Behind the Scenes at Panthers Training Camp
National Football League (NFL) games are exciting, and they can be brutal. No matter how coordinated and logistical the plays, the naturally aggressive nature of the sport leaves athletes means constant risk of injury. The physical nature of the game, pitting prime players in their peak of human performance, will inevitably lead to acute and chronic injury.
It’s a long and grueling season in the NFL, and teams rely on team doctors to keep their players in top shape, treat injuries and offer medical guidance and care. For the Carolina Panthers, that physician is Dr. Pat Connor. A fellowship-trained sports medicine surgeon, Dr. Connor works with the team year-round, and preseason care is of special importance. He offered a peek behind the scenes at how he stays in the zone amid so much action going into the season.
When you go to Panther’s training camp, what is a typical day like for you?
Dr. Connor: I usually work at OrthoCarolina in the morning, seeing patients or doing other work, and head down to training camp in the early afternoon. Since camp is in Spartanburg it’s a difficult balance to see all the patients I need to see in the office as well, but we’ve done this long enough to know how to manage it efficiently. Normally it takes me about 80 minutes to get to camp, depending on traffic. I’ve been there so many times now my car can almost drive itself!
If training camp practice (normally about two hours) is in the afternoon or the evening, I am there for the practice so I can be on hand if any injuries occur during that time. It’s not typical for injuries to happen during practice, but earlier this season Stephen Hill had a bad knee injury and head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion and I were at his side within seconds. If practice is in the morning, I travel to camp in the afternoon to see any players who may have had injuries or issues during the morning session. I’ll also check on players who have ongoing and chronic issues including those sustained earlier in camp. Post-practice I see players in the training room and my office with the athletic training staff (Ryan Vermillion, Mark Shermansky, Kevin King and JB Laporte).
At training camp is care mostly focused on preventative care, or are you treating existing injuries?
Dr. Connor: Care centers primarily on treating either existing injuries or injuries that occur in "real time" at camp. However, there are a lot of preventative efforts as well. We take the same preventative measures at camp as we do throughout the year; taping of ankles, pads, helmets, shoe wear modifications to avoid foot and ankle injuries, and more. Heat and the prevention of heat illness and heatstroke are a huge issue in football, especially for our team. Spartanburg in summer can be extremely hot; we saw a heat index of 119 degrees this year. Thankfully, over 21 years that we've been at Spartanburg we have yet to have a player with heat illness.
Then there are common and routine conditions that we treat; muscle cramps, weight loss due to water loss and others. But we as an organization and medical team are proud of the fact that the processes we have in place have kept players safe from true heat illness and heatstroke in such a hot environment.
What are some of the most common injuries or conditions you see pre-season?
Dr. Connor: The most common injuries at camp include (but certainly aren't limited to) hamstring strains, ankle sprains, calf strains, groin strains, lacerations, knee injuries, stingers, cramps (as above), etc. But we're set up to handle anything that comes up . . .
How is working with professional NFL players different than other patients?
Dr. Connor: NFL players are highly motivated people who play a significant role in their own health and well-being. They understand injuries and work hard to overcome them. As a whole, NFL athletes are appreciative of their medical teams’ efforts in helping prevent and treat their injuries because they know and understand how crucial the care is. Really, their attitude is just like the other patients I see in my clinics who want to get better; they want to understand what’s wrong and how they can help speed along the healing process.
For the 2015-16 season how often are you with the Panthers?
Dr. Connor: I am with the team down in Spartanburg roughly every other day (Dr. Anderson of our Foot and Ankle Center is there the other days). I’m also with them the day before the preseason games, game days, and the day after the games, where I see players who may have had injuries at the game. So from about July 27 until Labor Day I'm with the team roughly two-thirds of the time. Once the regular season starts I’m at the stadium every Monday morning seeing players. Typically I will see them either onsite at the stadium or they will come to my office during the week when and if needed.
I’m also with the team for every game and I travel with them. For away games, we travel the day before the game and come home right after the game. Sometimes that means not getting home until almost morning. For West coast games such as Seattle we will travel earlier, on Friday, so the team can acclimate to the time change a bit. Then we come home right after the game which gets us in around 4:00 AM ET or so. This year, we play on Thanksgiving Day for the first time in franchise history (against the Dallas Cowboys).
Are you a Panthers fan?
Dr. Connor: I think like most fans, I would like to see the Panthers win every game they play. Through the nature of my job I interact very closely with Panthers players, athletic trainers, staff and front office personnel on a nearly daily basis and I see firsthand how hard they work to achieve success. However, I don't think I'm a fan in the truest sense of the word mainly because I always maintain the perspective that I am at the games to be a team physician…not a fan. I am there to diagnose and treat any injuries that may occur with players because that is my job. I personally think this is an important perspective to maintain so I am always focused on being a physician and doing what is right for each player/patient who may have an injury -- regardless of the score or circumstances of a game.
Dr. Patrick Connor, MD is fellowship-trained in sports medicine and shoulder/elbow, and his clinical specialties are sports medicine, shoulder/elbow and trauma. He is the head team physician for the Carolina Panthers, the Charlotte Knights, Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, Providence Day School and is on the editorial board and a consultant for the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery and the American Journal of Sports Medicine.