Constable: Ex-football lineman now doctor on pandemic front line
By Burt Constable
As the new chairman of the department of medicine for NorthShore University HealthSystem, Dr. John P. Erwin III is on the front line in the frustrating fight against COVID-19, as schools and professionals make decisions about whether it is safe to play football. Erwin also knows what it is like to be on the front line trying to block a 300-pound defensive tackle.
"When I went to college, I wanted to be a doctor or a Dallas Cowboy," says Erwin, 54, who was a muscular offensive guard during his playing days at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. He got a free T-shirt and shorts, but no job offer, when he participated in an open tryout for the Dallas Cowboys. Then he earned his medical degree from Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, before completing his residency training and a cardiology fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Erwin's new NorthShore University HealthSystem team includes Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview, Evanston Hospital, Highland Park Hospital, Skokie Hospital and Swedish Hospital on Chicago's North Side.
"My wife is quick to point out that she did not marry a doctor. She married a football player," says Erwin, whose dog is named Witten, after Jason Witten, a perennial All-Pro tight end during his career with the Cowboys.
Erwin understands the thought process that led to the Big 10, Mid-American Conference and some other major college football programs postponing their football seasons. But he also understands the reasoning of officials, such as those with the powerhouse Southeastern Conference and the NFL, who have committed to playing a modified season after implementing new regulations designed to limit spread of the coronavirus.
"I thought I learned so much on the field," Erwin says, adding football is a major part of who he is today. If he were a college or pro player today, "I'd absolutely play," he says.
But he also supports the decision of the only medical doctor to play in the NFL, offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif of the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs, to opt out of the 2020 seasons due to his concerns about COVID-19.
"There are very intelligent people on both sides of the issues. It's pretty harrowing because we're still trying to learn about this stuff," Erwin says.
"My younger brother is a nurse practitioner, and he was really sick," Erwin says, explaining that his brother picked up the virus at work before all the protocols were in place and passed it on to their parents, John Jr. and Martha, who didn't get as sick. All are fully recovered now and have the antibodies, Erwin says.
High schools, colleges and professional sports leagues are all looking for ways to play games and stay safe. A recent Sports Illustrated poll of 146 doctors familiar with COVID-19 found about 90% said they would play in the NBA or NHL, which have established arena "bubbles," where players can be isolated for their games without fans and without having to travel. But 62% of doctors said they would not play in the NFL, which plans to allow some limited crowds and lets players travel.
Erwin says players and organizations at all levels need to figure out their risk-tolerance with shared decision-making. If colleges want to have a football season, they need to come up with strict protocols, and have an immediate plan of action if things don't go as planned.
"I think there's a happy medium. No doubt there's a concern there, but the risk for healthy college-age kids is relatively low," he says, noting major programs have the resources to test and monitor their players. "I don't think the risk outweighs the good things of having a season. I worry about the kids in their home environment. Kids not playing football are more likely to be at parties."
High schools pose another issue. "Do high schools have the resources if a kid gets COVID?" Erwin wonders.
Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez had COVID-19 this year and then developed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, ending his season. Some football players with the virus also have developed myocarditis.
"It's a concern. But they can return to normal over time," says Erwin, who has treated athletes and others with that ailment, which also can be caused by lesser viruses. "Flu season kicks off a lot more heart disease, but COVID puts that on steroids."
Safety issues always have been a part of football.
"My dad didn't let me play seventh-grade football. He thought I was too young," Erwin says. His doctor dad was the team physician.
As a member of the Hillsboro High School Eagles football team in Texas, Erwin played on the line for both offense and defense, and was recruited by colleges as a defensive lineman before becoming an offensive guard.
During his freshman year at Stephen F. Austin State University, a serious injury ended his season. "I broke both ankles on one play," Erwin says. "I was in a wheelchair for the first two months of college."
He also played during the era when doctors were concerned about HIV, and learning as they went along.
"They didn't stop plays for people who were bleeding. You just bled all over each other," Erwin remembers.
While his heart remains with his Cowboys, where he still has a season ticket he doesn't know when or if he'll be able to use, Erwin has a soft spot for the Bears.
"I took care of the Bears' one and only good quarterback," says Erwin, who had Sid Luckman as a patient long after the Bears' legend had retired. During his college years, Erwin also played racquetball with Bear's Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, who went to nearby Baylor University.
At 6-foot-2, Erwin made the effort to get up to 300 pounds in college. After college, he ballooned up to 330 pounds, and even wrote a blog titled "Confessions of a Fat Cardiologist." Now, after gastric sleeve surgery and an improved lifestyle, Erwin weighs about 200 pounds, remains active with his blog and on Twitter, and advises coaches and athletic directors when it comes to football and COVID-19.
"We're still learning about this disease. I could change my mind before the first kickoff occurs," Erwin says. "We're seeing what science really is. Science is not the truth. It's the search for the truth. We're still very deeply in the search right now."