Like Father, Like Son : How Did Milt McColl, NFL Player and Orthopedic Surgeon, Come To Mirror His Dad’s Life So Precisely?
ON THE TURF of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, at an L.A. Raiders game last fall, outside linebacker Milt McColl--6-foot-6, 230 steel-cased pounds--was just another faceless warrior sporting the silver and black, an oak among oaks.
Three months into the off-season, in the crowded emergency room at San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, he is somewhat more conspicuous. Part of it is his musculature--a white lab coat doesn’t quite conceal the kinetic body so painstakingly honed to create mayhem in the NFL--and part of it is his height. He looms over his medical colleagues, more so because he stands so erect, beeper clipped to one coat pocket, “Manual of Emergency Medicine” protruding from another, obligatory stethoscope slung around his neck. Very doctorly. Doctorly and big.
In his eighth-grade yearbook, Milt McColl wrote that he hoped to become a professional athlete. No surprise. Just about everyone who knew Milt knew that his old man had played pro football. Four years later, Milt’s senior classmates at South Hills High School in Covina voted him “most likely to succeed,” and he was asked to pose for a yearbook picture in career attire. He showed up wearing surgical scrubs and wielding a butcher’s knife. No surprise. Everyone knew that Milt’s dad was an orthopedic surgeon.
Milt won a football scholarship to Stanford, his father’s alma mater; pledged Zeta Psi, his father’s fraternity, and starred on Stanford’s football team, as his father had done. But as graduation neared, the odds of his life continuing to mirror his father’s narrowed considerably. Football isn’t exactly the most accessible profession. Only one player in 30 makes the jump from college to the National Football League, and many of those last just long enough for a rubdown and a cup of Gatorade. For that matter, medical school has never been mistaken for a day on the Seine. Either one, medicine or pro football, is a formidable challenge by itself, the achievement of a lifetime for most. To stay on his father’s path, Milt had to conquer both--and at the same time.
It used to be almost axiomatic: Sons followed in their father’s tradition. Blacksmiths’ sons became blacksmiths, bakers’ sons bakers. It’s a little more complicated now. A banker’s son may become a banker, or he may resolve to be anything but a banker. Some sons barely know their real father, live under a different roof with a different man at the head of the table--if indeed the family sits together at a table. Or a son may know and like his father but have no idea what he actually does for a living: “He works for Rockwell--something to do with computers.”
For Milt McColl, explanations for having produced a virtual carbon copy of his father’s life don’t come easily. Milt pursued the legacy not at his father’s urging, nor even upon great reflection, but instead almost instinctively, as though guided by providence. He never observed his father in surgery or accompanied him on hospital rounds. Milt simply gravitated toward his father’s achievements like water seeking equilibrium. “Sometimes I think I didn’t think about it as much as I could have,” he says. “It just seemed natural.”
In the ‘50s, Bill McColl earned his medical degree and completed an internship and part of his orthopedics residency during an eight-year playing career with the Chicago Bears. Milt, too, has played eight years in the NFL: seven with the San Francisco Forty-Niners and one, last season, with the Raiders, all the while pursuing his medical studies. He became an MD at Stanford in March, 1988, taking almost seven years instead of Stanford’s norm of four or five, and now is nearing completion of his internship. Within the next year he will begin a four- or five-year residency--in orthopedics, of course.
Attempting such an unlikely amalgam of careers might never have occurred to Milt had his father not shown what was possible. “I just felt that the way he lived his life set a great example,” Milt says. “That’s why I’ve wound up doing so many of the things he’s done. Not because he wanted me to--maybe he did--but because it just seemed the way it should be.”
THAT’S ALL a father can do, really--set an example. And what an example Bill McColl set. As a Stanford senior in 1952, he was thinking about play ing for the Chicago Bears while studying medi cine at the University of Chicago. A two-time All-American who played with fierce intensity, McColl was the scourge of any team Stanford opposed, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound powerhouse whose renown reached near-mythical proportions during his college career. He played seven different positions--offense and defense--threw touchdown passes that traveled 70 yards in the air and he seemed almost unstoppable when he had the ball. A 1951 article in Sport magazine dubbed him “Gibraltar in a red jersey” and told of tacklers “bouncing off him like peanuts pegged at an elephant.” McColl’s face adorned the covers of Colliers, Sport and Sport Life magazines. The Helms Athletic Foundation selected him as college football player of the year. United Press named him lineman of the year. “If a coach had 11 McColls,” former Stanford coach Marchie Schwartz once commented, “all he’d need to do would be to blow up the football.”
Bill McColl was selected by the Bears high in the NFL draft, but he had long believed that medicine was his calling. His father was a physician, and medicine was a proud tradition in the McColl lineage. Technically, he was already in medical school at Stanford; the university allowed some students to enroll after only three years of undergraduate work. Still, professional football held an allure for him, and he wondered if there might be a way he could play for the Bears while continuing in medicine.
University of Chicago Chancellor Lawrence Kimpton thought the very notion was utterly absurd. In a letter to his friend Richard Balch, Stanford’s dean of students, Kimpton wrote: “Bill McColl must be nuts. You can’t go to medical school and play professional football at the same time. It’s impossible. Anyway, why doesn’t he give up the game? There is no future in professional football, but the future of the medical profession, unless the University of Chicago succeeds in curing all the diseases, is pretty good. When you are in medical school--at least any good one--you spend all your time on medicine. You live it, eat it and think it, and you ain’t traipsing around the country playing football.”
Obviously, Kimpton was correct about the future of medicine, but he was wrong about everything else. While traipsing around the country as the Chicago Bears’ starting tight end, McColl kept pace with his class at the University of Chicago Medical School, becoming an MD in 1955 after three years there. Four years later, still serving his residency at the University of Illinois hospitals, he retired from football to concentrate on medicine.
For the most part, McColl confined his medical studies to the off-season, attending school in winter, spring and summer and then skipping the fall quarter to play football. But he overlapped medicine and football during his rookie season, just as Milt would do 30 years later. Actually, pro football would have been unfeasible for McColl had it not been for the Bears’ feisty owner and coach, George Halas, who was remarkably tolerant of McColl’s unusual circumstances. Halas even rescheduled the Bears’ daily practices from afternoons to mornings during McColl’s first year so that the sessions wouldn’t conflict with the rookie’s classes. He had no choice but to be tolerant, because McColl, before signing his contract (for $12,000, a more-than-respectable sum in those days), insisted on a unique concession from Halas: Whenever medicine and football conflicted, medicine would take precedence. If McColl had to miss a practice or a meeting, or if, as was invariably the case, he had to arrive late to training camp, Halas couldn’t say a word. On only a couple of occasions did the coach entreat his tight end to temporarily reverse his priorities, in each case eliciting a reminder from McColl: “But George, you promised.” And that would be the end of it.
“He wanted me bad enough to sign that,” McColl says now, with a hearty laugh, obviously savoring the memory.
In 1962, three years out of football and with his residency completed, Bill packed up his wife and their six young children and moved to Taegu, South Korea, where for two years he worked as a medical missionary. The young doctor divided his time between Presbyterian Hospital and Ae Rak Won Leprosarium, where he did pioneer work in reconstructive surgery on leprosy patients. Though he received only a subsistence allowance for his services in Taegu, he was known to dip into his own pocket to cover medical expenses for people who needed treatment but couldn’t afford it. He found time as well to make weekly trips to the Sungbo-Won Orphanage to visit the children and check on their health.
Not long after his return to the United States, McColl was selected by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the country’s Ten Outstanding Young Men, a distinction he shares with such illustrious previous honorees as John F. Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein. Still keenly interested in leprosy research and treatment, he is chairman of the board of American Leprosy Missions. He is also a member of the college football Hall of Fame and was selected to the NFL Hall of Fame for his outstanding “service to humanity.” His only significant defeats have been political: three unsuccessful bids for U.S. Congress. In a nasty primary in Orange County’s 43rd Congressional District in 1982, McColl was tainted by an opponent’s charge of voter registration illegalities. Ultimately, the San Diego County district attorney’s office exonerated McColl, and a Republican Party ethics panel censured his opponent, but McColl hasn’t been tempted to re-enter the political arena since.
Fifty-nine now, McColl isn’t much over his playing weight, and he still moves with unmistakable grace. He resides with his wife, Barbara, whom he met at Stanford, in a stunning La Jolla home on a palisades overlooking Tourmaline Beach. With orthopedic practices in Baldwin Park and San Diego, the doctor is still making good use of what he learned in Chicago between Bears games. Of merging the rigors of the NFL and medical school, he says, “It’s not hard. It’s a matter of discipline.”
BARBARA MCCOLL IS a slender, energetic woman with an impressive record of civil involvement and service. If she joins an organization, she usually ends up wielding the president’s gavel. In this family, she explains, “you’re expected to achieve.” When Bill and his sons used to toss a football around, they did so because it was fun but also “because it gets you somewhere,” Barbara says. “If Milt wants to talk to you, . . there has to be a reason. It’s not just to be friendly, just to be a good guy.”
Milt’s wife, Cindy, observes this same dynamic between Milt and his father. “They don’t just sit together and sort of relax and shoot the breeze,” she says. “There’s always a purpose in what they’re doing.”
Bill McColl knows no other approach to life. “That’s the way the world is, you know?” he says. “We go to church and we go to school and we go out for Little League--if you want. If you don’t want to, then you don’t. But you ought to want to.”
Desire has never been scarce in the McColl household. All six of Bill and Barbara’s children were superb students (one term they all brought home straight A’s), and all six graduated from Stanford. Four of them have MBAs. Duncan, the oldest, was a football All-American and did a brief stint in the NFL. John, a year older than Milt, distinguished himself on Stanford’s volleyball team. Bonnie was a Stanford song girl. Jennifer, the youngest, recently entered Fuller Seminary. Only Milt, second-youngest and now 29, found his father’s shoes to be a perfect fit.
“God clears a path for the man who knows where he’s going,” Bill McColl used to tell his progeny. That and things like, “The Lord helps the man in motion. But if you’re sitting on your duff, nothing happens.”
“He always described himself as what’s called the ‘good-enough’ father,” Milt says. “He always was very, very involved with what was going on, but he kept his distance. My father has never been one to say, ‘I think you should do this,’ or ‘I think you should do that.’ Never once did our parents say, ‘We’d like you to go to Stanford.’ ”
Certainly, though, the elder McColl must have recommended medicine to Milt as a profession.
“I never talked to him about it at all,” Bill says.
Football, then. Surely he urged Milt to play football.
A photo caption in a 25-year-old issue of Southern California Presbyterian magazine suggests otherwise. The photograph, taken in South Korea, shows Bill and his three little boys tossing a football around. “Will there be any more All-Americans in the McColl family?” the caption asks, and then it quotes Dad: “It’s up to the boys if they want to play football. I wouldn’t push them into it, but I wouldn’t say no, either, if the game appeals to them.”
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Milt is not quite the athlete his father was. Even Milt admits that. He was named scholastic All-American at Stanford as a senior but was ignored when the other All-America teams were named. Worse, he was ignored in the 1981 NFL draft because the pros thought he was too slow and lacked the necessary bulk. That came as a blow to a young man who had long been nurturing the athlete’s dream. In high school he just assumed he would take his rightful place on an NFL team. “I thought I was a great player,” he recalls. “I’d tell myself, ‘I’m going to play pro football. My dad did it and my brother’s going to, and I can do it, too.”
Duncan, four years Milt’s senior, did indeed do it. The Washington Redskins picked him early in the 1977 NFL draft, Milt recounts. “And then, all of a sudden, two years later, he’s not playing any more. I started to realize, ‘Wait a second, it’s not quite as easy as I thought it was gonna be.’ ” Midway through Stanford at the time, Milt played his last two seasons of college ball and then wondered which NFL team would give him a shot. When the call didn’t come on draft day, he was stunned. “I’d always thought I could do it and that I had the ability,” he says, “but reality sort of sunk in then.”
Undrafted players have less than a 1% chance of winning a spot on an NFL roster, but as any son of Bill McColl knows, the Lord helps the man in motion. So Milt pumped up his resolve and headed for the broiling summer climes of Rocklin, Calif., for a tryout at rookie camp with the 49ers, where the staff included three of his former Stanford coaches.
Milt’s chief linebacker rival was injured early in the camp (“Be prepared to make your own luck,” Bill McColl likes to say), so Milt found himself playing every down, every practice, every day, . . in 100-degree heat. One day he walked off the field after the morning scrimmage and collapsed on the locker-room floor, bone weary and nauseated. “I looked up at the clock and realized I was supposed to be back on the field in an hour for another three-hour practice,” he recalls. “And I said to myself, ‘What an idiot I am! I’m not even going to make the team!’ ” Discouraged, he telephoned “Gibraltar in a red jersey.” Gibraltar said: Keep working hard. You never know what’s going to happen.
In one dizzying week, Milt learned he had made the team and had been accepted to Stanford Medical School.
Rookie camp was easy compared to the schedule that Milt kept during his rookie season, when he played football by day and studied medicine nocturnally. A typical day: Up at 6:45, breakfast, over to the 49ers’ training facility by 8. Films, meetings, strategy sessions, scrimmages, films, films, more films. Out of there by 5 or 6, quick bite to eat, then over to Stanford to make up for the day’s missed classes. Specifically, two hours of fiddling with cadavers in a deserted anatomy lab, two hours of microscope work in a deserted histology lab, two hours of textbook study. Home by midnight or 1, five or six hours’ sleep, up at 6:45, do it all again.
Head coach Bill Walsh knew that Milt planned to study medicine, but he assumed that the rookie would confine his schooling to the off-season. When he learned otherwise, he summoned Milt to his office. During the season, Walsh explained unequivocally , a professional football player must be completely focused on football. The coach stopped short of ordering Milt to shelve medicine until the off-season, but his preference was clear.
Milt remembers feeling “pretty blown away” as he left Walsh’s office. “I felt that if other guys could go out and drink at night, I could go home and study medicine.”
Discouraged, he telephoned Gibraltar, who said: Be the first guy in every day and the last guy out at night. Show them how much you want to play.
Milt took his father’s advice, and though he continued to piggyback medical school and football, he never heard another complaint from Walsh.
Today Walsh remembers Milt McColl as a player who exhibited “a dedication and a presence and a state of mind” he has rarely observed in other players. “Very few people, athletes in particular, are able to project such time and concentration into something and, at the same time, have a parallel career in which they’re able to give it the same kind of dedication.”
Milt moved back and forth between his two worlds like a migrant following crops, stressing football in summer and fall, medicine in winter and spring. Medical school was often drudgery, and more than once he telephoned his “good-enough father” for support and encouragement. Football seasons, on the other hand, were welcome escapes. “People in pro football seem to make it out as a rough existence,” Milt says, “but in the real world--well, I don’t think many of them have been in the real world . . . or know what it’s like out there.” In the World According to Milt, pro football is a veritable joy ride. “You basically work a 9-to-5 job . . . You’re paid really well, you only work six months a year . . . It’s competitive and you’re in the limelight. . . . I go into medicine and I’m on call every third night, and I have to spend the night at the hospital, and I work from 5 in the morning till 7 or 8 the following night . . . about 36, 38 straight hours of work. Sometimes you get to sleep, but not always. It’s just part of the system. You have to do that to get through it.”
SANTA CLARA VALLEY Medical Center’s emergency room is always bustling, in large part because, as a county facility, it accommodates San Jose’s underclass: indigent alcoholics, schizophrenics, drug abusers, the homeless, criminal suspects brought in by city police. At 6:15 on a Thursday evening, patients are lined up on adjacent gurneys in partitioned treatment bays. Antiseptic and a stale, sickly smell suffuse the room as gurneys are wheeled about by the staff across ugly green linoleum. A disheveled man in police custody has become so unruly that his arms and legs have been strapped to his gurney, and a physician is sedating him. Somewhere, a woman is groaning in pain.
Dr. Milt McColl, on duty as part of the emergency-medicine rotation of his 12-month internship, appears oblivious to the distractions as he stands, arms folded in front of him, and stares intently at illuminated X-rays of a woman’s chest. Not much in football translates to medicine, but McColl knows nothing if not how to analyze films. The medium in football isn’t X-rays, of course, but the objective is the same: Determine where and why a system is weak. Sometimes it seems to Milt that he has spent half his waking hours studying the opposition for tendencies, patterns, a clue, a weakness--any hint of vulnerability, no matter how small. By NFL standards he is a master at it; it has enabled him to survive for eight years in a league in which the average career lasts only 3.6 years. When coaches speak of him, they inevitably refer to his “astuteness for the game.”
“He played smart football instead of just brute-force football,” says Norb Hecker, Milt’s linebacker coach at Stanford and San Francisco.
In the judgment of new 49ers head coach George Seifert, the Niners’ defensive coordinator while Milt was with the club, “His understanding of defenses was second to none, as far as the players I’ve worked with.”
Off McColl’s left shoulder, squinting at the X-rays with furrowed brow, is the solicitous husband of the woman McColl is treating, a swarthy fellow wearing, wouldn’t you know, an L.A. Raiders jacket. But he hasn’t the faintest idea his wife is being treated by a Raiders linebacker. Given the zeal of the typical NFL fan, if he knew, he might well be more interested in the doctor than the diagnosis.
Such adulation may be a thing of the past for Milt McColl. After starting at outside linebacker almost every game for the 49ers in 1986 and 1987, he was traded to the Raiders, who used him primarily as a backup last season. During the off-season, the Raiders fortified their linebacking corps, and in March they told McColl they won’t be needing his services this season.
With residency beckoning and a life of medicine to follow, Milt is infinitely better positioned for this disappointing but inevitable juncture than are most NFL players, many of whom have made no preparations whatsoever for a post-football career.
Milt has an edge over his peers in medicine as well. With an NFL salary that exceeded $200,000 the past few seasons and player shares from the 1981 and 1984 Super Bowls totaling $100,000, he is on financial high ground utterly foreign to most doctors emerging from a costly medical education. The McColl family--Milt and his wife, Cindy, and sons Connor, 20 months, and Kellen, 3 months--recently moved into their new house, a modern, five-level foothill dwelling in Los Altos Hills with a commanding 270-degree view of the Coast Range and San Francisco Bay. Much of Milt’s salary with the 49ers was deferred, so the McColls are in good shape even if Milt has played his last down.
IT WAS AT precisely the same point in Bill McColl’s life--29 years old, eight-year NFL veteran--that his own football career ended. Halas and the Bears accommodated medical school, but ultimately medicine wouldn’t accommodate the Bears: The orthopedics faculty at the University of Illinois hospitals voted 11 to 10 to ask Bill to quit the Bears and focus exclusively on his residency. Presumably, the majority 11 weren’t Bears fans.
McColl honored the vote without complaint, but he wishes he had it to do over. “Today I would have asked to overrule the vote,” he says. “I wanted to play another season.”
Milt would like to play another season as well, one more shared thread in lives cut from the same cloth. “It’s hard to ignore the fact that you can only play football for so long,” he says, “but you can be a doctor for the rest of your life.” Keep your options open, his father used to say. That maxim is now as integral to Milt’s philosophy as it is to Bill’s. And as the years unfold, Milt’s example may well endow his own children with the same hopeful outlook, the same expansive sense of opportunity. Would he want to see his sons emulate him as closely as he emulated his father, extend the McColl tradition of MDs playing in the NFL? “I feel the same way my father did,” Milt says. “If that’s what they want to do, I certainly will support them, but it’s up to them. All I can do is give them the pros and cons of what I’ve been through.” In that, as so much else, he is his father’s son.
Milt may have acquired the best qualities of each of his parents--or so Bill McColl was musing not long ago. By Bill’s reckoning, Milt owes, at the very least, his grace, tact, considerate nature and sociability to his mother.
Satisfied with that pronouncement, Bill falls silent and so must be prompted: What does Milt owe to his father?
His face clenches in concentration as though he is hard-pressed to think of even one of Milt’s virtues for which he could possibly take credit. Unacknowledged, perhaps because it is too obvious, or maybe for modesty’s sake, is Milt’s athletic prowess.
Suddenly, Bill McColl’s face brightens. “My size,” he says with a great, unbridled laugh. “Milt’s got my size.”
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.