It was Aaron Rodgers’ birthday last Saturday. The quarterback turned 40 and among the items on his wish list was an appointment with Dr Neal ElAttrache.
Rodgers is edging closer to a miraculous return to the field, having torn his Achilles in September – just four snaps into his Jets career.
It was ElAttrache who put him back together and their paths crossed again in New York over the weekend.
But this was no medical meeting. Instead, it was a sign of the bond that has built between doctor and patient – since ElAttrache repaired Rodgers’ collarbone in 2017 and since the surgeon fused his Achilles back together. By now, the quarterback is ‘like family’. So is Tom Brady and so was Kobe Bryant. It’s not by coincidence.
Over a 30-year career, ElAttrache – who grew up in mining town outside Pittsburgh – has become synonymous with some of sport’s greatest names.
Dr Neal ElAttrache has operated on some of sport’s biggest stars such as Aaron Rodgers
ElAttrache treated the Jets quarterback after he tore his Achilles tendon back in September
He works as an orthopedic surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles
Time and again, with a broken body and their future in peril, athletes head to Los Angeles.
In 2008, ElAttrache reconstructed Tom Brady’s knee. In 2013, barely 45 minutes after tearing his Achilles, Bryant called ElAttrache from the Lakers locker room. Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson, Brooks Koepka, Manny Pacquiao and Clayton Kershaw are among the others to visit the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic.
ElAttrache also works with the LA Dodgers, Rams, Kings, Lakers, and Anaheim Ducks, while his celebrity clients include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlize Theron and Ringo Starr.
‘I get to see another human being when there’s very little guard up. So I tend to have the privilege of seeing the real essence of people,’ ElAttrache tells Mail Sport.
There is, however, a spectre that hangs over all these encounters: often, the fate of careers and lucrative contracts rest on every flick of his knife.
‘With these well-known guys, I can’t have bad things happening to them – especially if it’s because I missed something,’ ElAttrache says. ‘It’s like taking care of a working population with a national audience. That’s a bad mix, you know?’
Just 11 weeks after going under the knife, the 40-year-old was back on the training field
In 2008, the surgeon repaired Tom Brady’s knee after the quarterback tore his ACL and MCL
The surgeon opened up on what binds elite sportsmen such as Rodgers and Brady
Fortunately, not even the spotlight prevents ElAttrache from maintaining a steady hand: ‘The only times I’ve ever been nervous in my life doing anything is when I didn’t think I may have been prepared,’ he insists.
‘I feel comfortable that, whatever I do, I’m offering the patient or the player the best care that they can have. Certainly, I don’t think I would be taking care of somebody if I thought there was somebody better at doing the things I do.’
ElAttrache’s preparations to treat Aaron Rodgers began long before the quarterback text him from the locker room at MetLife Stadium on September 11.
‘I had already been considering how to repair tendons and ligaments to enhance not only the healing but the time of recovery,’ the surgeon explains. ‘So very quickly, I knew what I would do in a situation where time was very important.’
By the time a patient falls asleep, ElAttrache has typically performed the surgery three or four times in his head.
Rodgers underwent ‘speed bridge’ treatment just two days after his Jets debut. It’s a cutting-edge procedure designed to allow for more aggressive rehab. Even back then, ElAttrache’s mind was on Rodgers’ return.
‘People read about an operation I may do and they think my role is over,’ he says. ‘Well, it’s just beginning.’
As contracts have swelled in length and value, ElAttrache’s role has spread from the surgery theater to the recovery room.
The surgeon has also treated the likes of Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson and Manny Pacquiao
ElAttrache treated Bryant in 2013 after the late Los Angeles Lakers star damaged his Achilles
The surgeon spoke to Mail Sport about his three decades working in sports medicine
From the off, Rodgers was determined to defy initial diagnoses: the 40-year-old wanted to return this year and so, in cases like these, ElAttrache’s task is to find a surgery ‘that will hold up to whatever is coming afterwards.’
So far, so good. After just 11 weeks, Rodgers was back on the training field; at some point, ElAttrache expects, the quarterback will be back to his best. ‘I don’t know if it’ll be this year, in December, or the following season. But I’m confident it’ll happen,’ he says. ‘That last part takes a life of its own and is very individual… I walk them right up to the foul line of the field.’
And then it can come down to an athlete and their mind. For decades, ElAttrache has enjoyed a privileged insight into how the best think and how they rewrite rulebooks.
‘Aaron is a natural leader,’ ElAttrache says. ‘You can’t be a leader unless you have the attributes that people want to follow. So I think he demonstrates that he is never going to expect or ask from anybody around him, anything that he wouldn’t do.’
The surgeon explains: ‘He is out there setting an example of his own personal sacrifice… his legacy is already established, he’s one of the greatest ever. So him coming back from this injury this year – doing something that no one else has done – it may be fun to talk about, but I don’t think there’s a huge personal benefit.’
‘Aaron is a natural leader… I have become very fond of him,’ ElAttrache said of the Jets QB
ElAttrache also works with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Rams, Kings, Lakers, and Anaheim Ducks
DR NEAL ELATTRACHE ON TURF VS. GRASS
Aaron Rodgers’ injury reignited the debate over grass vs. turf in the NFL:
It’s an interesting and somewhat confounding topic to address. Because there’s been recent studies that show that turf doesn’t have a huge impact. My personal feeling is that it does. But until the real data is out there to confirm that…
My feeling is also informed by the players that I take care of. I ask them: “Do you have a preference in fields that you play on? And why do you like that field?” And without question, the two things that they talk about are: grip and resilience.
So if a field is too spongy or too slippery or too soft or too hard, they know. And the majority of them have a preference. Interestingly, the majority of them agree independently: by and large, they’ll name one of three fields as their favorite. And they happen to be natural surface fields.
I won’t name them, I don’t know that it’s fair because right now the studies out there don’t show what I’m saying. But there’s some issues that are indisputable: there’s a lot of money involved and the technology is there to be able to determine the optimal match between a shoe and a surface to give the player the field that they like the best.
I think the only reason it’s not done is because of money. But until the data shows that’s correct, I don’t think it would be fair or possible to ask the people that are actually paying the bills to do it. Let’s face it: it costs more money to bring in natural turf several times a season and you’re not be able to use it for multi-purpose use.
But there’s no reason why a player shouldn’t walk into a stadium and on the bulletin board in that locker room is a recommendation: “We recommend this type of shoe for this particular surface.”
But I may be completely all wet on that because so far there’s nothing to show that what I’m saying is right.
Instead, ElAttrache says, Rodgers understands what he means to the Jets. ‘That is very (much) in the front of his mind.’ And that is a symptom of his character.
‘Trying to be objective – because I have become very fond of him – you don’t see great leaders leading from the rear,’ ElAttrache continues. ‘He understands the impact he has. And he knows that he can’t do that effectively – or as well – from his couch with his leg elevated.’
There are other strands to Rodgers’ mindset that have stuck with ElAttrache. Traits he shares with the likes of Brady and Bryant. Traits which help explain their extraordinary feats.
‘The thing they have in common is that they surround themselves only with the people and the things – and in the places – that they trust is geared towards making them better,’ he explains. ‘Very little happens just by chance with guys like that.’
Even in those darkest moments, they set themselves apart.
‘I’ve noticed that the great ones, when the chips are really down, that’s when they’re the most selfless and giving and the least needy,’ ElAttrache says. ‘That was really surprising… the usual thing is that when something like that happens, the world starts to revolve around them.’
ElAttrache has a theory – ‘maybe they’re calculating: If I take really good care of these people, they’re going to take really good care of me’ – but whatever the motive, it’s a mindset the surgeon has sought to learn from.
‘The other thing that’s in common – and sometimes this can be a challenge to deal with for me – (is) none of the great ones believe that their body follows the same laws of nature that the rest of us do.
‘At some point it’s going to come out that they do feel like they are supernatural. And far be it for me to tell them they’re not… it would be like loading up Superman’s belt with kryptonite if you say: “No, you’re not special”. Because quite frankly, they might be.’
ElAttrache has seen first-hand the power of a strong mind, after all.
‘Aaron Rodgers manifests reality probably as strongly and consistently as anybody I’ve seen,’ he explains.
‘He believes a certain way and he’s determined that thing is going to happen.’ Hence why as well as ‘healing’ patients, the surgeon has to ‘protect’ them, too. Hence why his bond with a patient is ‘almost sacred’.
That goes for arguably ElAttrache’s most ‘rewarding’ patients, student-athletes: ‘If what we do together is successful, their life will take one path. If we don’t, it goes down another’. And professionals working to a timeline that is ‘completely off the map’.
‘I get to see another human being when there’s very little guard up,’ ElAttrache told Mail Sport
‘If there is doubt and mistrust, or they mistrust my motives, and I don’t trust what they’re telling me, then there’s no way that I can effectively have what I need to have, and provide what I should be providing, to help that person do something out of the ordinary,’ ElAttrache says.
Put simply, Rodgers and Co can only stretch the laws of science if they have faith that ElAttrache will always pull them back from the fire.
His own sporting background – the surgeon boxed at college – helps ensure those connections are ‘organic’. So does all the time he spent in locker rooms and training facilities as a trainee doctor.
‘I’ll know when it’s time to stop doing what I do when I don’t have the ability or the energy to be as engaged as that anymore,’ ElAttrache says.
Until then, he will remain one of the most significant figures in elite sport. Midway through speaking with Mail Sport, ElAttrache’s cell phone rings. The head trainer of a major franchise wants a chat.
In the bar of this Midtown hotel, however, only the camera’s glare prompts other guests to give him a second glance. And that’s fine with ElAttrache. For the surgeon, much of the credit for his extraordinary career lies elsewhere.
‘I don’t think I would be taking care of somebody if I thought there was somebody better’
‘If there was anything that I really hit it out of the park with, it was picking the right mentors,’ he says. ‘That’s probably the greatest professional gift you can have. More than an enormous paycheck or enormous bonus.’
He continues: ‘I was with some of the great founders of sports medicine – Frank Jobe and Bob Kerlan – and being at that place, it gave me everything… whatever I did would get more attention than other great surgeons operating someplace else.’
The ‘pioneering’ clinic fostered a culture of innovation and open-mindedness which has come in handy. Especially given Rodgers’ and Brady’s taste for – ahem – alternative remedies.
‘If I think there’s something that’s counterproductive, I certainly am going to say it. But it hasn’t happened in those situations,’ he says.
‘The ultimate goal is: that guy needs to get better. And there’s a lot of emotion and the mental aspect that comes into play. But the biggest thing that is necessary is trust… I can be the most magical surgeon on the planet but if there’s no trust between me and that player, nothing is going to work.’