The folks at CAP Alternative Therapy in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, specialize in helping athletes—and former athletes—with physical rehabilitation and pain management. I recently paid them a visit for some knee therapy and was impressed by the patient photos adorning their walls. As their clientele included big names from the NBA and the NFL, I felt I was in good hands—including those of Dr. Bill Cowdrey.
Like so many Californians, Dr. Bill has deep New England roots. His dad was from Massachusetts and his uncle Ralph had a place on Lake Winnipesaukee. But the Golden State called to Cowdrey, and it was there that he pursued a career in sports training and sports medicine, eventually becoming a chiropractor. He started his career at UCLA, working with Bruin basketball players and their legendary coach, John Wooden.
“Coach Wooden was nearing the end of his coaching career,” recalled Dr. Bill. “It was a privilege to get to know him, and we stayed in touch the rest of his life.”
An All-American at Purdue in the 1930s, Wooden was a six-time national college basketball “Coach-of-the-Year” at UCLA. He won ten NCAA national championships in 12 years, including an unmatched seven in a row. His Bruins set a record by winning 88 consecutive games.
Central to that win streak was Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton—he of the famously fragile feet.
“I saw how much attention Walton’s feet needed,” recalled Dr. Bill. “I couldn’t believe he played professionally.”
Walton’s NBA career was marred by injury, except for 1976-77, when he led Portland to an NBA title, and 1985-86, when he missed only one game all season for the NBA champion Boston Celtics.
Walton’s woes became better known this year with the publication of his book “Back from the Dead.”
Walton’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, described his ordeal thusly: “In February 2008, Bill Walton suffered a catastrophic spinal collapse—the culmination of a lifetime of injuries—that left him unable to move. He spent three years on the floor of his house, eating his meals there and crawling to the bathroom, where he could barely hoist himself up onto the toilet. The excruciating pain and slow recovery tested Walton to the fullest. But with extraordinary patience, fortitude, determination, and sacrifice—and pioneering surgery—he recovered.”
An avid follower of the Grateful Dead, Walton figuratively returned to life and was a prominent media personality at the recent NCAA Final Four.
But Dr. Bill has his own comeback story. In his late forties, Cowdrey was diagnosed with cancer (Lymphoma). He took on the dread disease with determination, with a treatment regimen that included aggressive chemotherapy and eight months in a wheelchair. Happily the cancer went into remission. The news thrilled Cowdrey and his family, but the chemotherapy had serious side-effects. Reduced blood flow to the bones in his knee joints caused necrosis. Doctors told him the dead bone matter would have to come out and he’d need artificial knees.
“Knee replacements meant a whole new way of life,” said Cowdrey, who’d always been athletically active. “It was very difficult to come to terms with.”
So Dr. Bill braced for the worst. And prayed.
Shortly before his scheduled surgery, some friends asked Cowdrey to go water skiing. Knowing that he’d never ski again on artificial joints, Dr. Bill hit the water one last time—and did well.
At his next doctor’s visit, Cowdrey shared that he’d water skied.
“That’s impossible,” replied his doctor. But a subsequent examination showed that his bones had miraculously returned to life—back from the dead, as Bill Walton might say. Cowdrey’s faith was rewarded and he retains that special aura that people exude after their desperate prayers are answered.
Coach Wooden once said that “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” Dr. Bill’s journey exemplifies those sentiments, and Cowdrey’s office includes a poster of Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success.”
Cowdrey stayed in touch with Coach Wooden until the latter’s death in 2010, at the age of 99.
We in the sports world savor “comebacks.” Even Patriots fans had to honor how Peyton Manning came back from a serious cervical fusion procedure to win a Super Bowl. But while sports comebacks are great, we’re also surrounded by “regular” people who have rebounded from all sorts of desperate adversity, people whose stories can inspire and give hope. People like Bill Walton.
And Dr. Bill Cowdrey.
Who coached the Boston Bruins to their 1970 Stanley Cup triumph? (Answer follows)
Born Today …
That is to say, sports standouts born on April 28 include golfer John Daly (1966) and NBA star Josh Howard (1980).
Sportsquote “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” –John Wooden
Michael Moffett is a Professor of Sports Management for Plymouth State University and NHTI-Concord. He recently co-authored the critically-acclaimed and award-winning “FAHIM SPEAKS: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back” (with the Marines)—which is available through Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.