Field of Dreams

Sep 8, 2014, 9:00 AM

“In the NFL, you have to be ready for everything,” says Lutul Farrow, MD.

He should know: For more than three years, the orthopedic surgeon was a member of the medical staff for his hometown Cleveland Browns. With Farrow on the sidelines were a nonsurgical sports medicine doctor and an anesthesiologist; in the stands were a paramedic and a dentist. “That was just for our team,” he says.

Farrow currently works with the Yellow Jackets, a Division III team at his college alma mater, Baldwin Wallace University. Because football requires physician coverage at every game, he travels with the Yellow Jackets to games throughout the Ohio Athletic Conference. He’s also the head team physician for the Brunswick High School Blue Devils.

On game day, he has a field-level view of every play—and every injury. “We mostly see strains and sprains,” he says, including hamstring pulls, ankle sprains, and ligament sprains of the knee.

Farrow predicts that the current attention to concussions—most recently the NCAA’s settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by former college players—will change the way the game is played.

“If you fast-forward 20 years,” he says, “tackle football is going to be very different from what we’re playing now.”

Play Through the Pain

Farrow’s attraction to sports medicine came out of his own experience playing football as a kid.

“Cleveland’s a huge sports town,” he says. “So I grew up playing football and other sports, and I played football in college.” A handful of minor injuries during his college years gave him up-close access to the team doctor, an orthopedic surgeon who was a former football player himself.

“I started to think it would be a great job to be a former player who’s out there on the sidelines caring for people,” he says.

Tending to amateur athletes is less fraught than life in the pros, however. “When you’re dealing with a professional athlete, you’re on a time frame,” notes Farrow. “Time for them is money.” He points out that many players receive productivity bonuses for outstanding play, which they don’t get if they’re injured. “If they’re not playing they’re not being productive, even though they’re getting paid their salary. You need to get them back out on the field as quickly as possible.”

At the high school level, he is more conservative with respect to sending a player back into the game.

“With college or pro players, you can explain the risks and they understand. They may be willing to play with pain or injuries, but they’re adults and can make informed choices,” he says. “You’re less likely to put a kid at risk.” 

Prime-Time Role Model

Long before he fell in love with sports medicine, Farrow knew he wanted to be a physician. His grandmother was a nurse who worked at Cleveland Veterans Administration Hospital, where a young and impressionable Farrow would visit her.

“My perception as a little boy was that all the doctors were men, and the women were nurses,” he says. “I wanted to be like my grandmother, but I thought only women could be nurses. So I decided to be a doctor.”

When he was 8 years old, he began to have seizures. As a result, he was in and out of hospitals, being poked and prodded while a medical team tried to figure out what was wrong. “When you go through that experience, it can either turn you off to medicine or make you love it,” he says. “I absolutely loved it.”

Opportunely, Farrow’s hospital stays coincided with the television debut of The Cosby Show. For the young boy growing up without male role models in an inner-city, single-parent household, Dr. Cliff Huxtable was someone to emulate.

“Because of him, I wanted to be an obstetrician/gynecologist and deliver babies,” Farrow remembers. “He was loved by everybody—a Black OB/GYN who was married to a very successful lawyer and lived in this beautiful house with five kids and had a wonderful life.

“Dr. Huxtable became my role model. Even though he was fictitious, I felt like he was based on some kind of reality. I thought if he could do it, so could I.”

A Shock to the System 

As a junior at tiny Baldwin Wallace, Farrow still hoped to become a doctor. He just didn’t know how to go about reaching his goal.

“I didn’t have a ton of guidance at that time. I was in a small biology department in a small pre-med department, and one of only three Black pre-med majors.”

“I went from a high school that was 95 percent Black to a college that was 5 percent Black. Being in that environment was culture shock for me.” 

“Growing up in the inner city, I mostly was around people who looked like me, dressed like me, spoke like me. I went from a high school that was 95 percent Black to a college that was 5 percent Black. Being in that environment was culture shock for me.”

Walking past a billboard in the biology department, he noticed a captivating advertisement for the Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program). He applied and was accepted to the Case Western site, only to experience a different type of systemic shock.

“What I remember most is meeting dozens and dozens of other students of color, all trying to do what I was trying to do. They all had the same purpose and goals, and they were respected leaders at their universities. That was a great thing to see.” 

He also had the opportunity that summer to explore his desire to follow in Cliff Huxtable’s footsteps. “I shadowed an OB/GYN and got to see a baby delivered. Seeing that made me realize I didn’t want to be an OB/GYN!” he laughs.                          

Farrow’s focus shifted, but those six weeks in the company of people who shared his ambitions—as well as his hardships—confirmed that his aspirations were attainable. From that point forward, he was unstoppable. 

“All I need to know is that one person has done it,” he says. “No matter how hard it is, if just one person has done it, I know I can do it, too.”

Too Young to Tackle

With the fall football season in full swing, Farrow is prepared for anything—except perhaps the prospect of his own children taking the field. He and his wife Tenisha have three sons, ages 9, 7, and 6.

“Even though I played all throughout high school and college, I’m not too excited about my kids playing football, and especially not at a young age,” he says.

With football now firmly entrenched as America’s most popular sport, youth football programs have increased in number, with kids as young as 5 donning helmets and pads.

“If my kids do play tackle football, we’ll likely delay that until they’re in high school and their brains are more developed,” says Farrow.

In the meantime, he’ll be on the sidelines at games across Ohio, watching players hurl themselves at one another with bone-rattling force. Scholarships and even pro careers may be at stake, but Farrow is interested in only one thing: taking care of his players.

When the whistle blows, he’ll be ready.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.