Sept. 24, 2010
Doctor, Doctor, Making The News
Former Irish, NFL linebacker Brian Ratigan now an orthopedic surgeon at Notre Dame
By Lou Somogyi
In August 1989, Notre Dame freshman linebacker Brian Ratigan arrived at the practice football field feeling the way comedian George Gobel did during a 1969 appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
Gobel followed Bob Hope and Dean Martin as a guest, prompting him to quip to host Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”
Ranked as the No. 5 athlete in the country by SuperPrep, and the Gatorade Player of the Year in Iowa, Ratigan suddenly found himself amidst football talent that ranks among any in college football over the past 50 years.
From 1987-90, Notre Dame reeled in four consecutive classes that recruiting analysts deemed No. 1 in the nation. It won the 1988 national title and was on the threshold of winning a school-record 23rd straight game in Ratigan’s freshman year while defeating seven teams that would finish in the top 18.
Yet here was the 6-4, 215-pound Ratigan suddenly feeling like the proverbial brown shoes after having undergone knee surgery on July 3 for his torn cartilage.
“I tried to practice right away and my knee really got swollen three or four days into training camp,” Ratigan recalled. “So they made me sit out, and it was embarrassing to sit out. You’re just meeting the guys and now you can’t play — it’s not a good thing.”
While Ratigan rode a stationary bike during one of those early practices, head coach Lou Holtz started walking toward him.
“I don’t even know him, other than from recruiting,” Ratigan said. “He walks by me, stops, looks, and says: `That’s too bad, son. You could have been a good player here’ — and kept walking.
“You don’t think I got off that bike right away? I put my helmet back on and begged [trainer] Jim Russ to get back in there.”
Ratigan did not pass his original physical exam and was sidelined in the opener. Yet by the end of his freshman year he earned the first of his four monograms at linebacker and as a special teams mainstay.
Throughout his career as both an inside and outside linebacker, Ratigan always seemed overshadowed by an All-American linebacker, from Ned Bolcar in 1989, to Michael Stonebreaker in 1990, to classmate Demetrius DuBose in 1991-92.
He still wasn’t a starter as a senior in 1992, but he became a standout situational player, particularly on third downs. His fourth-quarter interception of an Elvis Grbac pass set up the tying score in the 17-17 verdict against Michigan, and his fumble recovery versus Penn State helped set up another score in the thrilling 17-16 “Snow Bowl” victory.
Regardless, it was a testament to the program’s depth — a 17-game winning streak would take place in 1992-93 — that Ratigan still latched on as a free agent with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts from 1993-95, even though he was on the injured reserve list as a rookie with a ruptured disc in his back and a nasty foot drop, where the nerve is so pinched you can’t raise your foot.
After playing all of 1994 for the Colts, Ratigan hurt his shoulder in 1995 but didn’t tell the organization while getting it operated on by Notre Dame team physician Will Yergler.
Ratigan was talented enough to be brought back in ’96, but was released after suffering yet another injury, this time the knee again, in the final preseason game.
All the battle wounds became a source of inspiration to Ratigan, who began to develop a friendship with the team doctors.
“Even when I was with the Colts, you see the [doctors] coming around, I would ask, `Hey, what do you do, how do you do it?’ ” he said. Soon, he would be doing the same.
From Patient To Surgeon
At St. Albert’s in Council Bluffs, Ratigan was a National Honor Society member and class president, and posted a 3.97 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale while taking advanced courses in accounting, calculus and physics. His lone “B” came in American literature during his junior year.
A pre-med path was what Ratigan intended to follow in college, but through the guidance of Notre Dame icon Dr. Emil Hofman, a curriculum was set up where the option to attend medical school would still be there after completing his undergraduate work. Hofman reasoned that balancing the demands of the football program with pre-med classes would be too onerous.
“It was good advice,” Ratigan said. “I did fine in the freshman core courses he recommended, but from what I was used to in high school, I was getting crushed and I wasn’t happy with my GPA.”
Ratigan still posted well above a B average while graduating from the College of Business Administration with a major in marketing. Frank Eck, one of the greatest benefactors in Notre Dame annals, struck up a friendship with Ratigan and was ready to hire him in one of his regional offices.
“I was really excited about that whole prospect of a business life,” Ratigan said. “I loved business, and thought it was what I wanted to do. And then when I got to the end of school, I was like, `This is good, but I wish I had still gone to medical school.’ “
Because his curriculum at Notre Dame was so challenging, Ratigan discovered that he needed to take only four other post-graduate classes — biology, chemistry, organic chemistry and physics — to take his MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) for admission into medical school. Ratigan took those courses at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis during the offseason with the Colts.
In 1996, Ratigan married his college sweetheart, Maura, who became a “Double Domer” that same year while graduating from Notre Dame’s law school. The pair headed east and lived in Washington, D.C., with Brian working for a year with a company that sold weighted training vests.
In 1998, Ratigan was admitted into Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, his wife’s home area. He spent his residency there in orthopedic surgery and began his team physician experience with the Philadelphia Phillies from 2004-07, and also joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006-07.
His fellowship work then ensued in 2007 at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, where he worked with virtually all of the top Los Angeles professional sports teams, including the Dodgers and Lakers — and, gasp, even some work for USC football.
What was gratifying is he realized he had found his calling.
“My mom was a nurse for 40 years, and my dad was a forklift mechanic, so between those two things I combined them,” Ratigan reflected. “You use your hands, and I like to work with tools, but I like helping people above all. I always wanted to be a doctor, treat people. I like to teach if I know something.”
There was one ultimate goal still in mind.
“From the moment I went to med school, my goal was to get back to Notre Dame,” Ratigan said. “I love Notre Dame, everything about it, and I wanted to be a team doctor for the football team from day one.”
Most of the team doctors from his playing days were still around, and he wasn’t timid about making his aspirations to return to Notre Dame known to them. While in Los Angeles, he studied under Dr. Stephen J. Lombardo, the Lakers’ team doctor who is good friends with longtime Irish team physician Fred Ferlic.
On Aug. 26, 2008, the South Bend Orthopedics staff that included Ferlic, Yergler and David Bankoff, another longtime Notre Dame team doctor, brought aboard Ratigan.
“I told them from the very beginning I want a shot at working with football,” Ratigan said. “Dave Bankoff sat me down a couple of times and he said, `Look, nothing is a guarantee in life. You have a lot of experience in baseball with the Phillies and the Dodgers and the Angels in the fellowship, so we can help you to transition to baseball first at Notre Dame.’ “
Well trained in the Tommy John procedure at the place where it was invented, Ratigan was also a star baseball player who was recruited for the sport by Stanford. After graduating from Notre Dame, Ratigan actually was invited to a workout with the Florida Marlins under Jim Hendry (now the general manager for the Chicago Cubs). Ratigan grew up from kindergarten through high school with Brian O’Connor, who coached at Notre Dame under Paul Mainieri and is now the baseball coach at Virginia.
“Sports opened up a lot of opportunities for me, and I want to help give these kids the same opportunities,” Ratigan said.
This year, Bankoff, Ratigan and Chris Balint are serving as the team orthopedic surgeons for football, which has Ratigan regularly out on the practice field to evaluate health issues, from MRIs to performing minor to major surgical procedures.
“You get excited going to work because you get to operate, and then you get to see patients some days and work toward getting them better,” Ratigan said. “I get to see a variety of injuries and I like dealing with athletes. I played sports all the time and I think I can get people back on the field because I’ve had my own injuries, so I can relate, I can empathize … I can tell them how hard or how easy it will be to get back, what they can expect and be realistic about it.
“I will impress upon them that you’re going to get banged up, but there’s a way to get patched up and get back out there.”
The father of three sons, Sean (11), Conor (9) and Austin (2), and a daughter, Kelly (6), Ratigan and Maura are awaiting their fifth addition to the brood anytime between Sept. 4-18.
The New Era
Ratigan first arrived at Notre Dame during a halcyon football era, and he believes another could be emerging under Brian Kelly.
“I don’t want to get overly excited about anything, but his grasp on football is obviously phenomenal,” Ratigan said. “His interaction with the media is great, but his interaction with the players — I’ve seen how players respond to him. I would have loved to have played for him, and that’s probably the best compliment I can give. He will get everything out of you as long as you do your part. He’ll lead you in the right direction if you give the effort. I was more than happy to give the effort, and this team is giving it.
“I don’t see the day to day operations in meetings, but I can only imagine how efficient they are, just like practice. He’s a master of efficiency and has a very strong personality. His wife seems to be very strong as well, having been a cancer survivor. I’m excited about getting to know him better over the years.”
Although it will be difficult to match the talent level from his era, Ratigan said there is plenty to work with today.
“The talent we had was ridiculous,” Ratigan said of his days with the Irish. “We had 10 to 14 guys going to the pros every year. But when I walk through the locker room and on to the practice field now, I am so impressed with the abilities of these players.
“I can’t tell you we were more talented than these guys. I think we had a great group who played together, but the talent I see out there now … these linebackers are phenomenal with their abilities. It’s just about playing together and getting the teamwork down, which I think they’re being taught how to play like college kids now.”
Like virtually everyone else, Ratigan also is impressed with the tempo of practices.
“I used to go off the field, take my helmet off, take a knee, get a breather for three or four plays, and then go back in,” he said. “Now, they come off the field, their helmets stay on, their chinstraps are buckled, and they might be in the very next play. I love it. They’re practicing like a game situation. The game’s going to be fun for them.”
Having played in the pros, Ratigan especially appreciates the “college touch” Kelly provides after serving as a college head coach the past two decades.
“It’s totally different in the college and pro level,” Ratigan said. “Your expectations are a whole different level. You have academics and you have other things to juggle. You have social relationships with people from all over the country that you’re trying to get to know. Coming from Iowa, I was meeting people from New York and California and Texas, and Notre Dame’s a hotbed for everything. So culturally, I learned as much as anything academically …
“And then you meet all these different people on the team. There’s a lot more than just showing up to work. The NFL is a 9 to 5 job. Is it the best job? Sure. It’s pretty darn good. The pay is one thing, but the schedule is easy, you work out, you’re paid to stay in shape. It’s very much like a job. Is it fun? It’s still fun to go out and play, but it’s not as fun as going through college where everybody is the same age, compared to when you’re 22 and the guy you’re going against is 35 and is annoyed with you because it’s like, `Get rid of this little pesky guy.’ “
He might have felt like a brown shoe in his initial days on the Notre Dame practice field, but Ratigan these days is back in his tuxedo world.