HOUSTON – Ask Spero Karas about his home state, and he talks about Bobby Knight.
Bobby. That’s what they called him back then. Karas is old enough to remember. He grew up in Anderson in the late 1970s and early ’80s, back when the city was a booming basketball haven, stocked with generations of talent like Ray Tolbert and Bobby Wilkerson, and dozens upon dozens more. Knight was there all the time.
Karas’ mom and dad owned the venerable Red Brick Inn, and The General would swing by on recruiting trips. Young Spero would watch in awe as the larger-than-life Indiana coach strode through the doors, snared a table and ordered the chicken dinner. He loved those chicken dinners.
Anderson is where it started for Karas, a passion for sports he hasn’t been able to quit four decades later. The family moved from Madison Heights to Pendleton when he was 12, and he became a three-sport star at Pendleton Heights. He still remembers his football and wrestling coach’s names — “Say hi to John Broughton and Jeff Webster for me!” he said. He went on to become a varsity wrestler at Notre Dame.
And in the years since he hasn’t been able to avoid the fields, the arenas or the stadiums. His playing days expired so he shifted to the sideline, not to coach or construct a roster but to make sure the next generation of world-class athletes would be taken care of.
Karas, 50, went into sports medicine. And on Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons’ head physician will stand on the sidelines in Super Bowl LI.
“Indiana planted the seed,” Karas said this week from Houston. “More than anything, it gave me the impetus to pursue a career in sports and medicine.”
Karas was a heck of an athlete back in the day, and he’s still proud of it. Super Bowl? Forget the Super Bowl for a second. In 1985, Don Hein, then an anchor for WTHR-13, honored Karas with the Something Extra award for play on the field and work in the classroom. That was big for Karas — and it still is. He won 11 varsity letters at Pendleton Heights: football in the fall, wrestling in the winter, track in the spring. He was a two-time academic all-state selection. Your prototypical high school jock.
Then he bucked the stereotype and went off and got his degree from Notre Dame.
After that, he carved out a career close to the games he fell in love with as a child.
“I decided in medical school that this was going to be my thing,” Karas said. “It’s one of the gems. Being able to take care of professional sports teams, it’s kind of what guys do. I work with the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Georgia Tech. How cool is that?”
It didn’t happen overnight. Nothing does in the medical field.
Karas spent a decade in classrooms and residencies, first at the Indiana University Medical School, then during his residency at Duke — he must have a thing for basketball — before landing the gig that’d propel the rest of his career. In 2000, he completed a Knee, Shoulder and Sports Medicine Fellowship at the renown Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, CO
While there, he spent a season with the Denver Broncos. It was his first taste of the NFL.
He worked in the private sector for a decade, and began building up his own practice in Atlanta after moving there in 2005. In 2010, the Falcons decided to switch team doctors. They gave Karas a call. He interviewed and won the job.
Suddenly, he was the youngest head physician in the NFL.
The question he gets more than any other, Karas notes, is this: How do you find the time?
He and wife, Johanna, have three kids, ages 4, 6 and 8. He coaches his daughter in softball and his son in football. He’s the director of the Emory Orthopaedic Sports Medicine Fellowship Program, where he teaches Monday through Friday. He consults with the athletes at Georgia Tech, Emory, Oglethorpe University, Georgia Perimeter College and Lakeside High School. He’s worked previously with MLB’s Braves and the NBA’s Hawks.
“You want to be at all your daughter’s basketball games and all the volleyball games,” Karas said. “But sometimes you can’t. Those are the things that suffer the most.”
Falcons duties requite a trip to the team facility in Flowery Branch, Ga., twice a week. On Monday, he surveys the damage — i.e. players’ injuries — and sets their practice schedules for the week. On Thursdays, he gauges the progress and weighs their potential of playing Sunday. On Saturdays of road games, he travels. On Sundays, he works.
He’s amidst the longest football season of his career, and he’s not ready to pinch himself just yet. The kid from Anderson who used to stare in awe when Bobby Knight swung by for dinner will get a front-row seat for the biggest football game on the planet.
“As a doctor you can’t take a lot of credit,” Karas said. “But we do take a lot of pride in keeping the guys healthy, keeping them safe.
“All I know is this: It’s been a great year. And we’ve got one more. Just one more.”
By Zak Keefer, Indianapolis Star, February 1, 2017