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Foot injury? For hundreds of NFL players, that means a trip to Green Bay

Illustration by Brandon Loving

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- All Davante Adams had to do was cross the street.

Cam Newton, Saquon Barkley and more than 200 other NFL players had to cross the country.

Look for the tubing hill -- even go down it if you're like Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport -- across from Lambeau Field, and you'll find the sports world's most famous foot and ankle specialist, Dr. Robert Anderson, at Bellin Health Titletown Sports Medicine and Orthopedics.

If Bellin Health built it, they believed Anderson would come. And because of him, 403 VIP clients, including 269 NFL players and a head coach, have come through the doors at the state-of-the-art facility since it opened in August 2017 in the NFL's smallest city.

For years, professional athletes from all walks of sports visited Anderson at his practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they've followed him to Green Bay.

"Before I took this job, I made some phone calls to some agents and other team physicians and head trainers asking what they think: 'Do you think guys will come to Green Bay to see me?' " Anderson said. "And I'll never forget one very well-known agent said: 'Well, they're not coming to Charlotte because you've got a nice airport.' "

But there are certainly more direct flights to Charlotte than Green Bay.

"That's not an issue for me as long as I'm going to see the right guy," said Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, who saw Anderson in Green Bay early in the 2018 season because of a bruised foot. "It's your livelihood, especially if you get the wrong opinion, you could do something to worsen your condition. So I think it's important to go see somebody.

"I had already traveled to Houston to see a doctor, so when it comes down to your career, it's not really a pain in the ass."

Adams didn't need to board a flight to see Anderson. He merely crossed Ridge Road, which bisects Lambeau Field and the Packers' growing Titletown District that also includes a park with outdoor games, fitness activities, a winter skating rink, tubing hill, the four-diamond hotel Lodge Kohler and Hinterland Restaurant and Brewery.

But he would have gone anywhere to see the most renowned foot specialist after his turf toe injury on Sept. 26.

"It's great having that resource right here," Adams said. "I know Saquon came to see him right before I did, but obviously I didn't have to travel. I'm not sure why he's in Green Bay of all places, given the guy he is, but it helps a lot."

The Bellin facility has a VIP entrance at the back of the building for the athletes who come from around the country -- and in some cases from other countries. Athletes from 37 states and five countries have visited Anderson since he has been in Green Bay.


'Who fixed that turf toe?'

To understand why Anderson is in Green Bay, it's necessary to understand how he became the foot and ankle guy.

It happened almost by accident.

Anderson, 62, studied under an orthopedic surgeon in Charlotte, Dr. Angus McBryde, who worked with the U.S. Olympic track athletes. At that time, the New York Giants sent a player with a foot injury to see McBryde. He and Anderson determined it was an injury to his sesamoid, a tiny bone beneath the joint in the big toe.

"At an early age I ended up becoming a guru about a bone this big," Anderson said, holding his thumb and index finger less than an inch apart.

But it's also the bone closest to where turf toe injuries occur.

"People, probably erroneously, made the relationship between my knowledge of the sesamoid issue with turf toe," Anderson said.

Shortly after Dr. Pat McKenzie joined the Packers' medical staff in 1991, he sent a player with turf toe, or sprained ligaments at the base of the big toe, to see Anderson and, according to Anderson, the player "came back and did very well, so the word got out that there's a guy who can fix turf toe and other foot and ankle injuries in athletes."

"From there, it was word of mouth," Anderson said. "It was trainer talking to trainer, [asking] 'Who fixed that turf toe?' "

When the NFL put a team in Charlotte for the 1995 season, Anderson became their foot and ankle consultant and later an assistant team physician. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked him to head up a foot and ankle study in 2003. He now chairs an NFL committee on muscular-skeletal studies.


Why Green Bay?

Anderson grew up in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and went to school with McKenzie at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

"Dr. McKenzie has been working on me for about 15 years," Anderson said. "He finally broke me down. I had been talking to him for years about coming up to Green Bay, but it was just never right."

Anderson retired as one of the Panthers' team physicians after the 2016 season but planned to keep his private practice in Charlotte until he listened to the recruiting pitch from McKenzie and Bellin, whose Titletown clinic was in the works.

And the athletes followed him.

Earlier this season, Newton was photographed walking through the Austin Straubel International Airport, and someone posted the picture on Twitter, asking why Newton would be in Green Bay more than a week in advance of the Panthers game against the Packers.

The answer, of course, was Anderson. Just days after he saw Anderson, Newton was placed on injured reserve because of his Lisfranc injury.

In November 2017, Richard Sherman posted a video on the eve of his Achilles surgery from Lodge Kohler.

Privacy laws prevent Anderson and Bellin from discussing specific clients, but Anderson described one player's visit to see him for surgery after last season.

"We had a first-round draft choice from one of the teams that came for surgery," Anderson said. "Surgery was planned for the next day, and that night he and his significant other were on the tubing hill multiple times. He's from the South, he's never seen tubing before. He bought the unlimited pass."

"Obviously it's not as convenient as flying to Charlotte or the other hubs. We tell the guys, just get here and it'll be stress-free." Dr. Robert Anderson

That player, Davenport admitted, was him during his visit in February.

"I went tubing right before because it just so happened to be right outside of the hotel," Davenport said. "Did it over and over again. But it was cold."

Said Anderson: "We had another guy come in for a second surgery and he and his significant other came a few days early just to enjoy the spa at Lodge Kohler because they liked it so much from the first visit. Obviously, it's not as convenient as flying to Charlotte or the other hubs. We tell the guys, just get here and it'll be stress-free."

Anderson is available to see amateur athletes, as well; that was one of his goals when he came to Green Bay.

"I bet it's two-thirds regional patients and one-third professional/VIP," Anderson said. "That's what we strived for. I'd love to be 90 percent regional, 10 percent professional just because the professional guys, you know, they're visible and these visits are oftentimes publicized. But really, there's so many young athletes out there -- young guys, the weekend warrior -- that really need access to quality care for their sport-related injuries as well, and that's what we're trying to do."


It's got to be the shoes

Of the 403 VIP visits, 167 of them resulted in surgery. Among Packers, Adams did not require surgery but coach Matt LaFleur did when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in June.

The nonsurgical visits to Anderson include a wide array of consulting tools to help him determine the proper course of healing. Among them is the "FitStation Powered by HP." All 32 NFL teams have them at their facilities, but when players come to Green Bay, they go through it with Anderson's help.

The device takes a 3D scan of a player's foot -- width, height, length and girth -- and then comes up with the proper shoe match for the player.

"We're trying to do a paradigm shift with the players and the manufacturers to look at the shoe as a protective piece of equipment, not apparel," Anderson said.

Anderson said most players come to the NFL with the wrong shoes.

"So now you've got a shoe that's not functioning right, that's not bending the way it should, and they're potentially placing themselves at more risk for fractures, turf toe and Lisfranc injuries," he said.

Anderson said many foot injuries are the result of players wearing the wrong shoes and cleats, especially when paired with artificial surfaces.

"We have a torque problem," he said. "The players want traction. To them, that's performance, and they want to do it in a lightweight shoe that has very little protection and, oh by the way, the shoe has to look good. So when that traction becomes too great and when those cleats catch in the seams of the artificial turf, it generates a lot of torque. If the torque doesn't release, you get a lower-extremity injuries."

The FitStation can help.

"We have an app that the player has available to him within the shoe company he works with to say these are the six best shoes in that size currently available," Anderson said. "We test all the shoes for bend in the front of the foot and how the cleats behave and we come up with a scoring sheet. And they have that available, too. It will have, 'not recommended for artificial turf,' and the rest of the shoes are rated."

Then there's the running lab and pressure-point analysis testing machine Anderson has at his disposal to further evaluate foot and ankle injuries.

'This is the guy that you go to'

Most of the VIP clients who have visited Anderson were referrals from team doctors and trainers, but it also has gotten to the point where agents contact Anderson directly when one of their players has an issue.

"It was a consensus. Everybody had talked and [said], 'This is the guy that you go to,'" Davenport said.

There's word of mouth among players, too.

"People reach out," said Adams, who said among those he heard from after his injury were Larry Fitzgerald and Eric Dickerson. "Obviously, the longer you've been in it, the more people you know with experience. I had a couple of guys reach out from other teams and give me guys that they know based on who went to who. Larry Fitz reached out to me, and I had never talked to him before, and he reached out to me about rehab-type stuff, which was really cool."

ESPN's Eric Williams and Mike Triplett contributed.