Retired NFL Player Keeps Tabs on Their Health Through Intensive Program at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach

By Hoag

November 15, 2017

JJ Birden nearly didn’t play in the National Football League.

A track and field star at the University of Oregon, Birden qualified for the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials in long jump. Admittedly, track and field was Birden’s first love.

Ironically, it was an injury that swung Birden to professional football, and ultimately ended his track and field career. He never had a chance to participate in the trials after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during mini-camp shortly after being drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

“Had I not gotten hurt, I might not have played football,” Birden said Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 14, while at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach where he was undergoing a litany of tests ranging from neurological to physical, nutritional to orthopedic and cardiovascular.

Birden said he was thrilled to have a nine-year career in the NFL, but it came at a cost.

A wide receiver for four teams, Birden scored 17 touchdowns during his career, but he also suffered three ACL tears, broken ribs, a shoulder injury that required surgery and multiple concussions.

He retired in 1996 and lives in Anthem, Ariz., with his wife and two nieces.

Birden and his wife, Raina, were at Hoag for a two-day session that is part of the Milestone Wellness Assessment, designed for players who have been out of the NFL for at least 15 years. Visits are set up by the The Trust, an organization that works closely with the NFL Players Association and has partnered with hospitals across the United States to offer care for retired players.

“This is a more comprehensive examination than anything else I’ve experienced since I left the NFL,” Birden, 52, said. “It’s been great for us because it’s all about monitoring my overall health to see where I’m at. It allows us to give attention where it’s needed now and manage it.”

Tests are billed to the retired players’ insurance companies, said Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, executive medical director of Hoag’s Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute and the Ron and Sandi Simon Endowed Chair.

The Trust will cover what the insurance won’t and will also cover those without insurance. The Trust also takes care of the travel and lodging costs.

Hoag began partnering with the NFLPA and The Trust in 2015 through a collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic, Brant-Zawadzki said. The hospital takes in retired players who live on the West Coast. To date, Hoag has seen 69 former players for the Brain & Body Program and four for the Milestone Wellness Assessment.

Brant-Zawadzki expects the hospital to see a at least a couple players per week through The Trust going forward.

“The realization the NFL Players Association had was even players out 15 years may not have access to regular medical care and may not be connected to physicians the way they should be,” Brant-Zawadzki said. “They suffer stuff mere mortals don’t, so they feel super strong, super healthy and that they don’t need doctors unless they sprain an ankle or break a leg. The NFLPA wanted to extend this to players getting into their middle and senior years to get them connected to regular medical care.”

The Milestone Wellness Assessment provides these players with tests and advice, including vitals, nutrition consultation, balance testing, musculoskeletal screening, cardiology consultation, sleep study, neurpsychological evaluation, sports medicine exam and an MRI.

Since retiring from the NFL, Birden said, he tries to maintain an active lifestyle by going to the gym, doing cardiovascular exercise and hiking. But the Birdens said their experience on Tuesday was still educational.

“The nutritionist gave me plenty of ideas on how to fine-tune my diet,” Birden said, adding that his focus was to see what’s going on on the inside. “I want to see what preventative measures I can take for myself.”

Raina Birden, 49, said she wanted to see how her husband was doing from a neurological standpoint. The Birdens have been married 27 years and have three children.

“It’s great that I get to experience this with him because we’ll be able to take that home with him,” Raina Birden said. “They’re very thorough here.”

“She’s an honest evaluater of my health because she notices these changes,” her husband added.

Brant-Zawadzki noted that a list of tests this long would normally take two weeks depending on the schedule of the physicians and laboratory time. Along with speeding up the process, he said, the program helps put retired players in contact with physicians for further monitoring.

“It’s way more efficient than getting it done on their own,” he said. “When you realize what these players go through on a regular basis, it’s nothing.”

Birden said he is thankful for The Trust for providing him and his wife the opportunity to keep tabs on his health.

“We play a rough game,” he said, “and there are consequences to playing that game.”

To view the original Orange County Register article, please click here.