Dr. Patrick McKenzie, the Packers’ team physician since the early 1990s, received the Jerry “Hawk” Rhea Award as the NFL’s physician of the year late last month at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.
The award, named for an icon in the business who served as the Atlanta Falcons’ head athletic trainer for a quarter century (1969-94), has been presented by the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) annually since 1998. McKenzie received his distinction for his work in the 2010 season, when the Packers had the longest injured reserve list in the league.
A modest man who doesn’t seek attention for his role with one of the league’s most storied franchises, McKenzie never expected to receive such an honor. In fact, during the awards ceremony, as McKenzie’s own group, the NFL Physicians Society, was presenting its athletic trainer of the year award to the Denver Broncos’ Steve Antonopulos, McKenzie was jotting down a “note to self” to make sure to nominate Packers head athletic trainer Pepper Burruss for that award next year.
Then suddenly he saw Burruss, who had written an extensive letter in support of Packers assistant athletic trainer Bryan Engel’s nomination of McKenzie, heading to the front of the room to hand him the Rhea Award’s shiny bronze football with a flattering inscription: “For your years of unselfish dedication to the Green Bay Packers, the National Football League and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society, we honor you as one of our medical statesmen and team physician extraordinaire.”
“The coolest thing about this is it came from the trainers,” said McKenzie, an orthopedic surgeon by trade. “I got my training from Dr. (James) Andrews, but I always say the athletic training world raised me in sports medicine.
“Athletic trainers have really revolutionized sports medicine in their common-sense, progressive approach to how we rehab athletes. So, to get the award from those guys is a big honor for me.”
His colleagues on the Packers medical staff were just as honored to see him get it.
“He does not have the great list of publications and papers that physicians associated with major teaching institutions might have,” Burruss said. “He doesn’t have residents and fellows. He’s really a one-man show running this team, and it’s remarkable what Pat does.”
Medically speaking, this past season was one of the more remarkable in McKenzie’s recollection, with 15 players landing on season-ending injured reserve and countless others working through nagging maladies to play as often as they could.
McKenzie said he appreciated never being pressured by Head Coach Mike McCarthy or General Manager Ted Thompson to make any decisions that compromised a player’s long-term health, and he noted that’s been the case throughout his tenure with the Packers.
That didn’t make 2010 any less challenging, however.
“This year, injury-wise, it was off the charts,” McKenzie said. “Not just numbers, but who they occurred to and when they occurred.
“When we were 3-3, I can’t remember how many were down for the count, but we still had four guys we were hoping might have a chance to come back and they never could. It was even worse than we thought. I said after week six, if we survive this thing, Ted and Mike ought to both go into the Hall of Fame.”
According to Engel, what separates McKenzie in his line of work is he treats all of the players “as if they’re his kids,” but at times that can make his job more difficult emotionally.
Asked to reflect on the Packers’ Super Bowl title, McKenzie immediately turned his thoughts to veteran players he’s worked with extensively over the years who weren’t able to participate in the magical run, such as offensive tackle Mark Tauscher, linebacker Nick Barnett and cornerback Al Harris.
“It was hard to see those guys miss out on something special,” McKenzie said.
He admitted it also wasn’t easy to continually deliver such bad news to McCarthy and Thompson during the first half of the season, when the IR list kept growing, but he credited their professionalism through it all.
“When I have to tell Mike and Ted (a player’s season is over), it’s difficult because they’re disappointed and frustrated and it screws up everything they’ve got planned,” McKenzie said. “But it’s not difficult because they’re such class guys. They accept it and move on and deal with it, which is not that way everywhere. Our medical staff is very fortunate that we’ve always had guys like that here.”
The Packers know they’re fortunate to have McKenzie, too.
Mike Spofford is a 1995 Masters graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who worked as a sports reporter for two daily newspapers in Wisconsin, covering the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Spofford has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006.