By Greg Johnson
Dr. James Andrews has become internationally known for his skills in orthopedic surgery as well as scientific and clinic research of knee, shoulder and elbow injuries.
He has performed thousands of surgeries to repair injuries during his career, many on top figures in the sports world. But much of his career has focused on the prevention of injuries in youth sports.“In 2000, I started noticing that my examining room was beginning to be covered up with young kids ages 13, 14, and 15,” Andrews said. “Even 10- and 11-year-olds were coming in with adult-type of sports injuries. I thought, ‘My goodness, what is happening?’ There is a real shift in the injury patterns. They had the same injuries as the college and professional athletes.”
In recognition of his contributions to student-athlete well-being and his work regarding injury prevention, Andrews will receive the NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award at the 2014 NCAA Convention in San Diego. The award is named in recognition of Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States and a member of two national-championship football teams at the University of Michigan.
The award honors an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics over the course of his or her career. It was established in 2004 by the late NCAA President Myles Brand and was first awarded to former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh. Donna Lopiano, an educator, former coach, longtime director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas and former chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation, was last year’s recipient.
Andrews has served on the NCAA’s committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sport and currently serves as medical director for intercollegiate sports at Auburn University; senior orthopaedic consultant at the University of Alabama; and orthopaedic consultant for athletics teams at Troy University, University of West Alabama, Tuskegee University and Samford University.
Earlier this year, Andrews’ book “Any Given Monday” was released to give athletes, their parents and coaches a guide on how they can better prevent sports injuries.
Andrews had the American Sports Medicine Institute, a non-profit institute he founded in Birmingham, Ala., research the issue. The findings were disturbing. From 2000-2006, the data showed that the injury rates in youth baseball rose from 5 to 7 percent. This includes injuries to throwing arms.
“We had research projects to analyze this in detail,” said Andrews, who also founded the non-profit Andrews Research and Education Institute. “The two things we found out primarily were the rush to a year-round specialization in a sport, and the second thing is what I call the professionalism of how young kids are being trained. Some of them are being trained like they are professional athletes.”
The problem: vigorous year-round training can lead to overuse injuries in youth athletes’ bodies that are vulnerable while going through growth spurts.
Andrews, who is on the Medical and Safety Advisory Committee for USA Baseball and on the Board of Little League Baseball, has since made recommendations that have led to the establishment of pitch counts in youth baseball.
In 2009-10, Andrews served as president of the American Orthopedic Society of Sports Medicine and developed the STOP program, which stands for Stop Trauma Overuse Prevention in youth sports. It is a national initiative that involves the collaborative efforts of medical doctors involved in sports, physical therapists, athletic trainers and pediatric associations.
“We all agree that sports are extremely important in our society and that they develop healthy bodies and minds,” Andrews said. “Our mission is to keep the kids out of the operating room and on the playing field.”
Andrews has had a love for sports and medicine since growing up in the northern Louisiana town of Homer. His family stayed with his grandparents because his father was overseas during World War II.
Andrews’ grandfather, James Nolan, was a smart businessman and landowner. Despite not having a formal education, Andrews’ grandfather dabbled in making ointments that could help relieve minor ailments throughout the countryside.
“He would rock me on the front porch and told me I was going to be his doctor,” Andrews said. “He planted the seed for me. As far as I remembered, that’s what I wanted to do.”
In his childhood, Andrews also became interested in pole vaulting. He cut a bamboo pole out of a tree and then tied a fishing pole between two trees to jump over. He eventually became a state champion in high school, which drew the attention of the LSU track and field coaching staff.
During his recruiting visit in 1959, Andrews was on the bench when Billy Cannon made his legendary 89-yard punt return to help the top-ranked Tigers beat third-ranked Mississippi 7-3 on Halloween night.
“That sold me on LSU,” Andrews said.
During his junior year at LSU, Andrews won the indoor and outdoor Southeastern Conference pole vault championships.
Andrews didn’t compete his senior year because he applied early and was accepted into medical school. He completed the LSU School of Medicine in 1967 and finished his orthopedic residency at Tulane in 1972. Andrews also went to the University of Lyon in Lyon, France, to study under Dr. Albert Trillat, who is known as the father of European knee surgery.
In the 1970s he began working with Dr. Jack Hughston, one of the pioneers of sports medicine, in Columbus, Ga. Andrews also began serving intercollegiate athletics programs.
Andrews has been a big reason why sports medicine has advanced through the years. He said he came along at the right time when arthroscopic surgery was developed.
“In general, that revolutionized sports medicine,” Andrews said. “It also trickled down into all the other surgical specialties used today. The advent of doing ligament surgeries on the knee, arthroscopically assisted, made it a minimally evasive procedure. It probably is the biggest improvement made in the sports world.”
Andrews’ legacy extends beyond the athletes and teams he has personally served. He has mentored more than 275 orthopaedic and sports medicine fellows and more than 55 primary care sports medicine fellows who have trained under him through the AREI and ASMI Sports Medicine Fellowship Programs.
Andrews knows he’s in the twilight years of his medical career, but he has no plans to slow down just yet.
“As long as I’m healthy and have the energy, I will keep going,” Andrews said. “There is nothing better than working in the sports medicine arena. Even when I give up surgery, I have enough things going on at the institute with this prevention program, and I can spend my time doing that to save kids from getting hurt. To me, all of this feels more like a hobby than work.”