Giants fans watching their team grunt through the playoffs have found themselves discussing medical minutiae with the fervor of first-year residents: Tiki Barber’s broken left arm; the necessity of riding exercycles on the sidelines in wintry weather. But while the rest of us are mere armchair analysts, Dr. Russell Warren, surgeon in chief at the Hospital for Special Surgery, gets a closer view – from the bench, where he spends any given Sunday piecing the wounded warriors back together, often making the decisions that can send a team to the showers or the Super Bowl.
By 3:31 p.m. on January 10, after making rounds and seeing patients, Warren, who has reconstructed cornerback Jason Sehorn’s ACL and former Giant Lawrence Taylor’s Achilles tendon, was heading for Giants Stadium, as he’s done every week since 1984, to help the team prep for the Vikings. Warren’s job is to temper the coach’s will to play with the doctor’s will to protect. (Bill Parcells, who coached the Giants before the Jets, was “hard as nails,” recalls Warren. “He wanted everyone to play with everything.”) After he sees “the kids,” he’ll meet with coach Jim Fassel to discuss their status. “Tiki’s arm, Amani’s ankle,” he sighs. “It’s always an issue. What they can play with, what they can’t play with. You’ve got to treat the players like private patients. Is there harm in continuing to play or not? A bruised pelvis is different than a bad ankle sprain you can’t run on.”
Warren’s history with the team goes way back. He was a cornerback and running back for Columbia (“Back then, you played both sides,” he notes) before being drafted in 1962 by the Jets, then called the Titans. He opted to sign with the Giants, but got cut in summer camp. So he headed to medical school and played in the now-defunct Atlantic Coast League for the Providence Steamrollers. “They paid a few hundred dollars a game,” he recalls. “When the checks didn’t bounce.”
His work with the pros has benefits for his lay patients: He’s able to observe the athletes’ injuries at inception and see their development every week, almost as if they’re research projects. “But you end up as more than their orthopedist,” he says in the stadium parking lot. “There’s a depressing side to being injured. You’re not relating to your friends, you’re not contributing. There’s nothing worse than athletes who can’t play, especially when there’s a big game coming up.”
“Hi, Doc!” calls defensive end Michael Strahan as Warren bursts through the doors to the exam room. The assembled crowd shouts his name and clamors for a place in line. “They have to see me,” he explains, “or they get fined $5,000.” Offensive tackle Lomas Brown is the first to make it in. “Any pain, numbness?” asks Warren, prodding his lower back. “Nope.” Next, the massive offensive tackle Luke Petitgout discusses his toes. Amani Toomer, who didn’t practice that afternoon, offers his sprained left ankle for inspection. Tiki Barber takes a seat on the edge of the exam table as a swarm of specialists arrive to show Warren the custom-made titanium cast they’ve fashioned. “It’s like airplane wings,” says Warren, turning to check Barber’s X-rays on the light box. “That’s a lot of bone to lay down this quick,” he says, impressed.
Warren heads up to the second floor for a closed-door meeting with Fassel and team trainer Ronnie Barnes, where they review the injury report and risky remedies like sending Sehorn – who tore that ACL the last time they tried this – to return punts instead of Barber and Toomer. “It’s a fine line,” says the doctor when he emerges. “A lot can be done in three days – swelling can go down – but you’re always trying to protect the players.”