Dr. Andy Tucker is NFL's Most Valuable Physician
By Steve Sandstrom
You think the pressures of being a professional athlete are demanding? Try being the team physician to 70 of them in the National Football League.
SIU alumnus Andy Tucker, MD (’86) has been doing it for nearly three decades with the Baltimore Ravens. At the same time, he has been providing primary medical care to athletes at all levels as a sports medicine physician in private practice. He keeps very busy.
“I have to remind people that there really is no off-season in the NFL. There’s what I call the travel season and the non-travel season,” he says. Though technically in the latter, Tucker has just returned from the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and he is departing in a few days for Sarasota, Fla., to assist a colleague tending to the Baltimore Orioles during spring training.
At the scouting combine, Tucker and the Ravens’ doctors and trainers evaluated 330 athletes who would be entering the NFL draft, providing a risk assessment and medical grade for each.
During a dinner that week, the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society presented him with the prestigious Jerry ‘Hawk’ Rhea Award, in recognition of his outstanding work as an NFL team physician “who has made the greatest contributions to both the NFL and the profession of athletic training.” Tucker is a respected clinician, researcher, instructor and chief medical officer at the top of his game.
Not bad for a farm kid from Paris, Illinois.
Considering his career in the NFL, there is some irony. Tucker says the closest he got to football in his youth was scrimmages in the yard, “getting beat up by my older brothers.” Instead, he lettered in basketball and golf at Paris High School, before leaving home to earn a BA in biology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. His interest in medicine blossomed during his junior year in college, working as an orderly at the Paris Community Hospital alongside the family medicine doctors. He won an Illinois General Assembly scholarship in 1982 to attend SIU School of Medicine.
Here he studied to become a primary care physician, and happily matched into the family medicine residency program at Baptist Hospital/Wake Forest Medical Center. During the second year of residency, a new head team physician offered the family medicine residents the opportunity to assist in the medical care for the Wake Forest athletes.
Sports medicine was in its infancy in the 1980s and fellowship medicine for primary care doctors didn’t gain traction until the late ‘80s. Tucker hit that sweet spot. “I loved ambulatory geriatrics and was lined up to do a fellowship in it until this opportunity to work with the new team physician came up,” he said. “I’d always had a passion for sports medicine, and the doors just started opening for me.”
The work in the training rooms led to a fellowship at the Alabama Sports Medicine/American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham and training under Dr. James Andrews, a renowned sports orthopedist. This experience sparked an offer to work at the Cleveland Clinic, a leader in sports medicine and orthopedics.
In 1991, he began providing medical care for the Cleveland Browns in the NFL preseason. That turned into a 5-year run as associate team physician for the Browns. At the same time, he was working as an assistant clinical professor in family medicine at Case Western Reserve University.
When Browns owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1996, Tucker and most of the staff went with them.
The city of Cleveland retained the rights to the team name, so the franchise rebranded as the Baltimore Ravens, in tribute to native author Edgar Allen Poe.
Tucker became the director of primary care sports medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center and an assistant family medicine professor at the UM School of Medicine. He had always relished the opportunity of starting a primary care sports medicine fellowship and made it happen within a year. It was not without its challenges, but he considers it a career highlight. When he moved to MedStar Union Memorial Sports Medicine in 2004, he was able to have it jointly sponsored and expanded to support two fellowships per year.
For the Ravens, Tucker’s management skills are utilized in day-to-day care for the athletes and coverage at games. He has oversight of seven athletic trainers, a nutritionist, and a team clinician/psychologist, and collaborates with a roster of specialists in cardiology, pulmonology, dermatology and radiology, plus three orthopedic physicians and three primary care doctors.
The wraparound services are necessary. Collision sports like football, soccer, lacrosse and wrestling always carry risk, but they are much safer now than they were a generation or two ago, Tucker says. Concussion protocols were added to the National Football League guidelines in 2011. “Concussions are a complex thing to evaluate and assess in real-time on the sideline or at courtside, but we’re getting better every year. It’s been fascinating to practice sports medicine during this paradigm shift of how we view them, return the athlete to the field of play and then monitor them going forward. We have come far and it’s going to continue to evolve.”
During a Monday Night Football game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals on January 2, Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field. He was resuscitated and hospitalized and the game was postponed. It sent a figurative shock wave across the league.
Tucker and the Ravens quickly mobilized the team psychologist and psychiatrist. The chaplain and coaching staff were heavily engaged. The team held a Zoom call the next morning for anyone within the organization who wanted to express their feelings. Despite the unfortunate circumstance, Tucker thinks the team – and the league – did a wonderful job of responding to the situation.
He also saw it as a teachable moment for medical professionals. “As much as we hated to see the incident occur, it was a helpful reminder of the importance of having an emergency action plan ready, and the American public got to see that play out.” It also underscored the importance to scholastic and collegiate-level teams, he says. “These occurrences are a very rare but very real possibility there, too. It will happen again, so be prepared.”
During his tenure with the team, the Ravens have won two Super Bowls (in 2001 and 2013), and Tucker has the jewelry to show for it.
“The rings only come out during Super Bowl parties. I tell people I have a nice problem: I have two Super Bowl rings but three children. We hold that over the kids whenever someone gets out of line,” he says.
The big games were not Tucker’s first experience with championships. He recalls being part of a talented co-rec basketball team in his first year in Carbondale with classmate-athletes Diane Hillard, Robin Deterding and others on the squad.
“The women were the only ones who could go inside the paint,” he says. “They just dominated. I think we won the championship.”
Dr. Hillard-Sembell, now an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at SIU School of Medicine, confirms. “We did in fact win the Co-Recreational Basketball League Championship. With Andy and Ken Jordan’s height and skills, as well as Robin and I and the gang, we had quite a team.”
“Andy is a great guy with an amazing career,” she says. “We’ve crossed paths a few times with our common sports medicine interest. At an American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine conference, I talked with the Ravens’ orthopedic team physician, who did nothing but sing Andy’s praises.”
Over the years, Dr. Tucker has watched sports medicine grow and become more multi-disciplinary, like other medical specialties. “When I started out, it was within the purview of orthopedic or general surgeons. Now we have them working alongside primary care, physical therapists, performance people, and nutritionists. It’s like a microcosm of medicine in general. Medicine really is a team sport.”
Reflecting on his career, the team player wants to continue to help others be their best. “I’ve been very fulfilled, being able to marry my interest in family and primary care medicine with my passion for sports,” he says. “If any SIU student or resident has an interest in sports medicine, I encourage them to do it. They can send me an email. I’d be happy to talk to them and help them find their way."