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David Chao, MD: Tom Brady Is Not Super Human, But This Was His Third MCL Surgery

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Does the latest report of Tom Brady playing through an MCL tear (whether complete or partial) for the entire season and winning the Super Bowl add to his lore as the GOAT? The answer is an unequivocal “no.”

Brady has earned hyperbole for his career, but not for this injury. I don’t doubt his MCL was injured and he needed surgery, but the lay person narrative of “completely torn” and “heroic” does not fit the medical facts.

If his MCL was completely torn and unstable, how did he take a boat ride with just a knee sleeve that does not have metal support? Brady always wears an ACL brace on that left lead leg and that does provide MCL stability. However, the soft neoprene sleeve he wore during his celebratory boat rides does not provide stability. The inevitable swaying that occurs on a boat would test his lateral knee stability. Brady’s MCL would have been stressed as he lateralled the Lombardi. His actions do not fit the narrative of a “completely torn” and unstable knee.

In my experience as an NFL head team physician, there is no way anyone could play with a complete (grade 3) MCL tear. However, up to one-third of the team typically plays with a previous MCL sprain with residual laxity and usually without a brace. When an MCL is sprained (which, by definition, means fibers are torn), healing is routine without surgery but commonly there is some persistent looseness. This is similar to basketball players who sprain their ankle. The ligament heals but in a slightly elongated position and is more likely to roll. Surgery is rarely needed for even complete MCL tears or ankle ligament sprains/tears.

I am not saying Brady didn’t deal with residual problems with his MCL. In fact, this actually is his third MCL surgery. In 2008, when he tore his ACL, his surgeon decided to fix his associated MCL tear, which required an extra open incision. That area got infected and required a cleanup second surgery. Infected tissue does not heal as well, and this could explain why Brady had lingering issues after a 2019 MCL re-injury and had to deal with looseness all of last season leading to his third surgery.

Some are now critical of the Buccaneers for never listing Brady on the injury report. He did not miss practice and was not at risk to miss a game, and thus his team did not break any rules. I assure you that NFL teams don’t hire a half dozen athletic trainers and physical therapists along with three traveling team physicians just for a few players listed on the injury report. The fact is there are always more injuries than the public is aware of.

Brady’s greatness does not need to be embellished with false medical narratives. Expect the timeline of this MCL surgery recovery to allow him to be ready for the start of the season and to make another run at a title.

Written by Pro Football Doc

David Chao, MD -- known digitally as Pro Football Doc -- is an expert contributor for Outkick. Chao spent 17 seasons as the team doctor for the San Diego Chargers (1997-2013) and is part of the medical team at OASIS in San Diego where he treats and specializes in orthopedic sports injuries, working with high-profile professional athletes from the NFL, NBA, and MLB.

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