A quarterback’s livelihood depends on his arm, and not many people know that better than Carolina Panthers head physician Pat Connor.
Connor, who has roved the sidelines at every training camp practice, preseason and regular season Panthers game for over two decades, has performed three career-defining surgeries on two franchise quarterbacks: Jake Delhomme and Cam Newton.
For Delhomme, it was Tommy John surgery in 2007. For Newton, it was a partially torn rotator cuff repair in 2017, then an arthroscopic scope, irrigation and debridement in January.
Delhomme’s career got back on track with a bang, in what Connor says now is one of his proudest moments: A fourth-quarter game-winning touchdown bomb against San Diego in Week 1 of the 2008 season. After the game, Connor said Delhomme thanked him. And the two still keep in touch.
“He said the only part of his body that doesn’t hurt now is his elbow,” Connor laughed, while speaking to The Athletic during a sitdown interview in late June at his OrthoCarolina office.
And Newton is working his way back for a second time, with the expectation that he’ll throw during training camp this week.
Connor knows how high the stakes are for Newton, just like they were for Delhomme. But his even-keeled approach to every operation, whether it’s a neighborhood dad who tore his rotator cuff throwing a ball with his son, a practice squad player or a franchise quarterback, is what has held players and coaches’ trust for so long.
Everybody’s surgery is treated with the same importance, and everybody’s surgery matters.
“Everybody has things at stake,” he said. “Very honestly, when I’m in the operating room I manage all surgeries the same.”
His goal is to help people continue their livelihoods — whatever that livelihood may be.
As Connor was growing up in Oklahoma, there were no local professional sports teams on which to find heroes like Newton or Delhomme have been to kids in Charlotte.
But the ranching and rodeo scene was enormous, and that’s where Connor found a figure he’d admire long into adulthood: John Hughes.
In 1942, at just 9 years old, Hughes was in a nasty farming accident on his father’s ranch in Bartlesville, Okla. He had to have his right arm amputated. But the disability didn’t stop Hughes from gaining success and notoriety in the community as a rancher and cowboy.
Hughes started building his own herd of cattle when he was in high school, and after graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in animal science, he founded his own cattle ranching businesses, the Hughes and Tadpole Cattle Companies.
In the 1980s, he even provided a sanctuary at Tadpole for nearly 2,000 wild horses that sought refuge from a devastating drought on their land, which at the time was the White Sands missile range in New Mexico. Hughes struck up a contract with the government that would permit him to look after the horses while adoptions were organized. And now, his family runs the horse sanctuary full-time. In 2011, they hosted 4,300 wild horses according to The Oklahoman, and their ranch still serves as a part of the Prairie National Wild Horse refuge.
Caring for thousands of spirited mustangs was no easy task. But according to Connor, Hughes was more than up to it.
“He was a guy I looked up to my whole life as like a John Wayne-type person,” said Connor. “He was very, very well-known. … Could break a wild horse with one arm, and pick up four bales of hay with one hand. He could do it all.”
But that kind of work is rough on the body. Connor said that Hughes once tore the rotator cuff of his only working arm. A rancher who spends his time roping, riding and doing farm work counts on his arms as his livelihood, too.
Hughes flew out to Connor’s practice in Charlotte for surgery.
Suddenly, Connor found himself staring down at his childhood hero on his operating table. No NFL star’s surgery has ever held that kind of pressure for him.
“That was pretty stressful,” Connor said, “because that was just me knowing him and looking up to him my whole life, but also knowing that he didn’t have another shoulder to rely on …
“At the time, I was more into the job at hand. But clearly it had a little bit more weight to it than some others.”
Hughes passed away in 2013 at 80, after battling cancer, but Connor remains close with Hughes’ son, Robert. Connor told The Athletic he had recently been out to the ranch and horse sanctuary to visit.
There, among the mustangs and the Oklahoma tallgrass, they talked about Hughes quite a bit, Connor said, his voice growing soft.
“His dad was just a real famous, wonderful guy,” he said.
This week, Connor begins his annual training camp routine. He’ll drive down to Spartanburg and conduct 90 physicals for each player on the Carolina Panthers’ roster, then he’ll roam the sidelines scrutinizing them all as they work in the South Carolina heat.
He’ll look for specifics in key players who are coming back from injuries. For Carolina, there are several: Free agent acquisition Matt Paradis, who has spent several months recovering from a broken leg but hopes to immediately become the team’s new starting center. Tackle Daryl Williams, who re-injured his knee in Week 1 last fall and had season-ending surgery. Cornerback Ross Cockrell, who suffered a nasty double-leg break last summer at training camp.
And nobody can forget about Newton, upon whose surgically-repaired shoulder it sometimes seems the hopes of the 2019 season rest.
“Everybody who has had an offseason surgery, or an end-of-the-year injury that they are rehabbing through, we’ve been on top of the whole offseason,” said Connor, who can’t specifically discuss any player’s medical status due to HIPAA laws. “I’ve seen them periodically in (my) office, I’ve seen them over at the stadium …
“Any of them, whether they had surgery or didn’t have (it), we’re looking at how they’re doing. The goal is for them to be as good as possible, as quick as possible — without setbacks.”
As other training camps unfold around the league, 31 other team physicians will begin similar schedules to Connor’s. They are an exclusive and tight-knit group, holding some of the rarest positions in sports.
But Connor’s story is just a little bit different than theirs. He’s the one who successfully operated on one of his childhood heroes.
And, in the case of Newton’s own surgeries, many other children’s hero, too.