Screen Play: Ex-qb Roberts, Nfl Subcommittee Offer Heart Exams

July 12, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,

Heart surgeon Archie Roberts was speaking on cardiac disease to a group of doctors in 1997 when he felt numbness in his right arm and suddenly stumbled over his words in mid-dissertation.

The man who had saved lives with his expertise in cardiology was having a stroke because he didn't follow his own advice and, as a former NFL quarterback, didn't think it could happen to him.

It did. In short order, Roberts, 55 years old and 22 pounds over his playing weight of 193, was admitted to Bayshore (N.J.) Hospital with his life-threatening condition. When he recovered months later, his career as a surgeon was over - after performing more than 5,000 open-heart surgeries - but he quickly immersed himself in a related field. He founded the Living Heart Foundation and devoted himself to helping other retired NFL players avoid the mistakes he had made.

"I was lucky," he said last week. "I could've died. God gave me a second chance. It was a life-changing event."

Life-changing for him and others. Since then, Roberts, 66, has worked tirelessly administering cardiac screenings around the country for retired players, first with his own foundation and more recently as part of the NFL's subcommittee on cardiovascular health.

Roberts and cardiologist Jeffrey Boone are co-directors of the NFL Player Care Foundation Cardiovascular Testing Program, which offers free screenings to retired players. From a database of 1,800 players, Roberts has published two papers and has two more coming.

The NFL will also fund a follow-up of his 2003 study to further explore the risks associated with obesity in retired players and also to gain a more accurate mortality rate.

The results of the first study were somewhat surprising in that the retired players compared well with two groups of people, both located in Dallas. One group, featuring an inner-city and urban population, participated in the Dallas Heart Study. The other worked with the Cooper Institute, a preventive medicine and aerobics center.

"The cardiovascular risk was very similar between all three groups when you match for size," Roberts said.

Retired players had a lower prevalence of diabetes and hypertension but a higher prevalence of bad cholesterol.

Perhaps even more intriguing were the results on hypertension. The mean average age of Roberts' retired players was 52. The mean average age of an active-player study conducted in 2007 was 26. Yet the systolic and diastolic pressures of the two groups of players were "identical," Roberts said.

Roberts spent three years with the Cleveland Browns under coach Blanton Collier and owner Art Modell, two on the taxi squad while he attended medical school. He was an All-East quarterback and an All-America shortstop at Columbia in 1965.

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