The History of the NFLPS

In January 1966 (a year before Super Bowl I), a number of members of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons met at the Palmer House in Chicago. The purpose of their informal meeting was to discuss challenges in professional football that these team physicians were facing and to develop better communications among the teams. Drs. Fred Reynolds (St. Louis Cardinals), Clint Compere, Edmond McDonald (Baltimore Colts), Joseph Godfrey (Buffalo Bills) and James Nicholas (New York Jets) were at the first meeting.

The Academy’s Sports Medicine Committee, at that time chaired by sports medicine pioneer Dr. Jack Hughston, established a liaison with this group. In February 1967, the National Academy of Science sponsored the first workshop on professional football injuries.

Dr. James Nicholas was made the first President of the AFL-NFL Professional Football Trainers and Physicians in 1967. Dr. Fred Reynolds, who was president of the Academy, was made the second president in 1968, followed by Dr. Joseph Godfrey in 1969, and Dr. Edmond McDonald in 1970. Additional team physicians who joined at that time were Drs. Jim Funk (Atlanta Falcons), Kenneth Saer (New Orleans Saints), and Herbert Virgin (Miami Dolphins).

In those days, the main problems the group faced included difficulties with transferring information from club to club, particularly the medical records of traded players. They decided that the best way to make sure that the best medical treatment was always available to the players was to form an institution for doctors to communicate and work together.

In the formation of the Professional Football Physicians Association, two Academy presidents, Drs. Reynolds and Compere, and an Academy vice-president, Dr. Godfrey, were directly involved in the care of players and with setting up the Sports Medicine Society and the Professional Football Physicians Association in 1972. It was through the efforts of these men, as well as those of Dr. John Hinchey, another Academy president, that the Committee on Sports Medicine got its start.

In 1970, the New York Jets instituted a procedure to bring NFL draft choices to their club facilities for physical examination during the winter, starting with 40 players. This quickly caught on with other teams in the league and ultimately led to the combined physicals, better known as the NFL Combine, of the last decade. The exams are held each year in Indianapolis, with team physicians examining about 325 players in preparation for the NFL Draft.

The Association flourished as other teams were added, and currently the National Football League Physicians Society (NFLPS) has over 160 members, representing 32 teams. Many of the 164 members are leaders in the field of sports medicine, academically affiliated, contributors to the literature regarding injuries in athletics, and involved in the education of fellows and residents in the field of sports medicine.

During Combine week, the NFLPS also holds its Annual Business and Scientific meeting where team doctors meet to share and present information on injuries and medical issues common to professional football players. At this annual meeting, the NFLPS addresses the key issues common to the membership: protecting players’ health and safety, sharing best practices, and establishing open dialogue on key issues with the NFL team owners and league office.

Today, the NFLPS is focused on leveraging new technologies and using rules changes a to respond to on-field injuries smarter and faster. They include:

  • An ‘Eye in the Sky’ who is a certified athletic trainer positioned in a box who scans the field and television replays to help identify players with a potential injury who may require attention. Starting in 2015, the Eye in the Sky is authorized to call a ‘Medical Time Out’ if needed to provide a player with immediate medical attention.
  • Team medical staff including the Unaffiliated Neuro-trauma Consultant (UNC) who also has access to sideline video monitors, which allow them to watch video of any play. As a result, medical staff can review the mechanism of an injury to better understand what happened and design the best care for the player.
  • Electronic tablets — Since 2013, team doctors have been using electronic tablets with specially designed applications for the diagnosis of concussions. The X2 app, which includes a step-by-step checklist of protocols for assessing players suspected of head injury, as well as all players’ concussion diagnosis and care. The doctors have instant access to the electronic medical records.

The two essential goals of the NFLPS are simple: continue improving the care of professional football players and to prevent and treat injuries.