Former Michigan player says team doctor's abuse had lasting impact

Former Michigan player says team doctor's abuse led to incurable fate (5:11)

Artist Chuck Christian is suffering the consequences of a long-held fear that first developed when he met Dr. Robert Anderson while playing football for the Wolverines. (5:11)

Chuck and LaDonna Christian sat side by side in front of the relative stranger wearing a white lab coat. They had assumed they would be on their way home by now, waiting for a phone call to give them Chuck's test results. Instead, the doctor had told them to stick around for a few extra minutes.

LaDonna, a professor of nursing with years of experience in the field, knew doctors don't ask patients to wait for good news to be delivered in person. She laced her fingers around her husband's large hand and squeezed. Chuck, then a 57-year-old former University of Michigan football player, knew it, too.

Warning signs had started to appear about a decade earlier. It wasn't until LaDonna noticed Chuck making eight to 10 nightly trips to the bathroom that she put her foot down and demanded he see a doctor. He hated seeing doctors.

The doctor in front of them now explained that a healthy person's prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels fall somewhere less than four nanograms per milliliter. Anywhere between four and 10 is suspicious, and anything in double digits is considered a very dangerous sign of cancer. Chuck's levels were in the high 60s.

Chuck had screamed bloody murder during the prostate check that morning. The doctor said his gland was as hard as a rock. The numbers confirmed what the physical exam indicated: prostate cancer.

Had they caught it years ago, the doctor told them, it might have been fixed with a relatively routine procedure. But a biopsy showed that the cancerous cells had spread to Chuck's lymph nodes, spine, ribs and shoulder. Chemotherapy could help fight the growth, but it wouldn't provide a cure. Chuck had about three years left to live.

"Why didn't you get this checked out?" LaDonna asked.

"I don't know. I don't know," Chuck said. "I just couldn't go."

The real answer would take years to emerge.

Four years later, having already outlived expectations, Chuck Christian now spends the majority of his time sleeping in his basement bedroom. Shortly after he told his family that he was sick, his sons redecorated the unused space in the family's suburban Boston home to give him somewhere to escape.

They found old programs from Wolverines football games in the late 1970s, when Christian was on the roster as a tight end. They found pennants touting the 1981 Rose Bowl that the team won in his final collegiate game. They hung pictures of the team, with Christian's thick Afro standing out above the line of other players by his side. One of his sons, a graphic designer, painted one wall with the famed motto coined by Christian's old coach, Bo Schembechler: "Those who stay will be champions."

The room is quiet. It provides fond memories and a space for some of the Eastern medicine devices Christian picked up from an energy healer over the past couple of years. He nixed chemotherapy after one session. He was skeptical about the energy healer at first, but he wasn't going to spend the final years of his life trying to prolong the inevitable -- especially not if it meant regular trips to the doctor.

Christian was lying in the basement bed on a cold afternoon in February when his phone buzzed against the mattress. He blinked himself awake and fumbled through the sheets. He smiled when he saw a text message from an old teammate. He opened the message -- and his smile disappeared. He quickly dialed his old friend to try to make sense of what he was reading.

"Hey, Skywalker, how you feeling today?" the teammate asked Christian, who had earned the nickname for his leaping ability in college.

Christian sat in stunned silence as his teammate explained more details about the Detroit News article linked in the message. The story was about their former team physician.

Robert E. Anderson had been dead for more than a decade, but Christian says none of his teammates at Michigan would have trouble remembering the name.

"They're saying all the horrible things he did to us was illegal," Christian's teammate explained on the phone. "They said it's a crime."

Christian listened to the details of the story and felt like there were explosions going off in his mind. Answers to questions he never fully understood were falling into place.

"I had always felt like it was wrong," he said. "But I had no proof because nobody ever said it was wrong."

Anderson worked at the University of Michigan in some capacity from 1968 until his retirement in 2003. For most of that time, he served as a staff doctor for several of the school's athletic teams, including football, wrestling and track and field. According to the university, roughly 6,800 student-athletes competed for Michigan during Anderson's time on campus. Michigan is now attempting to find out how many of those athletes Anderson might have sexually abused.

The university's police department launched an investigation in 2018, several months after a former wrestler wrote a letter describing Anderson's conduct to current athletic director Warde Manuel. The detectives spoke to several former athletes who felt violated decades earlier by Anderson's treatments during annual physical exams and other medical appointments. Tad Deluca, the former wrestler, told police at his alma mater that "no matter what you saw Dr. Anderson for, you would get a hernia check, a prostate check and a penis examination."

According to statements made by some of his former patients to police and in civil lawsuits, Anderson inserted a finger into their rectums or fondled their genitals when they visited him for problems such as elbow injuries, ankle injuries and turf burn. Other former athletes say Anderson asked inappropriate questions about their sex lives. One patient told police that the doctor exposed himself in the exam room and made the patient touch his penis. Another said he visited Anderson for a pituitary gland issue, and the doctor made him lie fully naked on an exam table before grabbing his genitals "like a gear shifter."

More than three dozen former athletes have filed federal lawsuits claiming that the university failed to heed warning signs and stop Anderson from preying on his patients. More than 300 others have retained a lawyer, according to estimates provided by a handful of the law firms involved in the burgeoning case. Those lawsuits claim that Anderson's treatment of patients was a poorly kept secret on campus, and athletes often coped by joking about the doctor, giving him nicknames such as "Dr. A for Anal" and "Dr. Drop Your Drawers."

Deluca said he first complained about Anderson in a 1975 letter to his wrestling coaches. According to Deluca, Bill Johannesen ridiculed him in front of his teammates for making the complaint, and then-athletic director Don Canham attempted to take away his scholarship.

Johannesen denied receiving a complaint about Anderson in an interview with the Associated Press in February. Canham died in 2005.

A track athlete complained in 1976 to two of his coaches, Jack Harvey and Ron Warhurst, according to a lawsuit filed anonymously in March. The athlete says in the court filing that the two coaches "laughed" at his complaint and refused to act. An attorney working for Harvey and Warhurst told ESPN that neither of the former coaches "recall anything even remotely resembling the conversation described by John Doe."

In February, University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel apologized publicly to "anyone who was harmed by Dr. Anderson." The school has hired a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, WilmerHale, to investigate its past responses to complaints about Anderson. WilmerHale's findings will be released to the public in full, according to the university.

Chuck Christian had not yet set foot on the university's campus when Deluca and the anonymous track athlete say they alerted coaches about Anderson. In 1975 and 1976, Christian was a towering teenager deciding if and where he would attend college.

Christian grew up as the youngest of seven siblings with a single mother in a three-bedroom, one-parent home on Detroit's poor east side. His father provided him with athletic genes, a mechanical, problem-solving mind and not much else. Nevertheless, Christian says he grew up happy.

Christian's mother did her best to keep up with her youngest and fastest-growing son. She was handy enough with a sewing machine to keep his clothes in good shape, but she was no match for his feet. Christian's shoe size matched his age from the time he was 7 years old until his 16th birthday.

The family couldn't afford to buy a new pair each year. When seams or soles inevitably burst, Christian would scrounge up some glue to reattach them, wedging the toes underneath a table while the two pieces set back in place. The weight of the table leg would leave an imprint just below the laces that would take days to fade. That was often the first thing other guys noticed when Christian and his brother strolled up to an outdoor court looking for a pickup game.

"I'd show up to the park," Christian said, "and they'd tell me, 'I ain't never seen shoes with no dimples in them before.'"

Even his shoes looked like they were smiling.

College coaches started to notice Christian for other reasons. He was 6-foot-4 and was dunking by the time he reached high school. He weighed at least 200 pounds and had the frame to add much more.

Football's signing day fell before basketball's in the recruiting calendar, and Christian wanted to take no risks. He was interested in attending Indiana, but his mother convinced him that it would be easier to see him if he stayed closer to home, so in the spring of 1977, Christian accepted a scholarship to play football for Schembechler at the University of Michigan.

Everything about the campus just 45 minutes west of where Chuck Christian grew up felt "bigger than life." The buildings, the teammates and the expectations were all daunting. Christian says he was one of the top students in his high school, but at Michigan, the freshman classes were harder. He was one of the largest kids on his previous teams, but at Michigan, the hits on the field all cracked louder.

Christian's experience with doctors before arriving at college was minimal. He got an annual checkup -- part of the high school's required sports physical in which the doctor asked him to "turn his head and cough" -- but not much more. It made sense to Christian, though, that his first physical exam at college would be "next-level," too.

Team trainers told him to report to the University Health Service building on Fletcher Street a couple of weeks after he arrived on campus, and there he met Dr. Anderson. He waited in a lobby for several minutes, along with another freshman from the football program, before going to Anderson's office alone. The short, stout doctor ran through some routine tests. Then Christian says Anderson told him to remove his shorts and bend over the exam table for a purported prostate exam.

Christian says he howled while Anderson put his fingers inside of him.

"He was a fat doctor with fat fingers. That hurt like crazy," he said. "I was screaming in pain, but I knew not to scream at him because I knew I had to do that to play. It wasn't going to do me any good to scream at him."

Christian remembers leaving the exam room and spotting the classmate who had been with him in the lobby. Christian's face prompted the other young man to ask if Anderson had done it to him, too.

"Oh, yes, what was that?" Christian said. "I feel violated."

"Me, too, man," the teammate said. "Me, too."

Two different sports physicians with more than a half-century of combined experience at the collegiate level told University of Michigan police investigating Anderson that there was no need to conduct a prostate exam on a healthy 18-year-old man. When asked by police if it would have been normal during the 1970s to check the prostate of a college athlete, former University of Wisconsin team doctor Greg Landry said, "Absolutely not."

Christian returned to see Anderson each year as part of his required preseason physical. He started dating a nursing student named LaDonna Combs during his sophomore season. He grew comfortable enough with her to complain about having to see Anderson prior to one of his appointments as an upperclassman.

"He mentioned it to me because he thought, 'This isn't right,'" LaDonna recalled. "I thought it was normal. I didn't realize that was something they didn't do for physicals. We're not trained on male physical exams and things like that."

According to Keeli Sorensen, the vice president of victim services at RAINN, victims who think something is wrong when dealing with an authority figure might mistakenly blame themselves for the inappropriate behavior, and that is one of several reasons incidents of sexual abuse are not reported. Sorensen says men and boys also face societal expectations that might discourage them from reporting.

"Men are portrayed as being embodiments of strength, and there is an assumption that fighting is a more possible reaction for them," Sorensen said. "That's just not how the brain reacts to trauma. We have fight, flight and freeze reactions, and we cannot dictate how we'll react in a moment of crisis."

Several former athletes who have shared their stories about Anderson in lawsuits and interviews over the past few months say they felt obligated to continue seeing him if they wanted to keep playing and maintain their scholarships.

"These kids didn't have a choice," said Michael Wright, an attorney from the Wright and Schulte firm who has worked on large-scale sexual assault cases and says he has more than 125 former Michigan athletes signed on as clients. "A lot of these kids, this was their way out. They had to endure assaults. That was the only way they could play. A lot of them were too scared or intimidated. They knew this wasn't comfortable or thought that it was wrong. They felt powerless, as most sexual assault victims do."

Wright represents Christian but has not yet filed lawsuits on behalf of any of his clients. He said they are hoping to work out an agreement with the university without using the legal system but are prepared to sue if that doesn't yield the results they want.

Chuck Christian graduated from Michigan in the winter of 1981 with a degree in fine arts. He married LaDonna, and they moved to Boston so he could start a job in finance.

The memories of Anderson's exam room faded to the background of Christian's otherwise treasured experience of playing football for the Wolverines. The couple had three boys and raised them as die-hard Michigan sports fans. When Christian left his finance job after just a few years in Boston to pursue his dream of painting for a living, several of his most loyal clients and subjects came from his alma mater and the sports world.

By the time he reached his mid-40s, Christian had built a thriving business painting murals. That left him time to coach his sons' youth football teams and attend their other games. He also settled into his role as the older guy in the YMCA men's basketball league who still had enough game to hang with the college kids. He was, according to LaDonna, still a physically fit ball of nonstop energy.

It was as much odd as it was alarming, then, when Christian started to find blood in his bodily fluids in the early 2000s. He begrudgingly made an appointment to get checked out. After a few tests, the doctor informed Christian that he needed a digital exam to make sure his prostate was functioning properly. Christian assumed that would mean some type of technological scan followed by images on a computer screen. Then the doctor turned to pull on a pair of gloves and lubricate his finger.

"Just hearing that glove snap, it was like, 'Oh, God, no,'" Christian said. "I just kind of freaked out. I said never again. So I left, and we never had the test done."

LaDonna has always needled her husband about his general distaste for the doctor's office. Neither she nor Chuck made the connection to the passing comments about Anderson that they shared as college students. For as long as LaDonna had known him, Chuck had never met a problem he couldn't solve himself. She assumed he had the same attitude about his health.

When something broke at the house, Chuck fixed it. When the furniture company movers couldn't figure out how to get their new bedroom set through the doorway, LaDonna told them to just leave it in the hallway because her husband would figure it out. And he did. When he broke a finger playing basketball with his three boys, he found a couple popsicle sticks and fashioned a makeshift splint.

"Growing up, we always saw him as that, as Superman," said the couple's oldest son, Micah. "We always saw him as this invincible hero."

Chuck still felt invincible, despite the early warning signs. He didn't think twice about making his regular trips to the local YMCA to play basketball. He still enjoyed driving through the neighborhood to fill all the seats of the 15-passenger van he purchased for the purpose of bringing as many kids as possible to the gym with him and his sons when they went to play. He could still hit a deep 3-pointer over a defender in one of his league games and maintain the energy to holler, "I got kids older than you, boy!" as he backpedaled and laughed.

It wasn't hubris or some false sense of invincibility that kept Chuck from taking care of the cancer silently eating away at him. It was fear. Chuck says he never forgot what Anderson did to him or how it made him feel, but until recently, he had not completely connected the dots.

"If they had got that bastard out of there, I would have been able to get my exam done," he said. "They would have taken out my prostate, and I would have been fine. But now they're talking about 'two months to live.'"

Chuck Christian has made two trips to the hospital since the start of 2020, when his pain became too much to manage at home. Most of the time, LaDonna keeps a schedule taped to the kitchen wall to track the regimen of drugs he needs to be able to get out of bed and get up and down the stairs. Six times a day, she hands him a few pills to swallow: 60 milligrams of morphine in the middle of the night, 300 milligrams of Gabapentin with 1,000 milligrams of Tylenol in the morning. She matches them with other medicine to counteract the side effects of opioids and reduce swelling in the prostate. The daily routine leaves Chuck with little energy to do more than sleep.

The cancer didn't start to really take its toll until this past winter. In the first couple of years after he was diagnosed, Chuck and his family traveled to Italy, Mexico and Hawaii. He and LaDonna went zip lining and took open-door helicopter tours. Chuck was close to convincing her to try skydiving when he started to run out of steam.

In January, Chuck and Micah continued to go to the gym every morning to do whatever exercise Chuck could handle that day. By February, that became too painful. The occasional sleepovers he and LaDonna hosted with their seven grandchildren went away as well. When Chuck tried to go for walks, he couldn't get farther than three or four houses down the street before he needed to turn back.

Then, in late February, the phone buzzed. Chuck's old teammate sent the message about Dr. Anderson and the stories starting to appear in the newspaper. The teammate told him that a few former Michigan athletes were coming forward to share what happened to them. Chuck decided that he wanted to speak up, too. He started by telling his sons why he had avoided the doctor for so long.

"That just broke my heart," said Aaron, Chuck and LaDonna's middle child. "I'm not going to get all the time I'm supposed to get with my father because of this stupid situation that happened. Because of this stupid situation, my kids aren't going to be able to play ball with their grandpa or spend time with their grandpa. I just feel robbed, really. I feel robbed."

Chuck learned about the reported attempts to warn coaches at Michigan about Anderson before he arrived on campus. He told LaDonna about the men who were now saying that leaders at their alma mater ignored them. Now LaDonna has a hard time even walking into the basement room with the big "Block M" logo and the Schembechler motto painted on the wall.

But the room remains a sanctuary for Chuck. The rest of his life provides plenty of reminders of the toll Anderson took on him. He says looking up at the pictures on the basement wall helps him separate and preserve the memories he has of his teammates and of playing college football.

When Anderson does creep into his thoughts, Chuck says he thinks about the missed opportunities to stop him. Had earlier complaints been heeded, Chuck knows, he might never have met the doctor. That makes him angry.

Chuck said he wishes Anderson were still alive. He said he wants to watch the doctor's face and explain to him the chain reaction of pain his actions have caused for so many. He said he's happy that he has lived long enough -- longer than his doctors expected -- to reckon with that part of his life as claims about Anderson become public. He sees what might be his final months as a chance to deliver a message, one that he hopes will apply to victims of Anderson and any other sexual abuse.

"You don't want to let --," his voice cracks. He pauses to exhale deeply and steady his nerves. "You don't want to let that man kill you twice."

ESPN investigative producer Greg Amante contributed to this story.