VOL. 132 | NO. 150 | Monday, July 31, 2017
Marching Band to NFL: Vanderbilt Doctor’s Unlikely Path
John Glennon, Nashville Correspondent
When the NFL sought a worthy selection for the first chief medical officer in league history, it turned its eyes to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
In hiring Dr. Allen Sills earlier this year, the league brought on a whirlwind of intelligence and energy with a lengthy curriculum vitae.
Sills’ formidable challenge as he approaches his first NFL season on the job will be to guide the health and research efforts of a highly entertaining, but intrinsically violent league.
One of his most challenging tasks? Continuing the NFL’s battle against concussion problems.
It’s an issue that’s only grown in prominence following the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 2,000 players against the league in 2012, the PBS documentary “League of Denial” in 2013, and the discovery that a number of former NFL players who’ve committed suicide were suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
But it’s easy to believe the NFL has found exactly the right man to look out for the health and safety of its players.
Among Sills’ many titles and accomplishments, he’s served as the co-director of Vanderbilt’s Sports Concussion Center since 2011 and as Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s professor of Neurological Surgery and Orthopedic Surgery.
“We sought a highly credentialed physician and leader with experience as a clinician researcher,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell explains. “Dr. Sills’ extensive experience caring for athletes (made him) the right choice for this important position.”
Sills also has helped raise four children, balancing his professional responsibilities with a desire to make an impact in his community. He served as a church elder for a decade in Memphis, sponsors a child through Compassion International and even coaches the Franklin Falcons youth baseball travel team.
“My wife would probably tell you I don’t sleep a whole lot, so that helps (my schedule),” Sills says.
“But we have a thing around our house that you create the time and the energy for things that are really important to you. So, all the things that we’ve been able to do are things I’m very passionate about.”
Sills, 52, calls his new occupation a dream job, one that allows him to combine his interest in the neurosciences with a lifelong love of sports.
A Starkville, Mississippi, native, Sills says it was his father who first fueled his sports interest.
“My father was a band director down at Mississippi State, so I grew up traveling with the bands and going to all the football and basketball games,” Sills recalls. “So that’s why sports are such a big part of my life, literally from the start.”
Sills earned his undergraduate degree from Mississippi State and admits to still having a few Bulldogs cowbells lying around the house. He left his mark on the campus, serving as president of the student body and being named the school’s most outstanding student leader and the most outstanding senior in the engineering school.
Just for kicks, Sills played the trombone in the school band, well enough to be named Mississippi State’s most outstanding musician four straight years.
“Back in the day, that was a pretty big part of my life,” Sills explains. “Both of my parents were musicians, so I spent a lot of time in bands.”
Sills, who graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has worked with both college and professional sports teams for nearly two decades.
He was the Memphis Grizzlies’ consulting team neurosurgeon from 2001 to 2009, and still holds that title with the Titans, Predators, Nashville Sounds and Vanderbilt’s athletic teams.
It was Sills’ work as an unaffiliated neuro-trauma consultant – an independent physician involved with concussion assessment – for the NFL at Titans games that, eventually, led to his being offered his current position with the league.
“I think what intrigued me about this job was not only the chance to have an impact on player health and safety in the NFL, but to also hopefully translate some of our knowledge and innovations into other levels of play and other sports,” Sills says.
“At the end of the day as a physician, we don’t tend to look at just football players. We tend to look at brain health and brain injuries, so that’s common across all sports. So, to the extent that we can apply what we’re learning and use that to make all sports safer, that’s a very, very intriguing part of the job for me.”
Sills thinks of his job as three missions – clinical care (overseeing the league’s efforts in promoting health and safety), injury research, and education and advocacy (engaging in other medical communities, promoting innovation and positive change).
“A typical day probably contains some elements of all those,” Sills points out. “I’m in very regular contact with our medical staffs. I’m also very frequently engaged with our research partners, where we’re looking at outcome measures, injury trends and things like that.
“And then I do a fair bit of traveling and speaking at meetings and groups, engaging with other research groups.”
Sills won’t have to deal with a hotter health-and-safety issue in the NFL than concussions, which have been blamed for a decrease in youth football participation and could theoretically threaten the future of the game at some point.
The number of reported concussions in the NFL fell from 275 in 2015 to 244 last year, but the latter figure was still greater than it was in both 2013 and 2014.
The NFL will implement this year a new and improved concussion protocol, Sills says, which teams use to evaluate players suspected of having a concussion. But he acknowledges it’s still difficult even for accomplished physicians to immediately recognize concussions during a game.
“One of the big challenges right now is we don’t have a blood test or X-ray sign,” Sills says. “We’re strictly relying on clinical signs and symptoms, which means things the athlete tells us or else what they report about their own symptoms, as well as things we observe.”
Extensive video study of hits that have led to concussions is helping the NFL construct better-designed and better-fitting helmets, Sills says, with an interesting twist possible in years to come.
“We believe we’re probably moving into a situation where we’ll have position-specific helmets,” Sills explains.
“In other words, your wide receivers will wear one type of helmet, and the offensive linemen would wear another type of helmet. It’s really tailored to offer increased protection for those areas which tend to be involved in producing a concussion for those specific positions.”
Local ties remain
Though Sills will be spending a lot of time at the NFL offices in New York, as well as traveling, he still plans on calling Franklin home.
One reason is its relative proximity to Starkville, home of his beloved Bulldogs.
“My mom still lives down there, so we get down there to visit,” Sills says. “I’ve worked with Mississippi State and their athletes for probably 20 years now … so that’s still like a second home.”
Sills will also see the youngest of his four children graduate from high school this year.
And if he’s able to manage his time especially well, Sills will even continue to coach that Franklin Falcons youth baseball team, something he’s done since 2011.
“I’ve managed to do it through this year,” he says. “We’ll have to see going forward, but so far I have, at least on sort of a part-time basis, anyway.”
His new responsibilities also won’t stop him from maintaining his practice at Vanderbilt, he says, where he’ll continue to see patients and perform surgery from time to time.
He’s spent the last six years at Vanderbilt’s Sports Concussion Center with co-director Dr. Gary Solomon, who describes Sills as the kind of surgeon – and person – you’d want if you or a family member needed medical care.
“He’s just a really good guy,” Solomon says. “He’s trustworthy, honest, up front, caring, considerate, concerned and genuine. A real family guy. Vested in the community.
“If he is your friend, then you can always count on him.”
Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.