The Sum of His Parts
Enke is one of the graying legion of National Football League veterans who, years after leaving the game, suffer the physical effects of all their years of football—and are having worn-out parts replaced, often without charge, by Dr. St. Ville and his team of Phoenix specialists. "We just recognized that there was a patient population and no vehicle to treat them," says St. Ville, 40. "We started the program around that need."
Actually, St. Ville got the idea for the program after Ron Gardin, who played defensive back for the Colts in the early '70s, visited St. Ville in 1991 for treatment of a sore elbow. Gardin, who is active in the local chapter of the NFL Players Association, mentioned that, like himself, many retired players lacked health insurance or couldn't get coverage for damage done during their football years, classified by many medical plans as preexisting conditions. With joint-replacement coverage running at $30,000 to $40,000, many who had played in the era before megasalaries found that they had no choice but to grit their teeth and soldier on, enduring the discomfort and disabilities that caught up with them later in life. "It's just a slow, degenerating process that most athletes don't understand until many years down the line," says Gardin.
St. Ville and Gardin enlisted a team of specialists and convinced medical-supply companies to donate gowns and gloves as well as the implants themselves, most made from titanium and plastic and costing as much as $5,000 apiece. Since the program's first operation in 1992, more than 150 ex-NFL players have been helped, about 40 of them surgically. St. Ville estimates that the value of the services provided has already climbed past $2.5 million. "We had no idea how many people were out there," he says.
St. Ville was born in Boston and grew up in Tulsa, the fourth of seven children of a surgeon and his wife, a homemaker. An all-state running back in his high school, he graduated from St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where he switched to rugby, got his medical degree from the University of Oklahoma and did his surgical residency at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. That was when he realized the importance of donating his skills. Much of his training, he says, was with inner-city patients, many of whom had no insurance.
He, too, shows the effects of a sports-related injury—a scar on the outside of his left leg, where he had ligament surgery to alleviate wear and tear from his years of football and rugby. Unmarried, St. Ville fly-fishes, scuba dives and serves as medical director of the U.S.A. Rugby Football Union. He also runs and bikes in training for a biathlon. He moved from Baltimore to Phoenix in 1989 because, for a surgeon who is specializing in joint replacements, a city with a large retiree population is clearly the place to be. It wasn't until meeting Gardin, though, that St. Ville realized how many of those retirees were ex-players in need of his services.
"Jim's been great," says George Flint, 59, a guard for the Buffalo Bills in the '60s whose knee St. Ville replaced in 1994. "I went from playing handball to basketball to jogging to riding the bike," he says. "It got to the point where I couldn't sleep. Now it's getting progressively better."
"One of the most wonderful days of my life was when I met Dr. St. Ville," says Gardin, who runs youth programs for the Tucson parks department and who quit football in 1972. "This program is an opportunity for me to give something back to the game. I'm very proud to be part of this."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Phoenix