Cadavers' cartilage may save 2 Raiders
By Bill Soliday
Friday, June 25, 2004 - ALAMEDA -- Rod Woodson and Barret Robbins are Oakland Raiders whose rsums include having been named to the Pro Bowl as recently as 2002.
Now whether they will be able to so much as play in 2004 will depend largely on modern medical science -- and no one knows the odds of whether the medicine will take.
Both underwent unique knee operations in the off-season. Surgery involved cartilage replacement taken from cadavers. It is an operation that has worked with weekend athletes but never with professional athletes -- at least not successfully. Although doctors have performed cadaver ligament replacement surgery, cartilage is different. In the past, when cartilage was gone, it was gone. Now with replacement cartilage there is hope, but to be effective, the new cartilage must flourish and grow once implanted.
If one were to refer to it as a "last chance" procedure, it wouldn't be a stretch.
"It's what arthritis is," Woodson said. "Bone on bone. I don't have any cartilage. If this works out, a lot of people are going to have this surgery. It's an aggressive procedure, and it's really the only way to get cartilage back. You never really grow true cartilage back -- you just grow scar tissue cartilage.
"We're all waiting to see how it works out."
Bone grating on bone, Robbins struggled last year before finally shutting it down the final month of the season. Matters had gone beyond the point where he feared he might not play again.
"I knew I wasn't," Robbins said. "When they released me from the hospital before the surgery, they said my knee was basically that of a 70-year old. Hopefully, I've got it down to the low 40s now."
Neither Woodson nor Robbins participated in the team's three-day minicamp that concluded Thursday. If a player was 30 or older, he was excused. But with Woodson and Robbins, it's been a patient wait since their February surgeries.
"Neither of them has been able to participate in the (off-season) work we are doing," coach Norv Turner said. "We know it is going to be hard for them to come back, so you have to plan as if they are not coming back. To me, when you get in a situation like (this one), it is a bonus if they can make it back."
Contingency plans involve free agent and rookie acquisitions. Oakland signed veteran Ray Buchanan, and he is currently the starting free safety. They also drafted Stuart Schweigert, who broke Woodson's interception records at Purdue, in the third round.
At center, the team drafted Virginia Tech center Jake Grove in the second round. He joins returning veteran Adam Treu, who has relieved Robbins whenever needed -- including that Super Bowl day in January 2003 when Robbins went AWOL before the team's showdown with Tampa Bay.
Not surprisingly, the 200-pound Woodson is making a relatively more rapid recovery than Robbins, whose weight ranged from 360 to an eventual 340 last year. While Woodson may be able to participate when training camp practices begin July 30, Robbins was originally aiming for an August return at best.
Like Robbins, Woodson had his doubts about his football future after limping through the 2003 season.
"If you knew how my knee felt, I didn't know if I'd be walking too much," Woodson said. "At that point, I thought I would need crutches the rest of my life. Now I'm not limping when I get out there. I can walk up steps. I can jog in place, which I couldn't do last year. I can stand on one leg, which I couldn't do either. We'll wait and see how it turns out."
Robbins' agent, Drew Pittman, concedes the radical nature of the surgery on professional athletes makes for an uncertain prognosis.
"Our thoughts and hopes are that it is going to be like an ACL reconstruction where it allows him to keep playing football," Pittman said. "We're taking it as it comes. Right now, the initial outcome is very positive. We think he will be able to play again.
"The Raiders have shown a really strong desire to stick with this guy and give him every chance to play again. I think that is huge. What if he can't play the first half of the year but he comes back part time in the second half and is ready for the next year? They said they would be willing to go through that with him."
Robbins, the 49th pick in Round 2 of the 1995 draft, says it's a matter of small steps leading up to big ones. He said he didn't blame the Raiders for selecting Grove with the 45th pick in Round 2.
"I think it was a move they had to make," he said. "I think it is a case where they are really trying to handle their business and make sure they have a solid No. 2 guy there ... someone they can bring along to maybe be the next center here.
"That's the business of it. On the other hand, if I take care of my business, I think I can get healthy, and we'll have a better football team."
Re: Cadavers' cartilage may save 2 Raiders
I knew there was a reason to read your posts ... didn't realize they were starting to experiment with this procedure ... it's something close to heart that annoys me every day and if this cartilege replacement process becomes more viable, I think I'm going to have to see if any of the local drs have any experience with the procedure.