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From Steeler to Healer: The Remarkable Life of Linebacker Gregg Carr

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by JoBeth McDaniel

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From the time Gregg Carr started playing football in the fourth grade, his life revolved around practices and playbooks. His only ambition was to play college football. Carr’s dreams came true when he was still a teenager, after he signed with Auburn University. He lettered for four years, winning awards including SEC Lineman of the Year, All-SEC and All American teams, and NCAA Top Student-Athlete. He completed his degree in civil engineering, thinking his gridiron days were over. At 6’2” and 219 pounds, he considered himself too small for the pros.  

Then the Pittsburgh Steelers came calling. “The Steelers team really liked hard-nosed, tough guys who could think on their feet, like Jack Kemp, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell,” says Carr. “I’m undersized, but I fit in the defensive scheme very well.”

See also: Miracle at the Meadowlands: Fate and Football Collide

As Carr reported for his first training camp, he was hit with a harsh reality. “Even if things worked out, and I made the team and contributed to the team, I would still be a young man when my career was over. There would be many years left in my life. Then what? I wanted a career I could look forward to. Something to inspire me.”

Carr mulled it over and came up with a new life goal: to become an orthopedic surgeon. It wasn’t a decision Carr’s wife liked or expected, as she loved the football life and loved cheering for him on the field. Still, she supported Carr 100 percent, as did his coaches, who allowed him to juggle his training days with his class schedules. For the next four years, he spent every off season sitting in class, excelling in the courses required for medical school admission.

Carr drew inspiration from other NFL players who had made similar choices. His Steelers teammate Dwayne Woodruff (now a Pittsburgh judge) played in the NFL by day and attended law school classes at night. He read about John Frank, the 49ers’ star tight end who quit football at age 27, after five seasons and two Super Bowl championships, to become a surgeon. Stefan Humphries, an offensive lineman for the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl championship team, also made the leap from pro football to medicine.

“The guys who did that, they were special. They had ambition; they had their priorities straight,” Carr says. “They looked at football as a means and not as an end. And yes, medical school is unusual. But it’s not unusual for pro players to go on to succeed in other endeavors.”

In 1990, just before Carr’s fifth season of training camp began, he got his acceptance letter from the University of Alabama at Birmingham medical school. He quickly retired from pro football, leaping into the intense world of medical school.

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Still, Carr’s switch from pro ball to medical student led to some sleepless nights. He was consumed with fear that he couldn’t make the grades, that he couldn’t perform. Though he was only in his twenties, some around him even thought he was too old for medical school, but still he stuck with it. “There were other students older than me,” he remembers. “All had one common denominator: they felt medicine was in their blood. And they followed their dreams.”

Carr says a support system is crucial for success, whether your goal is football stardom or a medical career. “I know the sacrifices I made. I did all the schoolwork. I lifted all the weights myself. But I didn’t do it all by myself. I couldn’t have done this alone. There were coaches who pushed me to go beyond. There were mentors who shared their insight and encouragement. 

All told, it took Carr 13 years to reach his goal, from the years of schooling to his residency and internship. Today, he is Dr. Gregg Carr, orthopedic surgeon, with a practice in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. 

Carr’s orthopedic specialty allows him to stay close to the game by treating athletes. “I love what I do. Medical school is hard — no question. But the journey is what made me who I am today,” he says. “The journey is wonderful too. It’s important to set your goals high. You have to venture beyond your comfort zone. The rewards can be great.”

Carr says the same questions can be asked of other big life transitions, which can be profoundly rewarding. “I asked, ‘How can I contribute? What can I do to make a difference?’ Some people mentor young men. Some set up a foundation to help with a special cause. Everybody has something special they can give back. People need to find out what that is and don’t hoard it. Give that back, whatever that talent is.”