McCarty's Payback Helping Commodores

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 24 issue of the Denver Post.

By Natalie Meisler
Denver Post Sports Writer

Football gave Eric McCarty a venue ! to fulfill his dreams of playing for Colorado, get a degree from CU and earn a post-graduate scholarship worth a semester of medical school. He even met his future wife at the 1987 Christmas Day Blue-Gray all-star contest.
Now The Denver Post Gold Helmet winner from Boulder High School (1982) is giving back to the game. In an unusual way.

Unlike the traditional route of coaching or contributing financially, McCarty, an orthopedic surgeon at Vanderbilt Medical Center, is researching a better way to treat knee injuries.
About two years ago, after receiving his proposal, NFL Charities awarded him a $240,000 grant to study new methods to graft knee cartilage. His goal? "To lengthen the careers of NFL college and recreational athletes and to prevent subsequent debilitating arthritis."

McCarty, an academic All-America linebacker at CU in 1987, said the results of his research show promise, and he expects to publish his findings next year. While there are numerous procedures for knee surgery, some in the experimental stage, McCarty's belief is fresh cartilage and bone grafts from cadavers provide more beneficial long-term results for cartilage repair than standard procedures used today.

He described autografts, or cartilage removed from another part of a patient's body to repair a damaged knee, as "robbing Peter to pay Paul." Transplants from preserved cadavers also are used, but he said he believes cartilage needs to be transplanted soon after removal from a donor to be most effective, although it isn't critical as transplants for major organs.

"This is one aspect of research," McCarty said. "I hope we'll spur on other studies to make the human body better."

There is long-range hope in the medical community for ligament and cartilage banks grown from an individual's cells, he said.

McCarty's assistant on the project is another former academic All-American, Ed Glenn, a former Clemson tight end serving his residency at Vanderbilt. McCarty, a 38-year-old father of four, sees himself in the 1994 Clemson graduate.

"I feel fortunate I knew what I wanted to do," McCarty said. "I knew every step along the way what was next. I knew every thing except the location."

Said former CU teammate Jon Embree, now the Buffs' tight ends coach, "He knew from Day One he wanted to be a doctor. Eric is a guy who's never played it by ear. He knows what he wants to do, knows how he's going to do it and usually accomplishes it."

What McCarty didn't accomplish he made up for in other ways. He didn't win a Rhodes Scholarship but traveled abroad as a player-coach in Italy before attending medical school. A free-agent rookie stint in the Houston Oilers camp lasted only a few weeks, but he spent a year-long fellowship with the New York Giants' medical staff after his residency at Vanderbilt.
Beth Colleton, director of NFL Charities, said of the 30 to 40 grant requests that make it to the final stages, about 10 to 15 are approved annually with about $1 million usually given out. The chairman of the grant review committee is Dr. Kurt Spindler, director of Vanderbilt's sports medicine department.

"He brought to light the innovative research being done," Colleton said. Spindler also signed off on a document declaring there was no conflict of interest in his position on the review committee and McCarty's work.

Research is one-third of McCarty's job description. He has a practice within Vanderbilt Medical Center, tending to everyone from high school athletes to rodeo cowboys to farmers injured on the job. He also works with all Vanderbilt teams, sharing the frustration of a winless Southeastern Conference football season.

"Some coaches have asked if I have any eligibility left," he said.

His first experience at University of Colorado Hospital wasn't as a medical student but as a patient. He tore his medial collateral ligament in preseason practice as a freshman. Although surgery no longer is widely used for MCL tears, it was the protocol when he played.

McCarty said he stays in close touch with the Buffs. When he's on the cellphone on the sidelines, odds are he's checking an updated CU score.

Said Colorado coach Gary Barnett, an assistant when McCarty played, "He loved the game, loved Colorado. He was a Buff all the way through."

Some day, McCarty would love to come back to his college team. He grew up climbing fourteeners and misses the mountains. He tries to plan Vanderbilt's bye weekends around trips home. He took in the Kansas State game this fall.

"I miss my roots," he said. "But I love what I'm doing in sports medicine here."



Vanderbilt Athletic Department
2601 Jess Neely Drive
Nashville, TN 37212
615-322-GOLD (4653)