When Alabama's kicking unit took the field against Arkansas, fans weren't expecting much. The Crimson Tide was on the never-land of the 45 yard line.
But suddenly kicker Ryan Pflugner's field goal was up and good, giving him not only three points but a place in the university's record books: the second longest field goal ever, and the longest without a kicking tee.
1998 was a golden year for the young Sarasota, Florida native, made sweeter by its coming just after a string of devastating injuries that had sidelined him not only for the previous season but for the intervening spring practice as well.
"It was a roller-coaster couple of years," Pflugner says now, at his Birmingham office of Alabama Orthopaedic Surgeons. "First I had severe tendonitis in my hip, then a pulled adductor and a sports hernia. I wasn't sure what the future held."
But Pflugner, an engineering major who had switched to biology, had no way of knowing that all of his setbacks would eventually lead him to a new career path in surgery and sports medicine.
"I hadn't thought about medical school until I had almost finished college," he says. "In fact, I didn't take the MCAT until after I'd graduated. I'd had so many great experiences with the orthopaedic surgeons at Alabama, seeing what they did for the other guys and for me, that I just knew it was something I wanted to do."
These days, Pflugner divides his average week between three days of clinic and two days of surgery. The field of orthopaedics has progressed significantly in just the past decade. "Sports medicine is a field that's evolving constantly,” Pflugner says. “From the standpoint of technology, we have new ways to fix the problems. And even though the athletes keep getting bigger, stronger, and faster, the problems are still much the same: ACL injuries, rotator cuff tears; and in baseball, the Tommy John-type injuries."
(Named for the first baseball player to undergo the surgery, such injuries are officially known as UCLs, for ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. They involve a surgical graft in which the damaged elbow ligament is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the patient's body.)
"Over the years," Pflugner says, "we've become more aware of defining the problems, and determining the best way to fix them, in a more minimally invasive way."
In addition to arthroscopy, Pflugner says, a promising new field known as biologics takes the approach of simulating the body's own healing processes. "Platelet-rich plasma is a really hot topic right now. And I think the future is going to be in articular cartilage restoration. Instead of joint replacements, we'd have a scaffolding material to create a structure we'd populate with cartilage cells that grow like our own."
Pflugner was initially attracted to Alabama Orthopaedic Surgeons because of the practice's reputation in the community. "The physicians in the group have been in the Trussville area and practicing in Birmingham for dozens of years. They've built a reputation for being excellent surgeons.
"My time at AOS has been incredible for me, as each of my partners has helped me grow as a surgeon. I don't know of anyone, at the same stage in their careers as me, who has had as much support."
This fall, Pflugner's career comes full circle as he returns to his hometown of Sarasota to join Askins and Miller Orthopaedics. He's also staying busy at home. He and his wife have a 13-month-old daughter, and another is due in July. "The moment I get home, I go into 'dad mode,'" he says. "Watching football last year was fairly easy because my daughter was still young enough to stay in one spot and pay attention. But this fall may be a different matter, because now she's getting more adventurous by the day."
The prospect of moving back to the place where he grew up, he says, "is an opportunity I've actually been working at for a long time. Then it came up all of a sudden, and it was something I couldn't pass up."