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Billy Reed: Paying homage to former college athletes on medical front lines in battle against COVID

Let’s stop fretting, for just a moment, about whether we’ll have 2020-’21 basketball season, and concentrate on paying homage to all the former athletes who now are on the front lines of the battle against the Coronavirus pandemic.

They come from different sports and different nations. They come from both sexes and with different skin colors. What they have in common is that they used the educations they got from athletic scholarships to go into the medical and related professions.

Names such as Marshall Leonard, a former major-league soccer star; Myron Rolle, a Florida State football player who bypassed his senior year to begin studying medicine; and Mark Hamilton, a former first-baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals, are easy to find on Google.

Billy and Dr. Brooks at a UK game. (Photo provided)

But what about all the other NCAA schools, many of which belong to Divisions II and III? You don’t hear about the medical professionals developed at those schools because their colleges don’t get nearly as much attention as the big-money schools that play their games on national TV and make enough income to be able to pay their coaches upward of $5 million a year.

A lot of doctors are pulling double-duty during our current crisis, continuing to work in their specialties while also pulling extra shifts to help out with the Coronavirus crisis.

Says Dr. William H. Brooks, a neurosurgeon at Baptist Hospital Lexington:

“Those who still believe that the COVID invasion is not serious have not seen those who struggle to breathe and require a ventilator for survival, nor those with devastating strokes. Even those who survive having required mechanical breathing machines very frequently manifest dysfunction of cognition and memory.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you that Dr. Brooks and I have been close friends since the fall of 1956, when I entered Morton Junior High in Lexington after moving from Louisville. At that time, Morton was about as close to a private prep school as a public school could be, and I felt completely out of place until Bill Brooks added me to his eclectic group of friends.

With a thin body that would eventually stop growing when he got to be 6-feet-2, Bill was the starting center on the Morton Junior basketball team. He had a nice drop step on offense, but his main assets were his sure hands and jumping ability.

One of my favorite memories is of how we spent a lot of winter Saturday mornings when Coach Adolph Rupp’s UK Basketball team was out of town. We’d buy a cheap Roi-Tan to use as a bribe to George, the maintenance man at Memorial Coliseum. He would let us in and we would play on the gleaming hardwood floor where Johnny Cox, Vernon Hatton, and the other Wildcat heroes from the late 1960s played.

When we got to Henry Clay High, Bill started three years for the Blue Devils of Coach “Elmer” Baldy Gilb, who moonlighted as Rupp’s top scout. But we never got out of the district tournament because all-black Dunbar High, the best team in town, always was there to stop us.

After graduation, I went to UK on a journalism scholarship and Bill got an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, where he was to play basketball for fiery young coach Tates Locke. But we both quit after a year and were reunited at Transylvania College (now University) in Lexington, where a former Rupp player named C.M. Newton had put together a highly respectable NAIA program.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

Although Bill played a couple of years for Newton, I felt he had lost his appetite for basketball and wanted to get on with the business of becoming a neurosurgeon. That’s exactly what he did, and, as the years went on, I kept getting reports on how skilled he was. I was hardly surprised. He always was the smartest guy I knew.

We’ve kept in touch over the years.

I recently asked him to explain the link between neurosurgery and the virus.

“Neurosurgery’s role in COVID is called forth in those who develop strokes or hemorrhages related to the consequences of the immunological events triggered by the virus,” he wrote me. “This includes the formation of blood clots that can occlude any blood vessel. In the case of blood vessels to the brain, blockage results in an onset of symptoms of a stroke. On occasion, hemorrhage can occur which calls for surgery to remove. Unfortunately, these are nearly always fatal.”

When I told Bill I wanted to write about him as a symbol of all the college athletes who went into the medical profession, he was horrified. Humble to a fault, he would rather talk about his wife, Carol, or the doctors and nurses with whom he works.

Still thin, with long white hair, Bill has a wraith-like appearance that might cause some patients to worry they have fallen into the hands of a mad scientist. But I would guess that once they feel the kindness in his voice, smile, and manner, they know they are in the hands of a doctor who cares deeply about them.

I’m sure many of you know medical people like my friend Dr. Brooks, and now is a good time to contact them and thank them.

I’m sure they will appreciate that more than any ovation they might have received in an arena.

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  1. Pres Judy says:

    Billy what a great tribute to a great doctor and person. We grew up together since I was 5. He always said don’t hurt my hands when we were playing and wrestling. I want to be a surgeon and will need these spiney fingers. Both you and Dr. Bill Brooks are Kentucky Ledgends. Stay safe

  2. Parker LaBach says:

    Give my regards to Dr Brooks, with whom I attended Henry Clay HS . I worked with him when I was in Medical School and he was a resident.
    Parker LaBach.

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