Meet the Crotch Doc
Dr. William Meyers is medicine’s most prominent expert on core injuries, and some of the top groins in sports owe it all to his surgical handiwork
Roy Oswalt tried to gut it out — literally. In 2003, Oswalt was in his third year as a starting pitcher for the Houston Astros. He was a rising star but had developed a mysterious injury: Whenever he threw, Oswalt felt a sharp, sudden pain in his groin. “It was like someone had stabbed you,” he recalls. And the pain moved around, from his pubic area down to his inner thighs or up to his gut.
A pitcher creates a burst of kinetic energy by pushing off his dominant leg and taking a long stride forward as he throws the ball. When we say a pitcher has a strong arm, we really mean he has a powerful core and legs. Unable to stride powerfully, Oswalt was reduced to mediocrity.
One day, before a game, Mike Hampton, who pitched for the Atlanta Braves, told Oswalt about a medical warlock, a miracle worker, a veritable exorcist of groin pain: Dr. William Meyers, a surgeon in Philadelphia who’d fixed the same debilitating problem for Hampton. In June, while pitching against the Yankees in New York, Oswalt left in anguish after only an inning. The next day, he went to Philly and saw Meyers, who, in his calm, avuncular manner, told Oswalt that he’d need surgery if he ever hoped to recover from the injury.
Oswalt, the stubborn son of a Mississippi logger, rested for a few weeks, loaded up on anti-inflammatories, felt better, and pitched again. The pain returned. In one game, Oswalt gave up a home run to the opposing pitcher — a mark of ignominy — and was yanked from the game by a worried manager in the third inning.
After the season ended, Oswalt went back to Meyers, knowing that if he didn’t fix the injury, his career was over. When Oswalt woke up in the recovery room on the morning of the surgery, he was surprised to see, sitting next to him, Cliff Lee, a young Indians pitcher whose season had also been cut short by a groin injury.
If you want a statistical measure of Meyers’ surgical genius, you could start with the success Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee had in the years after their surgeries. Lee made four all-star games and won a Cy Young Award. Oswalt won 163 games, became one of the most durable pitchers in baseball, and, post-surgery, earned more than $96 million. “Dr. Meyers saved my career,” Oswalt says plainly.
Over the years, Meyers has saved the careers of baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and tennis stars and helped thousands of weekend athletes — including me. Somewhat by accident, he invented a surgery to repair an injury that, in previous generations, forced athletes to retire; an injury that didn’t even have a name, because it didn’t show up on standard MRIs.
Before I visited Meyers, I’d seen a dozen specialists in Manhattan, looking for a remedy to the stinging groin pain I felt when I ran. Over time, it got worse — I remember stopping and bending over on West 19th Street because I had a spasm below my gut just from walking slowly; the pain was so intense, I thought I might throw up. To my frustration, none of the doctors I saw could agree on a diagnosis. “You’re kind of a medical mystery,” one said. Another gave me a steroid injection in my pubic bone, which is exactly as awful as it sounds. Also, it didn’t help.
Two of the specialists vaguely mentioned Meyers and surgery, but like Roy Oswalt, I was determined to avoid an operation. Finally, in what felt like a defeat, I went to the Vincera Institute in Philadelphia, where Meyers diagnosed me with tears in and around my core and assured me that a few weeks after surgery, I’d be back to running 10-minute miles and getting dunked on at the Y.
The term “core injury” is broad enough to encompass many different types of damage, but it doesn’t adequately indicate how debilitating the symptoms can be. “I was in constant pain,” says Tornado Alicia Black, a professional tennis player from Florida, once the third-ranked junior player in the world. “I couldn’t sleep. I could barely walk.” Black left the tour and began teaching tennis but soon had to give that up, too. A USTA doctor said her MRI looked fine; she went to Meyers, who knew better and operated on her in October 2017. (Women account for only about 15 percent of core muscle injuries, Meyers says, likely due to anatomical differences.)
When you walk into the Vincera Institute, you enter an Arcadia of the crotch. It’s a sprawling 34,000-square-foot facility in a sturdy red-brick building—a former USO theater located in the Navy Yard, an industrial park on the edge of the Delaware River. The park feels like a quiet college campus, except for the rusted ships docked nearby. Vincera is a model of an integrated, holistic medical practice, with operating rooms, an imaging center, PT and yoga studios, and a delicious café.
In the reception area, you’ll see framed bats or baseball jerseys from five-time All-Star Troy Tulowitski, 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton, and two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera. Due to patient confidentiality laws, Meyers won’t discuss who he’s treated, but his patients include All-Stars, MVPs, and future Hall of Famers: football stars Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Reggie Bush, Curtis Martin, J.J. Watt, John Abraham, and Donovan McNabb; NBA stars Rajon Rondo, J.J. Redick, and Grant Hill; and baseball stars Roger Clemens, Justin Verlander, Nomar Garciaparra, Roy Halladay, and Magglio Ordóñez. No other physician has added as many years to as many great careers as this lean, soft-spoken 68-year-old.
Over the years, Meyers has saved the careers of baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and tennis stars and helped thousands of weekend athletes — including me. Somewhat by accident, he invented a surgery to repair an injury that, in previous generations, forced athletes to retire.
The day after Meyers operated on me, in November 2015, I began physical therapy at Vincera. At the other end of the PT room, Robinson Cano of the Seattle Mariners was doing agility drills with a rope ladder. He’d played through a core injury the previous season, with substandard results. As he worked out, Cano looked joyful — almost like he knew that, in 2016, he’d hit a career-high 39 home runs.
I returned to Philly a few weeks later for more PT. On a training table next to me sat Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks, on whom Meyers had operated the previous day. Lynch, wearing a BEAST MODE wool cap and a scowl, was slowly doing a set of bridges. When he finished, he muttered, “Shit.”
I knew how he felt.
Surprisingly, when I requested interviews with Cano and Lynch, they declined — as did at least 30 other athletes. “Guys don’t like to talk about injuries,” a team PR rep told me. It seemed churlish to me that no one would spare 10 minutes to praise a man who had returned them to their rewarding careers.
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who underwent surgery in April 2017, was the only active male athlete who agreed to an interview. “Dr. Meyers is an unbelievable surgeon,” said Murray in an email. “He helped me through the ups and downs of this process, and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be fully healthy.”
Meyers doesn’t recall when he began performing the surgery, but John Carr, a Wake Forest soccer player who was one of the first guinea pigs, recalls having it in May 1987 — and then feeling fully recovered six weeks later. One way to quantify Meyers’ success is to compare his surgery to another miracle of 20th-century medicine: Tommy John surgery, which Dr. Frank Jobe first performed in 1974 to reconstruct a pitcher’s torn ulnar collateral ligament. TJ surgery has an 80 to 85 percent success rate and sidelines a pitcher for 12 to 16 months. Meyers says his surgery fails less than 5 percent of the time, and only if the symptoms were caused by other injuries, likely in the hips. The time period for recovery ranges from three weeks to two months.
“He’s so good that it’s just a given now. If you have this problem, you go to Meyers. Six weeks later, you’re fine, and you never think about it again,” says Will Carroll, a writer who studies sports injuries. (As with any complex surgery, things can go wrong. In 2009, Meyers operated on a college soccer player, Juan Duque, who later claimed irreparable bowel damage and sued him, as well as the hospital where Duque received post-operative emergency care. A jury ruled that although Meyers had been negligent, the hospital was solely to blame for harming Duque.)
For a male patient, the most alarming part of the recovery comes a few days post-surgery, when his penis looks like it lost a barroom fight. “I use the same joke most of the time,” says Meyers, sitting in his office at Vincera. “I say, ‘It gets black and blue and swollen, but don’t worry — it’s not gonna fall off.’ I didn’t say that to you?” he asks.
(He didn’t. I’d have remembered.)
Other sports medicine saviors, like James Andrews, Neal ElAttrache, and David Altchek, have achieved notoriety in the sports pages and fantasy sports Slack groups, but Meyers fixes groins in obscurity. There’s not even a consensus on what to call the injury he repairs.
News reports usually refer to it as a sports hernia, a term Meyers loathes because it’s incorrect — there is no lump, hence no hernia — and as a result, a hernia surgery is no more effective than leeches or bloodletting. Meyers prefers the medical term “athletic pubalgia,” but it’s unlikely to catch on. “I couldn’t get ESPN to use it,” Meyers says. “They wouldn’t use the term ‘pube.’ If you say ‘pubic bone’ to 100 people, 98 of them are going to giggle.”
Since core muscle repair surgery doesn’t roll off the tongue, Meyers needs a catchy nickname that can go viral — something hashtaggy. The King of Groins? Sounds too much like a Motörhead song. The Elvis of the Pelvis? A bit strained. The Core Warrior? Sounds like a WWE also-ran. Let’s call him the Crotch Doc. (ESPN won’t use that term, either.)
Meyers took quite a circuitous route to groins. In 1969, during the Crotch Doc’s junior year at Harvard, he played goalie on the men’s soccer team and set an NCAA record of 624 consecutive shutout minutes. Harvard was undefeated, outscoring opponents 52–9, before losing in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. The next year, Meyers, who grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, prepped at Choate, and felt out of place among the New Left student protesters in Cambridge, shared goalie duties with his impudent opposite: Shep Messing, a self-described “hippie jerk” from Long Island who’d made the U.S. Olympic team and kept a small South American honey bear in his dorm room closet.
“I was pissed off,” Messing admits. “How the fuck am I not starting on this team? I don’t care what he did last year.” But Meyers, Messing recalls, “was strong and smart. Goalkeeping is physics and geometry. Bill was different from every keeper I’ve known. He wasn’t cocky; he had a quiet confidence.”
Meyers graduated and signed a contract to play for Flamengo, a legendary Brazilian club, where he would’ve been teammates with the midfield genius Zico. But the chairman of the board at Columbia’s medical school, where Meyers had been admitted, gave him an ultimatum: Rio or Columbia.
After med school, Meyers did his residency and fellowship at Duke, where he helped found the country’s third liver transplant program. The university’s trainers and doctors, knowing of Meyers’ GI expertise, asked his opinion on an outbreak of abdominal injuries among the school’s athletes. This opened a rabbit hole, and as he researched the ailments, Meyers discovered that modern medicine knew a lot about all the parts of the body except for the core, an area that extends, he’s said, “from the nipple to the knee — everything that’s hard in the middle, that people are afraid to touch in public, except for Eminem.” You’d think the core would be, well, at the core of medical knowledge, but it’s not. Except for Joseph Pilates and Leonardo da Vinci, no one cared much about it. “There was a whole world of anatomy there, in terms of the pelvis, that people didn’t understand,” Meyers says.
He came across a paper by Dr. Branko Nešović, an orthopedic surgeon from Serbia who began operating on the groins of soccer players in 1967. (Nešović, coincidentally, had also been a professional soccer player.) Separately, British surgeon Jerry Gilmore began operating on soccer players’ groin injuries in 1980 and claimed a success rate of 98 percent. For a while there, core injuries were known as “Gilmore’s groin.”
(In a YouTube video, Gilmore, who has a touch of the poet about him, describes examining a patient thusly: “When I inverted his scrotum and felt the inguinal canal from below, he was exquisitely tender.”)
At Duke, Meyers spent hours in a lab, experimenting on fresh cadavers that didn’t yet have rigor mortis, to understand the mechanics and pathways of the core’s 29 muscles. Once he understood enough to begin performing surgery, he had no trouble finding volunteers for an untested operation that requires—please forgive me—an incision (sometimes two) less than an inch above the penis. For the athletes he treated, it was either surgery or retirement.
Groin injuries result from wear and tear to the muscles that attach at the pubic bone. Although the injury has been around since cavemen threw rocks at dinosaurs, it has become more frequent, partly because there’s now a name to put to the symptoms, but mostly because current athletes create unprecedented amounts of torque in the pelvis when they play, due to intense upper-body weightlifting and the practice of playing one sport year-round. Torque creates microtraumas, tiny muscle tears that get bigger and more painful over time. Meyers likens the pubic bone to a baseball — over time, with enough use, it starts to fray. But unlike torn muscles, a baseball can’t be resewn.
As news of Meyers’ surgical success spread from trainer to trainer and agent to agent, “my hobby just kept growing,” he says, until it became his vocation. The tipping point was his 2005 surgery on Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Soon after, the wretched phrase “sports hernia” joined the vernacular.
Since core muscle repair surgery doesn’t roll off the tongue, Meyers needs a catchy nickname that can go viral — something hashtaggy. The King of Groins? The Elvis of the Pelvis? The Core Warrior? Let’s call him the Crotch Doc.
“Until Bill came along, we didn’t know how to fix core problems,” says his friend Dr. James Andrews. “They were treated by conservative means, and not treated very well. Bill’s the guru of core surgery. It all started with him. Just don’t ask me to explain to you how he invented it,” Andrews adds with a laugh.
Meyers, despite his Brahmin equanimity, has a defiant, individualistic streak, and after working at Duke and then Drexel University, he realized no college would support his work on the core because insurance companies refused to pay for a procedure they disingenuously classified as “experimental.” That’s when Meyers decided to leave academia and open his own institute. (He still helps out on difficult liver transplants. “It’s fun to keep my feet wet — or rather, my hands wet.”) He took out a loan and several insurance policies on himself (the banks insisted, due to a “key man” clause) and raised $20 million to build Vincera.
Inside the bubble of professional sports, where health is literally wealth, athletes rely on Meyers, who does for groins what Jesus did for Lazarus of Bethany. Pro jocks are his street team; the society of Meyers’ survivors counsel and reassure other players who are dealing with debilitating pain. Roy Oswalt says that, after his surgery, “I told two or three guys about him. I said, ‘It’s pretty simple. Just go to Dr. Meyers in Philadelphia.’”
When you talk to people about pubic issues, they giggle or press their knees tightly together. But core health is necessary for anyone who’s active — and, incredibly, it was an issue doctors ignored until Meyers began (literally) poking around. The Crotch Doc works, in all seasons, to repair the private parts of anyone who needs restitching. Forget Roger Clemens or Marshawn Lynch—I’m happily back to running 10-minute miles and getting dunked on at the Y.