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Life after football: Addressing physical health of former NFL players

Friday, December 29, 2023 8:57 AM

By Endeavor Health

Retired NFL players group photo

Mike Singletary (center) with retired NFL players, including Jarrett Irons and Grant Irons (far left to right).

Endeavor Health recently partnered with two elite organizations to help bring awareness to what happens when football players hang up their helmets and step off the field for good.

In October 2023, Off the Field NFL Wives Association, an organization made up of the wives and significant others of active and retired NFL players, presented Cocktails and Conversations, a discussion about pain management, transition and life after football, at the Hilton Magnificent Mile Chicago. The event was sponsored by Hall of Fame Health and Endeavor Health.

Amy Cramer, director of Hall of Fame Health, said the organization helps former players find everything from health insurance to the right doctors. Hall of Fame Health introduces those in the football community to a partnering health entity – in this case, Endeavor Health – and makes those connections.

“We’re really excited to share what Endeavor Health does and why they’re the best,” she said. “People will learn more about what they do and their specialists. Today’s topic is pain management and the transition to retirement, which can be very challenging for some former players. These are very important topics for this community. We have great providers talking about different aspects of pain management with their specialty.”

Specialists from Endeavor Health who participated in the panel discussion included: Ravi Bashyal, MD, orthopaedic surgeon; Hallie Labrador, MD, primary care sports medicine; Nicole Reams, MD, sports neurologist; Nirav Shah, MD, anesthesiologist and pain specialist; Walter Whang, MD, psychiatrist; and Julian Bailes, MD, neurosurgeon, who also moderated the program.

Physician panelist group photo

Event panelists (from left to right): Dr. Julian Bailes, Dr. Nirav Shah, Dr. Ravi Bashyal, Dr. Nicole Reams, Dr. Hallie Labrador and Dr. Walter Whang.

Former Chicago Bear legend, Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary currently sits on the board of Hall of Fame Health. He was the keynote speaker at the Cocktails and Conversations event. He’s a frequent public speaker at events such as these and talks openly about his own physical and mental health journey.

“I’m really passionate about doing what I do and being a part of Hall of Fame Health,” Singletary said. “I hope by sharing my story with players who may feel a little lost and find retirement challenging that I’m providing important perspective. This is a very close-knit community-we’re here for each other.”

MMike Singletary, keynote speaker and former Chicago Bears' player, chats with retired NFL player Ray McElroy and his wife, Michelle

Mike Singletary, keynote speaker and former Chicago Bears' player, chats with retired NFL player Ray McElroy and his wife, Michelle

Jarrett Irons was also in attendance. He played at the University of Michigan, where he was a two-time captain, as well as professionally for the Arizona Cardinals. A husband and father of two, he lives in Detroit. His brother Grant Irons, a two-time captain at Notre Dame, played professionally with the Buffalo Bills and the Oakland Raiders (now the Las Vegas Raiders).

Their father, Gerald Irons, played professionally for 10 years with the Oakland Raiders and the Cleveland Browns. “He was getting his MBA from the University of Chicago while he was still playing professionally,” Jarrett Irons said. “He even got a law degree. We’ve seen that transition for a lot of those players, what they’ve gone through. That’s why we’ve always lent our support to Hall of Fame Health. Grant and I are both executive partners for Hall of Fame and that’s why we come to a lot of these events.”

Jarrett Irons also sits on the board of the Concussion Center at the University of Michigan.

“We believe very strongly in what Hall of Fame Health is doing, what Off the Field Wives is doing,” Grant Irons said. “It takes a village to make a positive impact. Jarrett and I — we’ve been in healthcare, medical devices — for about 15 to 20 years. For us, to join forces with Hall of Fame Health and Off the Field Wives, it’s about being proactive versus reactive. We believe in PE — prevention and early intervention. We want to be on the forefront of anything that’s happening. We want to get ahead of the problem.”

Every NFL team is usually associated with a health system, Grant Irons said.

“We try to do a lot of charity events to raise money to help those who aren’t able to pay for the cost of treatment. We want to let them know it’s OK not to be OK,” he said. “There are resources out there, organizations like Hall of Fame Health and Off the Field Wives and so many others, that really care for the well-being of these athletes … in life after football.”

“Hall of Fame Health partners with numerous healthcare systems around the country and that’s another way to get the word out about these health systems that we partner with … to former NFL players living in their communities,” Jarrett Irons agreed.

Nirav N. Shah, MD, anesthesiologist and pain specialist with Endeavor Health, spoke on interventional pain procedures and comprehensive pain medicine treatments and different ways to treat people’s chronic pain issues, especially these players who have had a beating through their careers and their lives.

“We all know about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] now and some of the psychological changes that can come with that. But psychological changes like anxiety and depression can actually worsen chronic pain issues. The two issues go hand in hand. It’s like throwing gasoline onto a fire — it makes it worse,” Dr. Shah said. “The way we treat chronic pain is from a multidisciplinary and comprehensive approach. We don’t just treat a knee joint or a hip joint. There are people who need a pain psychologist.”

There are psychiatrists and psychologists who can provide therapies in addition to a procedural aspect of their pain management, he said.

“Maybe they have some tendons that are ruptured or arthritis or a torn meniscus. We can do an injection to help decrease that pain. But if it becomes a chronic issue, where they’re just constantly in pain … sometimes surgery can help that, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes surgery unfortunately makes it worse and, in that case, that’s where our specialty comes in,” he said.

“We use different devices that use electricity, which is the body’s own way to signal itself and speak to itself. We use that electricity to block those pain signals. Oftentimes we can make that either go away or get significantly better. So that removes the one constant — shall we say, stone in the shoe — for someone with pain issues. Then hopefully, we can also treat their anxiety and depression issues at the same time and improve their function and quality of life.”

Ravi Bashyal, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in minimally invasive and outpatient hip and knee surgery at Endeavor Health. He’s also the site medical director for Hall of Fame Health as well as a board member.

Dr. Ravi Bashyal, orthopaedic surgeon, talks with Mike Singletary and Dr. Julian Bailes, neurosurgeon.

Dr. Ravi Bashyal, orthopaedic surgeon, talks with Mike Singletary and Dr. Julian Bailes, neurosurgeon.

“I was lucky enough to become involved with Hall of Fame Health early on through some partnerships that I had with an industry within football,” Dr. Bashyal said. “Very quickly, we realized that once football players are retired, they don’t necessarily have the same access to physicians, systems and opportunities for the best of the best care once they leave football. What became clear is that — and this started out as orthopaedic project — within the Endeavor Health Orthopaedic & Spine Institute, we really had an opportunity with our centralized care to be able to offer these former retired athletes an opportunity to be treated by the best of the best in a centralized location.”

His talk focused on the mission of Hall of Fame Health, which is to get players and their families the care they need once they stop playing.

“If you’re in the Midwest, we really think that Endeavor Health is a great place for you to get that care because we’ve got really great people that are really compassionate and care about our patients and have a special interest in caring for athletes.”

They are team physicians for several professional sports teams in Chicago, including an affiliation with Chicago Fire.

“There are unique challenges that athletes and their families face, and we feel like we are uniquely positioned to be able to help with that. We’re not just here to take care of orthopaedic injuries,” Dr. Bashyal said.

“Football players and their families suffer from other conditions and issues and more and more those things are becoming more prominent – mental health, concussion, CTE – and we want to be able to provide a full spectrum care for all of those things. We feel that in our system we have a really unique proposition. There are very few places in the world that we have experts in all of these fields centralized in one place and people dedicated to making the experience smooth and seamless for his or her family.”

Dr. Bashyal is present at events such as this throughout the year, including the Super Bowl and the Hall of Fame enshrinement. Additionally, a lot of his outreach is through word of mouth. Players and their families haven’t known where to go for help. “We want to provide concierge-level care and that’s direct phone access, access to me, access to other folks that can help guide them on their journey,” he said.

NorthShore University HealthSystem, Swedish Hospital, Northwest Community Healthcare and Edward-Elmhurst Health are now united under one name, Endeavor Health. We’re setting a new standard for healthcare that’s focused on you, because your best health is our endeavor. Learn more.

The team of experts at Endeavor Health Orthopaedic & Spine Institute offers world-class options close by. We use innovative, minimally invasive techniques for joint replacement, complex spine surgeries, sports medicine and more, so you can get back to the activities you enjoy sooner. Learn more.