Dr. John Marzo once spent this time of year conducting physicals and working up medical reports on more than 300 college athletes as the Buffalo Bills prepared for the NFL Draft.
The orthopedic surgeon has other plans next week while pro football team physicians, trainers and scouts put players through the paces during the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. He will teach anatomy and lab classes at the University at Buffalo medical school, play tennis with his wife and take a golf trip to Florida with friends.
“There’s a lower level of anxiety now,” he said.
Three years ago – after a busy career that included turns as team doctor for both the Bills and Buffalo Sabres – Marzo stepped away from pro sports and the operating room. He chose instead to focus on non-surgical care, medical research and a deeper commitment to young doctors who look to follow in his footsteps.
The decision came as UB worked on its new Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and after Marzo and his partners at UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine cemented their roles with the city’s pro hockey and football teams. It was a choice that helps explain why Buffalo can talk proud about its medical community, its ability to attract outside talent and the steps the region has taken toward a meaningful future.
“I get to work with the Bills for an entire year,” said Dr. Stephanie Grilli, a Pittsburgh native who got her medical education in Philadelphia before taking an orthopedic surgical sports medicine fellowship last August at UB. “Every home game last season, I was on the sideline. We do training room twice a week. I went to training camp. I’m going to the combine. I would say this is the best professional athlete experience out of any fellowship in the country when it comes to the amount of hands-on experience.”
FOOTBALL AND MEDICINE
Marzo will turn 60 in April. He served as medical director for the Bills from 1995 to 2015, three years after joining the team as an assistant team doctor. He also served as medical director for the Sabres for the first eight seasons he worked in the same role with the Bills. During those years, Marzo and head trainers for both teams were the guys tens of thousands of fans watched head out to players who went down on the field and the ice.
“A lot of people would tell me, ‘That must be so cool to be on the sideline of every game,’” Marzo said, “and I would say, ‘You know what, I watch the game differently than you do.’ It’s 30 seconds of holding your breath and then waiting until the next play. You watch and then you look to see, did everybody get up?”
Marzo grew up outside Binghamton. He was a star high school quarterback at Owego Free Academy before playing the same position from 1976 to 1979 at Colgate University. He got invited to the New England Patriots training camp after graduation and got cut a few days later.
“It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Marzo said. The undergraduate chemistry major already had been accepted to SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
Marzo came to UB after medical school, first landing a master’s degree in anatomical sciences, then taking an orthopedic fellowship and orthopedic surgery residency. In 1990, he arranged a yearlong sports medicine and shoulder fellowship through The Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. He spent a year under the tutelage of Dr. Russell Warren, the longtime team doctor for the New York Giants, then returned to Buffalo to start his own practice.
Marzo grew up a Giants fan. He was on the sidelines with the team during Super Bowl XXV, the first of four straight NFL championship games the Bills would lose, this one by a heartbreaking score of 20-19. The young doctor already knew he would join Dr. Richard Weiss, the Bills team doctor, as an assistant the following season.
“I was conflicted about who I wanted to win,” he said. The Giants partied until 4 the next morning, a far cry from the next three post-Super Bowl gatherings Marzo experienced.
Weiss stepped away from his team job in 1994 and Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. summoned Marzo to meet him in Detroit. Wilson asked if Marzo could commit to the job long-term. Marzo said yes. The two men sealed the arrangement with a handshake.
The most prolific part of the doctor’s career was about to begin. He joined Northtowns Orthopedics the same year he landed the top medical job with the Bills, performing 300 to 350 surgeries a year, and taking call one of every seven nights at Millard Fillmore Gates and Suburban hospitals. The next year, he also took the Buffalo Sabres job.
“I don’t remember being exhausted,” Marzo said. “I don’t remember ever thinking, ‘I’m overworked,’ ‘I’m overwhelmed.’ Or ‘What am I doing?’ Honestly, I thought it was great.”
The schedule didn’t leave a lot of time for his wife, JoAnn, and their three young daughters.
“This is why in the end, I thought I’d had enough,” Marzo said. “I missed so many things. ... At the time, everybody understood and I don’t think there were ever any hard feelings about it.” Family members thought what he did for a living was exciting. His brothers came to a lot of games. His father, Joseph, a school administrator, went to Super Bowl in Minneapolis as a guest. “It was fun,” the doctor said.
The primary duties for the team doctor include covering games, handling emergencies and treating musculoskeletal injuries that occur from competition. The main responsibilities also include conducting physicals during training camp and at the NFL Combine.
“Every Sunday during the season was Groundhog Day,” Marzo said. “We would just get through the week and get four or five guys healthy. We’d play another game and I’d have another bevy of players from each game that got hurt, and the clock would start again.”
It didn’t take long after landing the job for Marzo to get a sense of what Buffalonians thought about their sports teams. In Bills Country, he was asked often by patients how a particular player was healing and when the player would be back on the field.
“I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, you came in to talk to me about your shoulder.’”
Bud Carpenter, 66, has been a trainer with the Bills from 1985 until he retired earlier this month as director of training operations. He served alongside Marzo during the quarter century the doctor spent with the team.
“Going on the field was kind of like a tag team,” Carpenter said. “I’m talking to the player, trying to get him relaxed, while he is doing the exam.”
The two men mostly stood side-by-side during games, migrating together as players moved up and down the field, so they could get to injured players as quickly as possible.
Work weeks for both men could stretch to 90 hours or more.
“Everybody looks at the glamour part of being a team physician,” Carpenter said. “’I saw you on TV. Isn’t that neat?’ They don’t understand the number of hours that you’re away from your family. Your general practice and your surgeries are one thing, but they’re covering us a couple of days a week, taking care of and looking at players. You’re on the road at least 10 weekends a year. You leave on Saturday and get home late on Sunday night. We’ve played on Christmas Day. We’ve flown on Christmas Day. We’ve played on New Year’s, played on Thanksgiving. While it’s our job and our livelihood, and we chose that, still you’re gone.”
Marzo also was key in deciding when a player could return to the field.
“We see the weirdest injuries in football,” he said. “Correcting those kinds of problems and getting a player back on the field is so gratifying. When they say thanks, it really makes you feel good.”
Carpenter, positional coaches, the head football coach and the player also weighed in on when to resume playing time – as did the team owner.
“I can tell you Ralph Wilson stories that would shock you,” Marzo said. “It would be the most important player on the team and he would say, ‘I’ve heard from him and he thinks he’s ready, but don’t take any risks. I don’t want you to play him if you’re not really sure.’”
Steve Tasker was among players Marzo and Carpenter helped keep on the field. The Bills picked up the special teams ace in 1986, when the Houston Oilers waived him after he suffered a knee injury. Weiss performed right knee surgery on him in 1989 and Marzo cleaned up Tasker’s knee before he started his last season in 1997. He also turned to Marzo for left shoulder surgery about seven years ago.
“He was somebody I trusted implicitly with my health and well-being and protection of my career,” said Tasker, a CBS-TV football broadcaster.
The door to Marzo’s office was slammed shut more than once after he had to tell a player he couldn’t play a game – or worse, that the player should end his career for health and safety reasons, he said.
“I think there might be a better atmosphere now for players self-reporting concussions and head injuries,” Tasker said, “but for the most part players are kind of the same as when I played. Only the players who play with discomfort play in the NFL because it’s such a physical game. One of the characteristics of that is a guy who wants to play through pain and maybe through an injury.”
“At the end of the day,” Carpenter said, “you need to put your head on a pillow knowing you did the very best thing for that player.”
That team commitment may have been most pronounced on opening day 2007, when tight end Kevin Everett suffered a spinal cord injury. Marzo and Carpenter were the first to start treating him before sending him by ambulance to Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital, where Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, one of Marzo’s then-Northtown Orthopedics partners, provided an unconventional treatment that ultimately helped Everett regain his ability to walk.
Nine days earlier, the medical and training staffs worked with EMTs on a training exercise to prepare for such an emergency.
“John ran the scenarios,” Carpenter said, and wrote up a protocol afterward, one he would pass along to NFL headquarters less than two weeks later at the request of Commissioner Roger Goddell.
“It was a team effort all the way,” the former Bills training director recalled. “The bottom line, and John said this, ‘You know what we did that day? We did what we were supposed to do and we did what we practiced.’”
Marzo remembers “a little light bulb” going off in the early 2000s that told him the demands of his professional life were having an impact at home. His daughters, Morgan, Jillian and Kara, were about 8, 6 and 4 years old, respectively. He’d just squeezed two Bills road games into his schedule over 12 days, along with two Sabres home games, two nights on call, and his regular regimen of office visits and surgeries. He had a Friday dinner with family before telling his kids he was off to HSBC Arena when Jillian asked, “Daaddy, another hockey game?”
He already had recruited Dr. Leslie Bisson to join him and other doctors at Northtowns Orthopedics.
“I told him he could have a hockey team to take care of as soon as he arrived,” Marzo said. “That was appealing to him. He loves hockey, grew up in Minneapolis. I’m so happy that he came here, so happy that he stayed. … I love it in Western New York and speak of it in incredibly high terms but I was a little worried he would not stay here forever. It’s been 20 years already.”
Bisson took over as Sabres head team physician in 2003 and worked as an assistant to Marzo with the Bills until Marzo stepped down from that post on New Year’s Eve 2014. Bisson assumed the medical director role with the Bills, and his former Sabres assistant, Dr. Marc Fineberg, took the head team physician job with the Sabres.
“It was a world of difference in my time and in my schedule,” Marzo said. “Immediately, I started doing simple things because I could: going with my brothers on fishing trips, snowmobiling trips, golf trips, being home with my wife and daughters for all the holidays.” He and his wife also have attended all of their youngest daughter’s lacrosse games – home and away – since Kara, now 20, enrolled almost three years ago at Colgate, her father’s alma mater.
Several things help explain Marzo’s decision to rebalance his life. He and Bisson left Northtowns Orthopedics for UBMD Ortho in 2007 because they wanted to spend more time teaching and conducting research. Marzo has lost a former college teammate and medical school classmate in recent years. Wilson died in March 2014 at age 95, and Terry and Kim Pegula bought the team that September.
“I felt really loyal to Mr. Wilson, about being his team doctor,” Marzo said, “not that I wouldn’t have with the Pegulas. I just didn’t know them. When new ownership came, that’s when I thought, ‘Maybe now is the time to make a transition.’”
The NFL also had changed since the heydays for Marzo and Carpenter. Players including Tasker and others of his era lived year round in Buffalo, creating tight-knit relationships with team trainers and doctors. When someone needed knee or shoulder surgery, Marzo was most likely to perform it.
“I became less and less the orthopedic surgeon of the team and more and more of what I’ll call the musculoskeletal administrator. I would make diagnoses and come up with treatment plans, and players and agents would end up seeking care elsewhere, for various reasons. It became less fulfilling for me.”
“Today,” Tasker said, “if guys get to their second contract, it’s a life-changer. Not everybody signed life-changing contracts when I played. Now, players have the independence and freedom to live and train anywhere they want,” as well as choose their own trainers, doctors and other specialists outside team facilities.
Carpenter and his wife of 32 years, Kathy, adopted a daughter from China a decade ago. Sarah is now 12 and the just-retired Bills trainer has told her, “I’m not going to be leaving on Sunday and gone for the next day to be at the combine physicals. I’m not going to be five weeks at training camp. I’m not going to be gone for the recheck physicals for two days. I’m not going to be gone 10 weekends every year. That’s a big thing in a child’s life – and it’s a big thing in our life.”
Instead of hobnobbing with coaches and athletes, and spending more time with friends and family, Marzo has stepped up his teaching role. The former UB assistant clinical professor and associate professor became a professor three months ago.
Marzo only sees patients Tuesdays in Amherst and Fridays at the Coventus Building, next door to the new medical school. He helps teach medical students, 25 residents and two fellows, including in the medical school’s new Surgical Skills Simulation Center. Empire State Development, the Cummings Foundation and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation were key in covering construction and equipment costs.
Mostly residents and fellows use the simulation center equipment, grasping medical instruments to put rings on pegs, push balls along mazes and conduct virtual surgeries using specialized software, all to hone fine motor skills.
Grilli, who’s working for the Bills during her UB fellowship, used one of the four simulators earlier this week to replicate surgery to repair a torn meniscus. “It feels like you’re poking something,” she said as she held a instruments that allowed her to trim away what looked like partly shredded piece of cartilage on the computer screen in front of her.
Grilli praised Bisson, Marzo, Carpenter and others for the knowledge she is gaining while in Buffalo. She will remain in Western New York until her fellowship ends in July, maybe even longer. She said she was swept up along with others on hand at New Era Field on Dec. 10 for the snow game between the Colts and the Bills, a key win in Buffalo’s march toward the playoffs. It cemented her affection for the team and its city.
“We were standing on the snow mounds trying to watch the game and couldn’t see anything,” she said. “I was a Bills fan for life after that and will remember that for the rest of my life.”
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon