Taking Care of the Badgers: UW Health Doctors Work With Football Team
MADISON - They're on the sidelines for every University of Wisconsin football game. And they'd prefer to stay there.
"The ideal situation is that you can watch the whole game from the sideline and just talk to each other and congratulate the players on a good play," said Geoff Baer, who joins fellow UW Health doctor John Wilson in serving as the Badgers' team doctors.
But in a sport built around violent collisions, that's not realistic.
Instead, Baer or Wilson are at the ready, watching for any injuries suffered by UW players. Even if an injury appears to be minor, they’ll check in with the player - usually after a UW Health Sports Medicine athletic trainer gets the first look at the situation.
"If it's an injury, then we're assessing them on the sideline," Baer said.
While they have different responsibilities - Baer handles orthopedic (musculoskeletal) injuries, while Wilson treats players for other medical issues, including concussions and illness - they share similar feelings about their roles with the Rose Bowl-bound Badgers.
"I'm living the dream," Wilson said. "I think it's any kid's dream to grow up and play for the Badgers. I wasn't able to play for the Badgers, but to be able to take care of them as the team doctor is really kind of the dream job for me."
"It's really the dream job," Baer echoed. "There's nothing better than working with the players, coaches - it's great. ... Once I came into orthopedics and decided that sports medicine is what I wanted to do, I knew being a team physician is the area I wanted to be in."
The Path to the 'Pinnacle'
Baer and Wilson both started working with the football team in 2008 - it was a "transition year" for Wilson, who worked alongside longtime UW team doctor Greg Landry that season.
Coincidentally, it was Landry who helped start Wilson on the path to his current role.
"When I was a first-year medical student, they had a program set up called 'Patient, Doctor and Society,' where they paired first-year medical students with a physician at UW to kind of introduce them to the practice of medicine," said Wilson, a Green Bay native. "Just by pure coincidence, I was paired with Greg Landry.
"It was 1999, and I remember meeting him and he was wearing his Rose Bowl ring. We were going around in small groups and he had asked us what we might like to do, after he had told us what he did, and I said, 'You know, I think what you do sounds pretty neat.' "
Being a team doctor means putting in a lot of hours, and not just during the season every fall.
"There really isn't much of an off-season anymore," Wilson said. "They go from the regular season to a brief off-season right after the bowl game right into spring practices. Then after spring practices they get about a week off and then they're here for summer conditioning and voluntary workouts. They really don't get much time off. And because injuries and things like that happen year-round, Dr. Baer and I work with them all year."
Wilson, who also is the team doctor for the Badgers wrestling team, holds two half-day clinics per week during the school year that are open to all UW athletes. He also practices family medicine at UW Health's Verona Clinic and sees patients at the Sports Medicine Clinic.
Baer, meanwhile, treats patients at the Sports Medicine Clinic and also serves as the team doctor for the UW men's and women's hockey teams, both soccer teams and the spirit squad.
But football - and especially the Badgers - holds a special spot for the Cincinnati native. His uncle, Richard Baer, was a letterwinner for UW in 1960 and '61.
"When the opportunity to take care of football came up, that was the best opportunity that could be," Baer said. "That's sort of the pinnacle."
Treatment and Trust
Both doctors attend as many practices as possible and travel with the team to all games, home and away, which is important on two levels.
First, they can quickly react - along with the trainers, under the direction of head athletic trainer Gary Johnson - if any serious injuries occur.
But just as important is forging relationships with the players. After all, players coming into the program have no connection to Baer or Wilson, so building trust is vital.
"At some point for some reason, I think I've had contact with every player," Wilson said. "I don't know if they know my name, they just call me 'Doc.' That's fine with me. Even if it's for minor stuff, I think it's good that we have that close relationship where they feel like they can approach me."
"I think that comes with as much time as we spend with them," Baer added. "During fall camp, I'm there almost every night, and during the season, outside of game days, we're usually there three to four days a week, so that's a lot of time around them. ... By the time the guys become seniors, you've known them for three or four years, so you've developed that relationship with them and they know you well."
"You get kids (suffering) pretty significant injuries, and you may not have talked to them a lot, but they're there because they're trusting that you're able to do the right thing for them."
Baer said the doctors frequently will get in touch with players' doctors back home to check on previous medical history to ensure the best care.
Another key is the relationship between the doctors, trainers and coaching staff.
"We have a pretty good relationship with them," Wilson said of UW head coach Bret Bielema and his assistants. "They understand what we're trying to do and keep the athletes healthy, get them back playing as soon as it's safe and reasonable to do so. The coaches obviously have the interest of the whole team at stake, whereas we're focusing on the best interest of the athlete. We want to get them back as soon as we can, but in a safe fashion, too."
An open line of communication helps the process.
"There's certainly issues with student-athletes that are confidential, just like any physician-patient relationship. But then the coaches also have a need to know who they're going to have being able to play for them on any given week," Wilson said.
"So there's an almost daily injury-reporting meeting with (Johnson), so the coaches are kept abreast of the injury developments, rehab and recovery for both orthopedic as well as concussion-type injuries that affect playability."
And unlike some fictional accounts of football games on television shows or in movies, UW coaches don't fight with doctors or trainers over players' recovery.
"Our job is to make sure these kids are safe and they're ready to go and they're not putting themselves at more risk," Baer said. "I think the coaches have a lot of respect for what we do.
"I haven't had a single time during my time here of (a coach asking) 'Why don't you have that player back playing?' It's always (them asking) 'When do you think they're going to be able to be back?' If you make the medical decision that a player's not ready to play, it's respected."
Geared Up For Game Day
On game day, Baer and Wilson take up their positions on the UW sideline.
They check in with players coming back from an injury or those who have been cleared to play with minor injuries and keep an eye on them during the game. And they watch for any injuries, big or small.
"We'll go out on the field if it's something that looks fairly major," Baer said. "If it's something that looks more minor, the trainers are the first ones out there and they're great at assessing the injury. Now, if they're not getting someone off the field real quickly, I'm going to go out there and just see what's happening.
"If it's somebody that they walk off, we'll at least go over and talk, or you just see a player come off the field limping, you'll just go over and talk to them, see what's happening. Sometimes it's just minor."
And, of course, they get to watch some of the game.
"You'd think you'd be able to see a lot, but because of the guys being so big, we don't get to see everything as well as you probably do in the stands," Wilson points out.
Baer has a little different vantage point. "I like to joke that I hang around with the linemen a lot because I'm about the same size as them," he said.
All kidding aside, the game is an exciting time for the doctors, too.
"Probably the highlight of my job is game day," Wilson said. "Seeing these guys compete and perform, I definitely feel pretty fortunate to be a part of that and right there on the field with the team."
One highlight for Baer during games at Camp Randall is a quick visit from his young children, ages 5, 3 and 1. For road games, his wife sends him a picture of the kids dressed in Badger pajamas the night before, then in game gear - his sons in UW jerseys and his daughter in her cheerleader outfit - before the game.
Coming Up Roses
Baer and Wilson have had an up-close view of an incredible season for the Badgers (11-1).
They beat No. 1 Ohio State 31-18 on Oct. 16 at Camp Randall, the first time UW has beaten the nation's top-ranked team since 1981, and posted a pulsating 31-30 win at No. 12 Iowa the next week. They scored 70 or more points three times, the only times the team has reached that total in the program's modern era.
But perhaps the biggest highlight for Baer and Wilson likely will come Jan. 1, when they'll roam the sidelines at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., as the Badgers play Texas Christian.
"I'm excited," said Baer, who like Wilson will have plenty of family members at the game. "You grow up in Big Ten country and the Rose Bowl is everything. So to be able to go to the Rose Bowl is a thrill."
Date Published: 12/29/2010