From the time Gregg Carr started playing football in the fourth grade, he dreamed of inflicting as much damage and pain as possible. Little did he realize that his life would eventually be devoted to saving people from those very things.
He became a star athlete and student at Auburn, winning national accolades as a defensive lineman while earning a degree in civil engineering. He expected that engineering would be his career; at 6’2” and 219 pounds, he considered himself too small for the pros.
Then the Pittsburgh Steelers came calling. Improbably enough, he became a starting linebacker, and his life again revolved around practices, playbooks and pummeling quarterbacks. “The Steelers really liked hard-nosed, tough guys who could think on their feet,” says Carr. “I’m undersized, but I fit into the defensive scheme very well.”
But early on, he came to grips with a harsh reality. “Even if things worked out well in football, I would still be a young man when my career was over,” he recalled. “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 an audacious new life goal. He was surrounded each day by otherwise healthy young men plagued by a myriad of crippling orthopedic problems; why not become a bone surgeon? It wasn’t a decision Carr’s wife liked or expected: she loved the football life and everything that went with it. But she supported his choice. So 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 made similar choices. His Steelers teammate Dwayne Woodruff played in the NFL by day and took law school classes at night. He would eventually become a Pittsburgh judge. John Frank, a 49ers star tight end who played in two Super Bowl championships, quit football at age 27 to become a head and neck 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,” says Carr. “They looked at football as a means and not as an end. Yes, medical school is unusual. But I knew it could be done.”
In 1990, just before Carr’s fifth season training camp began, he got his acceptance letter from University of Alabama medical school. He immediately retired from pro football, leaping into the intense world of medical school.
It wasn’t an easy transition. Carr had many sleepless nights, consumed with the fear that he couldn’t make the necessary grades. And although he was still in his twenties, some around him thought he was too old for medical school. “But as students, eventually we all realized we one common denominator: we felt medicine was in our blood. And we followed our dreams.”
Still, there were dark days when the task of becoming an MD seemed a steeper climb then a bottom dwelling team becoming Super Bowl Champ. Carr says his support system got him through the rough patches. “I know the sacrifices I made,” he says. “I did all the school work. But I couldn’t have done this alone.”
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 Birmingham, Alabama. His specialty allows him to stay close to the game by treating its athletes. “I love what I do,” he says. “Medical school is hard, no question. But the journey is wonderful, too. It’s what made me who I am today. It’s important to set your goals high. You have to venture beyond your comfort zone... maybe way out.
“Everybody has something special they can give back,” he adds. “People need to find out what that is and not hoard it. Give it back, whatever that talent is.”