Sports

Joseph Torg, Doctor Who Fought to Lessen Football Injuries, Dies at 88


Dr. Joseph Torg, an orthopedic surgeon whose experience treating and researching football players’ spinal-cord injuries made him a strong voice in the 1970s for banning a dangerous tackling technique in high schools and colleges, died on Dec. 15 at his home in Wayne, Pa. He was 88.

His daughter, Elisabeth Torg, confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.

By the mid-1970s, Dr. Torg was well known for his sports-related activities. A former offensive guard for Haverford College, he was the doctor for several Philadelphia teams and was often quoted on players’ injuries. He opened one of the first sports medicine and rehabilitation centers in the United States at Temple University. And he testified in a case in New Jersey that led Little League Baseball to end its boys-only policy.

He was alarmed by a spate of spinal-cord football injuries caused by spearing — a technique that involves a player lowering his head, bending his neck and launching himself into an opponent, using the top of his helmet as a battering ram.

“If these forces are greater than the elastic capabilities of the spine,” Dr. Torg explained in a 1992 video narrated by Dick Vermeil, the former Philadelphia Eagles coach, “the spinal segments will buckle.”

In 1975, he told The Associated Press that the N.C.A.A. and the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations were “derelict in their responsibility to safeguard the health and well-being of young men playing football” and urged them to change their rules.

He teamed up that year with Ted Quedenfeld, Temple’s head athletic trainer, to collect data about the number of spinal-cord injuries in the United States that had been caused by spearing. They called the project the National Football Head and Neck Injury Registry.

Around that time, a colleague said, Dr. Torg put further pressure on the N.C.A.A.

“As I remember, he threatened the N.C.A.A. that if they didn’t institute the rule, he’d sue,” Dr. Raymond Moyer, a professor of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at the School of Medicine at Temple, said in a phone interview. “He didn’t back down from anyone.”

The N.C.A.A. and high schools banned spearing in 1976. The N.F.L. followed suit in 1979, largely as a result of a paralyzing hit to the helmet of Darryl Stingley, a New England Patriots receiver, a year earlier.

The registry’s initial findings, published in 1979 in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, documented 259 cervical spine fractures and dislocations among high school, college and other football players between 1971 and 1975. Ninety-nine of the players became permanent quadriplegics.

The rules against spearing had a significant effect. From 1976 to 1984, the number of cervical spine fractures, dislocations and partial dislocations fell to 42 from 110, and the number of players permanently rendered quadriplegic fell from 34 to just five, according to an article in 1985 in the Journal of the American Medical Association written by Dr. Torg and three colleagues.

But spearing would never be fully eradicated, and neither would the possibility of spinal-cord injuries.

In one of the most famous incidents, Marc Buoniconti, a linebacker at the South Carolina military college the Citadel, became a quadriplegic in 1985 after tackling a running back from East Tennessee State University. Three years later, when Buoniconti sued the Citadel’s team doctor for negligence, Dr. Torg testified for the defense, arguing that Buoniconti had speared his opponent and bore responsibility for his injury.

“What we are dealing with as far as causation is not a medical problem,” Dr. Torg said. “What we are dealing with as far as causation is a coaching technique problem.”

The jury exonerated the Citadel’s doctor.

Joseph Steven Torg was born on Oct. 25, 1934, in Philadelphia. His father, Jay, was an insurance salesman. His mother, Elva (May) Torg, was a telephone operator.

He earned a bachelor’s degree at Haverford College in 1957. Four years later, he received his medical degree from Temple.

Ms. Torg said in an email that her father most likely pursued orthopedics “because of his love of football and his own experience with athletic injury (concussion) in high school.”

“When he graduated medical school,” she said, “orthopedic surgery was the most sports-oriented field in medicine and the field that enabled him to treat athletes.”

After interning at San Francisco General Hospital (now Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center) from 1961 to 1962, Dr. Torg spent two years in the Army Medical Corps. Following his residencies at Temple University Hospital and Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children (now Shriners Children’s Philadelphia), he began teaching at Temple in 1968.

He soon became widely known. In 1970, he and Mr. Quedenfeld released a study that found conventional football shoes, with seven cleats each three-quarters of an inch long, were far more responsible for knee and ankle injuries than soccer shoes with 14 shorter cleats.

Three years later, he testified in a challenge in New Jersey to the rule that prevented girls from playing Little League baseball. At a hearing of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, Dr. Torg refuted claims by Creighton J. Hale, a Little League Baseball executive, that female bones were not as strong as male bones; in fact, he said, because girls matured earlier than boys, it was possible that their bones were stronger.

A hearing officer ruled that the rule prohibiting girls from participating in Little League in New Jersey violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws — a decision that helped lead the national Little League organization to let girls play the next year.

In 1974, Dr. Torg and Mr. Quedenfeld opened the Center for Sports Medicine and Science at Temple to treat players from colleges and local professional sports teams, as well as recreational athletes.

Dr. Torg left Temple in 1978 to join the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he established another sports medicine center; he worked at the university until 1994. He joined MCP-Hahnemann University School of Medicine in 1995 and taught there for seven years before returning to Temple.

Among Dr. Torg’s achievements was popularizing a quick and noninvasive test that had been conceived by a mentor, Dr. John W. Lachman, to diagnose a knee injury common to athletes: a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

“It changed everything,” Dr. John Kelly IV, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview. “Many tears were being misdiagnosed as sprained knees, and people went out and got more injured.”

At different points between the 1970s and the 1990s, Dr. Torg was the team doctor in Philadelphia for the 76ers, the Flyers, the Eagles, the Freedoms of World Team Tennis, the Atoms of the North American Soccer League and the Temple football team.

Doug Collins, an All-Star guard who joined the 76ers in 1973 and was often treated by Dr. Torg, said in an email: “He tried to put me back together thru many foot & knee injuries. He knew how badly I wanted to play & on many occasions tried to protect me from myself.”

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Torg is survived by his wife, Barbara (Groenendaal) Torg; his sons, Joseph Jr. and Jay; and seven grandchildren.

In 1991, Dr. Torg created a grading system to determine the severity of a concussion — one of the most vexing problems in football, as well as in soccer, hockey and other sports.

Dr. Joseph Maroon, a consulting neurosurgeon to the Pittsburgh Steelers and a professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that Dr. Torg’s system was the inspiration for the neurocognitive testing that he helped create to assess the severity of a concussion and an athlete’s ability to return to play. That testing is now the standard of care in the N.F.L.

“We really followed up on Joe’s work and computerized it,” Dr. Maroon said. “He was avant-garde and scholarly.”



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