-year lease for $24 million. In 1994, Kraft bought the New England Patriots for $172 million, an investment now worth whopping $4.1 billion.
Kairns’ first-hand knowledge of coaching styles was also a source of humor and interest as he contrasted the bullying temperament of Bill Parcells against the measured and mentoring style of Bill Belichick. Of Belichick, he said the coach is able to take “the bottom of his roster” and make them peak performers. He said that Belichick’s program centers on discipline and training.
“If a player is willing, Belichick will work with him,” said Zairns. “He doesn’t holler at them, he trains them.” He said if a player’s mistakes can’t be corrected, “Then he’d get rid of them.”
Zairns offered some fun facts, such as when a streaker ran across the field and was tackled by a player, and the outrageous cost of having the Jackson Five play a halftime show. Then there was Janet Jackson’s infamous Superbowl halftime wardrobe malfunction.
The last question Zairns fielded was one that many in attendance wanted to ask: “What keeps the goat going?” Zairns responded, “He takes few hits. He’s mentally more prepared.” But, he added, “He is one play away from the end of his career.”
Zairns returns to the Mattapoisett Public Library on December 28 at 2:00 pm to speak again on his favorite topic and to share more insight into one of America’s favorite pastimes, football.
By Marilou Newell