The Good Doctor
Dec. 2, 2003
By Robert Viccellio
Amid fan belts, greasy wrenches and cans of motor oil, a group of high school athletes and their coaches gather in the back of a service station in the small town of Crewe, Va. It’s not long before the doctor from out of town arrives to examine the athletes, all of whom are nursing sports-related injuries. After he completes his diagnoses, Frank C. McCue III-internationally recognized orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine pioneer-is back on the road, bringing his medical expertise to yet another group of athletes.
While that filling station was one of the more unusual settings in which McCue examined patients, it exemplifies a hallmark of his career: the willingness to be available to anyone, any time and any place. Over the years, McCue, 72, has treated thousands of high school and college athletes from all over the state, most of them at no charge. In fact, he has treated so many high school students for free that the Virginia High School Coaches Association named its annual sports medicine award for him. Before other colleges had their own team orthopedists, they would send their athletes to be treated by McCue, whom they dubbed the “miracle man.”
For decades, McCue’s medical barnstorming was a necessity. Nobody else was willing or able to do what he did. “Sports medicine wasn’t a specialty like it is now,” McCue says. “There weren’t many orthopedic surgeons in the state back then and doctors just weren’t interested in taking care of athletes.”
Though he’s revered for his generosity around the state, McCue’s main work and greatest passion has been at the University of Virginia, where he’s trained young doctors and cared for Cavalier athletes for more than 40 years. After finishing his UVa undergraduate work in 1952, McCue stayed in Charlottesville to attend medical school and complete his residency. During those years, the seeds were sown that would lead to a lifelong association with the University of Virginia and its Athletics program.
“My last year in medical school, Lou Onesty was the only trainer,” McCue recalls. “But Lou was also the track and cross country coach, the assistant coach of football and freshman basketball, and the diving and swimming coach. They asked me if I’d help out in the afternoons because they didn’t have anybody else. So that’s really how I got into athletic training.”
After a two-year hand surgery fellowship in California, he returned to the University in 1961. He’s been a fixture ever since. During his career, McCue has been a professor of orthopedic surgery and the director of the Division of Sports Medicine and Hand Surgery at the University’s Health Sciences Center. His work as team physician, however, has been an unpaid labor of love. McCue enjoyed working with the football team and being around the players so much that he took his vacation in August so his schedule would be clear for the summer two-a-day practices. “I coached at two other schools and Frank was the only team doctor who came to most of the practices,” says former UVa football coach George Welsh. “He just wanted to be there.”
For the past dozen years, McCue has enjoyed the rare honor of working in a building that bears his name. “I never thought I’d have anything named after me other than my son,” McCue says with characteristic humility. Yet without his involvement, the McCue Center-UVa’s impressive athletics support facility-would not have been finished as quickly.
“He’s really what got this building built,” says Director of Sports Medicine Joe Gieck, who has worked alongside McCue since 1962. “We didn’t have the money raised until we started putting forth his name. The money then came in overnight. That shows you the respect that people have for him and the number of things that he’s done for people.”
“His name is synonymous with sports medicine,” says Joe Palumbo, a 1951 football All-American at Virginia who organized the group of donors that funded construction of the McCue Center. “He’s a very caring person. Everybody recognizes him and loves him. He does so much for so many and he’s very sincere about it. At the McCue Center, there must be 1,500 signed pictures from pro athletes from all over the country whom he’s helped. He’s a saint.”
His wife, Nancy, is a registered nurse and also a candidate for sainthood. She has taken care of the countless patients McCue has brought home with him to recover after surgery. “It made people a little bit less scared about things because I had a chance to sit and talk to them about what their concerns were,” he says of his frequent houseguests.
“He does things out of care and love for the players, not just because he’s the doctor and that’s his job,” says Anthony Poindexter, graduate assistant football coach and former All-American safety at Virginia. “Everything he does, he does it from the heart. You’d think it was a fairy tale if somebody told you about Doc McCue. You’d think that there’s no way in the world that anybody could be that kind and generous.”
When Poindexter’s 1998 senior season was cut short by a severe knee injury, McCue was there to reconstruct the joint. “I wouldn’t have let anybody else operate on my knee, I’ll tell you that,” Poindexter says.
While thousands of athletes can thank McCue for patching them back together, legions of doctors also have benefited from their association with McCue. Jim Andrews, a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon based in Birmingham, Ala., was one of McCue’s students while an UVa medical resident in the 1970s.
“Frank McCue could be considered a father to me relative to my sports medicine career,” Andrews told the Richmond Times-Dispatch when the McCue Center was dedicated in 1991. “He gave me the guidance early on to understand, in more than one way, how athletes think and how to talk to them and how to motivate them. Of course, the surgical skills of Frank McCue are second to none. He’s a very special person and there’s none other like him in the world of sports medicine.”
Andrews isn’t alone in his reverence for McCue. A 1974 Cavalier Daily article opened, “Frank is, by all counts, the best natural resource at the University.” A group of the doctor’s former residents and fellows, along with professors, doctors and trainers, formed the McCue Society in 1987. With a membership numbering in the thousands, the society provides scholarships and meets annually to share the latest advances in sports medicine.
“He’s an icon at the University for all that he’s done for this place,” says Barry Parkhill, who has known McCue since his days as a celebrated basketball player at UVa in the early ’70s. “He’s touched so many lives, and it goes way beyond just taking care of athletes.”
Although McCue officially retired last spring, he can still be found on the sidelines or in his office every day. “I get at least 10 calls a day from coaches, patients, friends and doctors,” he says. “They know I’m not operating anymore but they want some advice.”