More than 66,000 bundled-up spectators will pack Gillette Stadium on Sunday and not only cheer for New England against the Rams, but for quarterback Tom Brady to claim another piece of NFL history. Last week, he tied the retired Peyton Manning with his 200th victory.
One of Brady’s best friends and most devoted supporters will be watching from a prime vantage.
The visitors’ sideline.
Neal ElAttrache, team physician for the Rams, helped save Brady’s career. ElAttrache reconstructed the left knee of the future Hall of Famer, who suffered a three-ligament tear in a 2008 season opener.
“At a pretty critical moment in my career, he was someone who was right there by my side,” Brady recently told The Times. “I’m forever grateful to him and his commitment to me, and we’re lifelong friends because of that.”
ElAttrache, who met Brady 15 years ago when a mutual friend introduced them for a golf round at Pebble Beach, remains his personal doctor from 3,000 miles away. He consults from afar with the Patriots medical staff and trainers on garden-variety injuries, and is always prepared if something more serious were to occur.
In an era of heightened scrutiny on the complex interaction among doctors and teams and players, the friendship that has emerged between ElAttrache and Brady extends beyond the sacrosanct physician-patient relationship.
“I think it’s safe to say that I will never root for another person against Tom Brady,” said ElAttrache, who serves as chairman of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Foundation and director of medical affairs for the Kerlan-Jobe Institute.
“I’ve lost that ability to take in a game normally. My emotion and my heart since 2008 is to see him win. I’ve taken care of a lot of people who play for teams he’s played against, and I never root against those people. But I always root for Tom. Generally, that means that his team wins.”
For the most part, ElAttrache won’t have the luxury of watching a game he’s working. He never does. Instead, he will be on the Rams’ sideline, attending to the various medical concerns of Los Angeles players, just as he does as head physician for the Dodgers. He’s an active participant and not a spectator.
He does acknowledge, though, that he will be in an unusual situation Sunday in pulling for Brady on a sideline where everyone else won’t be.
“That doesn’t faze me,” he said. “It may upset some people. By and large, those people that run those teams, they want me because I’m good at what I do. They don’t need another fan. So I think they understand that if they were a patient of mine, they’d want me rooting for them, too.”
Brady and ElAttrache instantly clicked when they met after the quarterback’s first of four Super Bowl victories. Their friendship grew when Brady made Los Angeles his off-season home, and was forever forged after the injury in 2008, which ended his season and had lots of people questioning why the 2007 NFL most valuable player would leave the medical mecca of Boston to have surgery on the West Coast.
“We went through a lot together when we went through the surgery,” said Brady, whose 60,229 yards passing place him in the all-time top five with Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees and Dan Marino. “His judgment was just great. He helped me so much with what I was going through. Certainly entrusting someone to do a major operation on you, you want to have a lot of confidence in the person performing that. You have such strong feelings for that person.”
Raised in Mount Pleasant, Pa., about 45 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, ElAttrache was first inspired to study medicine by his late father, Selim, a Lebanese immigrant who was the town’s orthopedic surgeon.
That’s a long way from where ElAttrache is now, whose patients, according to various reports, include sports stars such as Kobe Bryant and Zack Greinke — in 2013, ElAttrache operated on the Lakers guard and Dodgers pitcher on the same day — Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Manny Machado and Jose Fernandez.
“We were fortunate in coming to Los Angeles that we could get a team doctor the quality of Neal ElAttrache,” said Kevin Demoff, Rams chief operating officer. “Fortunate that he’s not only excited about participating with the Rams, but really helping us become a leader in sports medicine.”
A father of three daughters, including the eldest who plays volleyball at Duke, ElAttrache delivers a lot of speeches around the country when he’s not performing surgeries or working various sporting events.
Brady came back from his knee reconstruction — tears to all three ligaments and meniscus — in the average amount of time it takes other players to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, said ElAttrache, who was sitting with the quarterback’s parents for the 2009 opener on “Monday Night Football.” In that game, Brady led the Patriots to a 25-24 comeback victory over Buffalo.
As emotional as that win was, ElAttrache said the play he needed to see came four weeks earlier in an exhibition opener against Philadelphia, when Brady called his own number on and one and, confident on his rebuilt knee, ran for three yards.
“I can see how he saw that as a milestone,” Brady said. “For me, when I’m on the field playing, I’m playing. I’m not thinking about anything other than what I see and how I need to react. But for Neal, he wants to make sure that everything’s holding up and that I’m confident in what I’m doing. When he sees something like that and he realizes I’m confident, I think that gave him a lot of relief.”
On Saturday, ElAttrache sent Brady a text and playfully suggested that maybe he’d sit in Brady’s luxury suite during the game. A couple hours later, the doctor got a call from Brady’s assistant, telling him he would send a car Sunday and that his seat in the box was reserved.
“That’s Tom,” ElAttrache said, politely explaining to the assistant that he was only joking.
The doctor will see the game from a much closer view. He does, after all, have a job to do.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesFarmer