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A conversation with Myron Rolle, former NFL player turned neurosurgeon, on the fight against Covid-19

SB Nation caught up with the former Tennessee Titans DB, who’s a third-year neurosurgical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Artwork of former NFL player and current doctor Myron Rolle, wearing hospital scrubs
Former NFL player Myron Rolle is now a neuroscience resident.
Instagram/@myronlrolle, SB Nation Illustration

Former Florida State and Tennessee Titans defensive back Myron Rolle is witnessing firsthand the fight against Covid-19. As a neurosurgery resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, his hospital has been on the frontlines of the coronavirus that’s been ravaging the United States and countries around the world.

Rolle first made headlines in college when he awarded a Rhodes Scholarship during his junior season at FSU. Instead of playing his senior year, he accepted the scholarship, and studied at Oxford University in 2009. After a year in London, Rolle entered the 2010 NFL Draft.

He was drafted in the sixth round by the Titans, where he spent one year on the practice squad before being released. The Steelers signed him to a futures contract, and he was cut again before the 2012 season. He retired without having played in a single NFL game, and enrolled in medical school at FSU in 2013. He graduated in 2017, and is now a doctor.

Currently in his third year of his neurosurgery residency, SB Nation spoke exclusively to Rolle about what his experience has been like working as a medical doctor in the middle of a pandemic, as well as the NFL’s response to the outbreak.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

SB NATION: At Mass General, your hospital has been in the heart of the Covid-19 outbreak in Boston, which has over 1,000 confirmed cases. What has that experience been like?

MYRON ROLLE: The hospital has adjusted itself in response to Covid-19, the influx of patients. So walking into the hospital, you immediately realize that you’re playing a different ballgame. You have to wear a mask, I get hand sanitizer as soon as I walk in, and there’s more sanitizing stations around the hospital. There’s also this app that we’re using now to sort of define your symptoms before you even get to work, and if you don’t have any symptoms, you have to show it to the security guards in front to make sure that you’re not bringing in an infection that you may have gotten off the street or from home, so that’s different.

Our operating room is certainly different. We don’t operate as much — it’s pretty much selective cases or emergent cases. The neurosurgical staff has been sort of staggered so that all of us aren’t here and all of us aren’t exposed at the same time.

And then there’s a surge clinic with a hospital within a hospital here at Mass General, which also has recruited non-medical personnel to help manage staff — basically help triage some of these patients who are coming off the street with Covid-19. This surge clinic is accepting and welcoming to people who just want to fight the fight against Covid-19, so it has been definitely a whirlwind.

SBN: What has your hospital’s supplies of personal protective equipment been like?

MR: Here at Mass General, we’re one of the largest hospitals in the New England area and perhaps even the country. We’re Harvard affiliated, so we have a lot of resources just at baseline. I think the hospitals that are being stressed and strained and tested the most would be the smaller ones who are out in the suburbs of major cities.

Nevertheless, our masks are being dispersed around the hospital in a centralized location. For instance, if I was going into the operating room, instead of having the face masks and shields right in front of me, they would be in a centralized location so that they’re better allocated for the people that really need them. And we’ve even been asked at one point to reuse our masks if possible.

SBN: Covid-19 is more dangerous for those over the age of 65, or with pre-existing conditions. What would be your message to young people who perhaps aren’t taking this coronavirus seriously?

MR: I’d say that that’s an irresponsible ideology because you’re still capable of not only contracting the disease, but being an asymptomatic carrier and affecting somebody who doesn’t have the built-up immune system that you have. It’s not just about your convenience, or about your lifestyle at this point; it’s really about the team. It’s about everyone here.

We all have to play our part, including those younger individuals in our community who have a robust immune system and don’t have any of these conditions, who hopefully have a long and fruitful life. This is a time where you need to look beyond yourself and step up and do your active part.

SBN: Switching gears to the NFL for a bit, the league has committed to a 16-game schedule. Is it realistic at this point to see a full season happening as scheduled?

MR: I may be biased because I’m in a hotbed city and state — Boston is going to see a surge even more so than we see now in the next coming weeks. So I may be in a bubble and not speaking with complete objectivity here, but I think that’s ambitious to say that you’ll have a 16-game season and start either on time or just a little bit delayed.

I think we’re going to be going through this for some time. It’s going to take time for us to figure out how to best fix this, manage it, what’s the best vaccine, the therapy, the cure — if we can find one.

Yes, I understand that football and sports in America have been a way for us to get away from some of our most daunting moments. It’s a way for us to bring the country together. We saw it happen with 9/11, with the baseball season was right around the corner and people rallied around sports.

But at this point, I think the health of our country — the progress and the prosperity of our country — relies on these epidemiologists, nurses, doctors, pharmacists who are on the frontlines and trying to make a difference and trying to thwart this pandemic.

Once we get past this phase, we can resume our daily life, including sports like football that we love so much.

SBN: Do you think playing NFL games without fans might be a potential solution to having some semblance of a regular season?

MR: It’s certainly possible, but think about the proximity of these athletes in a communal setting. The locker room, on a bus, in a hotel, they are amongst each other and they can be a nidus for infection if one of these players ends up having Covid-19. Then it spreads and everybody gets knocked out.

It’s best to just be patient right now. Allow some of these amazing scientific minds of women and men around the country and around the world to do their job and do their work.

SBN: The NFL is having the draft on April 23 as scheduled, while following the CDC’s guidelines with respect to large gatherings and social distancing. Do you agree with this decision?

MR: I think that’s certainly reasonable to do a draft virtually. I know a lot of these players have been waiting their whole life to be drafted. I remember myself, I had wanted to be drafted into the NFL for forever and I had to wait until the third day to do it. So I get it, it can be a dream that comes true for a lot of players.

But you have to be smart while doing it. You have to adhere to what the medical professionals and the politicians and the leaders on this fight are saying. And if you can fit within that paradigm, certainly I can see a draft happening.

SBN: What advice would you give to prospects having to deal with the pre-draft process under these unique circumstances?

MR: My advice would be to continue to keep your mind sharp, if you can’t get outside and get some physical work in. Because when this is all done, there’s not going to be a team that looks back on Covid-19 that says, ‘Well I’m going to cut you some slack because you weren’t able to catch the ball or keep your mind sharp in the game.’ They’re going to expect you to hit the ground running.

So whatever it is you can do, [do it], whether it’s getting on the phone with your former coach and going over plays and schemes. Having [them] draw up certain different plays or personnel and you have to think through it like you were a coach — put your mind there.

Be creative, be smart with it, but keep yourself ready because this is not going to be used as an excuse if you are not sharp when everything gets started again. It will get started again — believe that. You have to keep that in mind: There’s going to be an end. I’m optimistic that there will be, [I] just don’t know when. But when it does happen, you have to be on it.

SBN: How has your career in football helped prepare you for one in medicine, and in dealing with a pandemic like this?

MR: Football helped me tremendously, and that’s why I want the sport to stay because it’s so valuable. It’s helped me be a better physician today, certainly. I’ve learned discipline. I’ve learned focus, teamwork, communication. I’ve learned how to overcome adversity, how to prepare. I learned how to win and how to lose graciously. All these things have translated into my life as a physician. In the operating room, it is high stakes, it’s a life-or-death situation in some instances.

A team comes out with five wide receivers, no fullback, quarterback is in shotgun and we didn’t gameplan for that? We didn’t see that at all on tape, this is a brand-new formation they’re showing us? You have to think, ‘how are we gonna match up here, are we just going to fold?’ Or ‘do we have to step forward and meet the challenge?’

Covid-19, in my opinion is something, like that. It’s a personnel that we haven’t seen yet. It’s a novel disease that is different, it’s highly infectious, and it’s just running rampant around the country and around the world. How do we adjust to this? We can’t fold — we have to step forward and meet the challenge.

SBN: As a medical professional, what would be your message to the general public in the wake of this pandemic?

MR: I think going back to when we talked about younger people just having a participatory and active role in stopping this spread. If you have a high infectious rate and just a surge or patients that are incredibly sick to the point that they need hospital care, you put stress on the healthcare system.

Our country hasn’t had its back against the wall like this in a long time with a pandemic that’s hitting so many sectors or our daily life. I’d say that this is a more serious issue than some may have thought, but it’s one that we can get over, and we need to get over it together.

As a team, it’s focusing on lifestyle behavior modifications, proper hygiene, physical and social distancing, and remaining home so that the spread becomes flattened. And that allows some of the wonderful minds that we have working on the frontlines get time to fix this — and not only fix it — but prevent it from happening in the future.