As one of the country’s foremost experts on sports medicine, Dr. Robert Kerlan has lived on intimate terms with pain. “In baseball,” he has found, “the throwers are the most fragile because of the strain on the shoulder and elbow. With basketball the problem is just below the knee because of the jumping and decelerating. In football the major problem is the knee joint. It isn’t a true hinge. That’s where the toll is being taken. And with racquet sports it’s tennis elbow, which isn’t a disease at all but a reinjury situation. It’s like a carpenter who hits his thumb with a hammer again and again.”
Dr. Kerlan’s knowledge of pain comes not only from a career of treating athletes but from personal experience as well. He is so badly crippled by arthritis that he has had both hip joints replaced surgically. Yet his spirits soar. “Here I am, 54 years old,” he exults, “and I still feel like a kid.”
Bob Kerlan gets around like one. He is team physician to three Los Angeles pro clubs—the football Rams, the basketball Lakers and the hockey Kings. He is also the doctor at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita race tracks. In addition, Kerlan is medical director of the nonprofit National Athletic Health Institute in L.A., teaches orthopedic surgery at the University of Southern California (his alma mater) and tends to a thriving private practice. During one recent six-month stretch he saw 1,093 new patients.
A jovial bear of a man, Kerlan came by his profession naturally. His father was a Minnesota country doctor who “took care of everybody” in the environs of Aitkin (pop. 1,492). By the time young Bob was in high school he was making the rounds with his father. Despite the elder Kerlan’s modest fees (50 cents for an office visit, $1 per house call), “We had plenty to eat, even during the Depression,” his son recalls. “People brought us milk, turkeys, part of a cow.”
During young Kerlan’s residency at L.A. County Hospital, he met student nurse Rachel Frauenfelder. “When Rachel and I were married she was earning $20 a month and I got $18,” he remembers. Their rent was $37.50. “I sold blood and won at poker,” says Kerlan, chortling. “It was marvelous.”
By that time he was already wracked by arthritis. “I was sleeping in a plaster cast to try to keep from getting deformed,” he says. Still, he was able to indulge his love of sports—he’d been a nine-letter man back in Minnesota—by offering his services first to high school football squads, then a motorcycle speedway, finally to big league teams.
Over the years his patients have included such stars as Dodger hall-of-famer Sandy Koufax, the Lakers’ Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, and jockey Willie Shoemaker. Kerlan’s office in Inglewood is crammed with sports mementos, including a team photo of the Rams inscribed “To our hip doctor.”
One of his growing concerns these days is the prolonged season in nearly all sports—”toward the end, mental and physical fatigue leads to injuries.” Yet Kerlan bristles at the charge that team doctors keep injured pro athletes performing with excessive medication, even at long-term risk to players’ health. “I’ve never run into a team owner or general manager who would say, ‘Let’s not tell him how bad it really is,’ ” Kerlan insists. “I just think people are more decent than that. We’re still doctors first. Our obligation is to the patient.”
Nowadays Kerlan has to limit his own athletics to working out on a stationary bicycle in his Brentwood mansion and to cheering on his thoroughbred, Sir Arrival. Because of his arthritis, he can no longer operate, but he is pleased that his three children, Kimberly, 25, Robert, 24, and Kerry, 18, have all chosen various medical careers.
As the number of weekend athletes increases—there are 15 million tennis players alone—sports medicine has become more sophisticated, Kerlan feels. But he modestly waves off any discussion of his own contributions. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” he says. “I’ve been the luckiest doctor in the world.”