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Like Father, Like Son : How Did Milt McColl, NFL Player and Orthopedic Surgeon, Come To Mirror His Dad's Life So Precisely?

June 18, 1989|LEE GREEN | Lee Green, a Ventura writer, is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

ON THE TURF of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, at an L.A. Raiders game last fall, outside linebacker Milt McColl--6-foot-6, 230 steel-cased pounds--was just another faceless warrior sporting the silver and black, an oak among oaks.

Three months into the off-season, in the crowded emergency room at San Jose's Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, he is somewhat more conspicuous. Part of it is his musculature--a white lab coat doesn't quite conceal the kinetic body so painstakingly honed to create mayhem in the NFL--and part of it is his height. He looms over his medical colleagues, more so because he stands so erect, beeper clipped to one coat pocket, "Manual of Emergency Medicine" protruding from another, obligatory stethoscope slung around his neck. Very doctorly. Doctorly and big.

In his eighth-grade yearbook, Milt McColl wrote that he hoped to become a professional athlete. No surprise. Just about everyone who knew Milt knew that his old man had played pro football. Four years later, Milt's senior classmates at South Hills High School in Covina voted him "most likely to succeed," and he was asked to pose for a yearbook picture in career attire. He showed up wearing surgical scrubs and wielding a butcher's knife. No surprise. Everyone knew that Milt's dad was an orthopedic surgeon.

Milt won a football scholarship to Stanford, his father's alma mater; pledged Zeta Psi, his father's fraternity, and starred on Stanford's football team, as his father had done. But as graduation neared, the odds of his life continuing to mirror his father's narrowed considerably. Football isn't exactly the most accessible profession. Only one player in 30 makes the jump from college to the National Football League, and many of those last just long enough for a rubdown and a cup of Gatorade. For that matter, medical school has never been mistaken for a day on the Seine. Either one, medicine or pro football, is a formidable challenge by itself, the achievement of a lifetime for most. To stay on his father's path, Milt had to conquer both--and at the same time.

It used to be almost axiomatic: Sons followed in their father's tradition. Blacksmiths' sons became blacksmiths, bakers' sons bakers. It's a little more complicated now. A banker's son may become a banker, or he may resolve to be anything but a banker. Some sons barely know their real father, live under a different roof with a different man at the head of the table--if indeed the family sits together at a table. Or a son may know and like his father but have no idea what he actually does for a living: "He works for Rockwell--something to do with computers."

For Milt McColl, explanations for having produced a virtual carbon copy of his father's life don't come easily. Milt pursued the legacy not at his father's urging, nor even upon great reflection, but instead almost instinctively, as though guided by providence. He never observed his father in surgery or accompanied him on hospital rounds. Milt simply gravitated toward his father's achievements like water seeking equilibrium. "Sometimes I think I didn't think about it as much as I could have," he says. "It just seemed natural."

In the '50s, Bill McColl earned his medical degree and completed an internship and part of his orthopedics residency during an eight-year playing career with the Chicago Bears. Milt, too, has played eight years in the NFL: seven with the San Francisco Forty-Niners and one, last season, with the Raiders, all the while pursuing his medical studies. He became an MD at Stanford in March, 1988, taking almost seven years instead of Stanford's norm of four or five, and now is nearing completion of his internship. Within the next year he will begin a four- or five-year residency--in orthopedics, of course.

Attempting such an unlikely amalgam of careers might never have occurred to Milt had his father not shown what was possible. "I just felt that the way he lived his life set a great example," Milt says. "That's why I've wound up doing so many of the things he's done. Not because he wanted me to--maybe he did--but because it just seemed the way it should be."

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