From the gridiron to the OR: Orthopedist recounts journey as an NFL player
For orthopedic surgeon Gregory L. Primus, MD, leaving one dream meant being able to accomplish another.
Few people get to live out their dreams, and even fewer get to live out two. Gregory L. Primus, MD, is one of the latter — the Chicago-based orthopedic sports specialist has fulfilled his dreams of becoming a professional athlete and an orthopedic surgeon.
Primus grew up in Denver as a middle child of two brothers, with the older brother nearer in age. The backyard efforts to keep up with his older brother and the neighborhood kids gave Primus an advantage not only in athletics, but also in personality.
“I took a lot of beatings in my early years,” he told Orthopedics Today. “But that got me into sports at an early age.”
Primus was playing organized competitive football by 6 years old. A multi-sport athlete through high school, it became evident that football was going to be his primary sport. It was not until after junior year when he realized he could play at “the next level” — NCAA Division I football.
Image: Primus GL
“Both my parents have college degrees, and education was always valued and stressed,” Primus said. “I was fortunate to get a scholarship and one thing led to the next, but I was always a student first.”
Football was a talent he pursued — but academics never took a back seat. “Just like I started playing football at 6 years old, I cannot remember a time that I did not want to be a doctor,” Primus said. “I consider myself blessed, because I feel like I have lived out two dreams.”
Division I football
Primus stayed local and attended Colorado State University — playing football for the Colorado State Rams. The uncommon nature of his situation — a student-athlete taking pre-med classes while playing football at a Division I school — was apparent in his interactions with faculty and professors.
“It was unusual for a lot of teachers,” Primus said. “I spent some time convincing teachers that I was not a typical dumb jock stereotype, unfortunate as it is that stereotype exists. I remember a biology course I took. I did not do well on the first test, and I went to talk to the professor about it. The response was, ‘Oh, well, you are a football player.’ I had to fight through that stereotype.”
He added, “People forget about that aspect. I got the accolades and recognition that come with being a good football player, but I also had to break through some barriers and stereotypes that even persisted when I went to [medical school at] the University of Chicago.”
Playing football professionally was not necessarily a priority for Primus while taking pre-med classes at Colorado State, because his size and athletic prowess were not as impressive as those of typical National Football League (NFL) players.
“I was a pre-med student struggling to get up and get through organic chemistry, feeling fortunate to still be playing the game I loved,” he said. “I never looked great on paper, never had coaches and scouts salivating over me. I was just one of those guys who, if given the opportunity, could play the game. [Even] going to college and playing at a Division I school, the NFL was not a priority.”
Then, everything changed.
Pivotal junior year
“After my sophomore year, I exploded,” Primus said. “I shattered some records and was one of the top receivers in the conference that year. Now people started paying attention.”
Primus became an honorable mention All-American, overcoming what was primarily a rushing offense on the field to break all-time wide receiver records at Colorado State University. He was an All-Conference player, posting more than 1,000 yards receiving 3 straight seasons from 1990 to 1992. At his alma mater, Primus holds the second highest record for most career receiving yards (3,263). He also holds the record there for most yards in one game (256), is second for career receptions (194) and is third, fourth and fifth on the all-time list for receiving yards in a season (1,081 yards, 1,008 yards and 1,007 yards, respectively).
During what Primus described as his “pivotal” junior year, as other players his age and talent level started to get drafted for the NFL, Primus recognized he could play at the next level.
“If these guys are going, I can go,” he said. “I have seen what they do, and I do it better.”
Making it to the pros
With the realization he could later complete his education as a physician, but may never get a second chance to play in the NFL, Primus put his medical dream on hold to pursue his dream of being a professional football player. He was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1993, which gave him the chance to play with some of the players he grew up watching — and to catch practice balls from legendary quarterback John Elway.
Primus was later traded to the city he now calls home: Chicago. He played for the Chicago Bears for 2 years before being cut from the team. For Primus, it was the start of a trying time.
“I was not convinced I was done playing ball,” he said. “I tell people that for professional athletes, [when] it comes to the ones that make it or do not, it is such a thin line. It is almost invisible. There are so many factors that go into truly making it and having a good career. There are a few stellar athletes out there who stand apart and everyone recognizes those names, but all those other jerseys and numbers out there … we are all similar in terms of our talent level.”
Primus said what followed was a “difficult year” in which he had to make a choice.
“Do I stay out another year, delaying my ultimate dream to become a surgeon? Or do I go ahead and hang up the cleats and just close that chapter in my life?” he said.
During that period, Primus trained for professional football — working out for a few teams — while applying to medical schools.
“I started getting into impressive medical schools, so now I really had to make a decision,” he said. “When I got my acceptance to the University of Chicago, I said, you know, this is the sign telling me it is time to move on.”
On to another dream
In 1997, Primus entered medical school at the University of Chicago.
“I just knew I wanted to be a physician, and that I had a surgeon’s personality,” he said.
Given his interest in the immune system and an undergraduate major in microbiology, Primus initially thought he would be more suited to work in transplant surgery. After getting experience in the operating room and learning more about the interplay between athletics and the sports medicine component of orthopedics, his interests shifted toward orthopedic surgery.
“It was a perfect fit,” he said.
Since then, Primus started his own orthopedic sports medicine practice in Chicago. He is still involved with the NFL and speaks at their rookie symposium. The topic — success on and off the field.
“I discuss my story and how to think outside of football,” he said.
Primus also maintains his interest in the game and is a self-proclaimed Chicago Bears fan.
“It was the Bears that brought me here,” he said. “I fell in love with this city. [It] was a blessing they called me. I brought my wife here, I have my two children here and I am building my practice here. For those reasons, I want Chicago to continue to win and do as well as they can.” – by Robert Press
- Gregory L. Primus, MD, can be reached at the Chicago Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery, 18660 Graphics Dr., Suite 100, Tinley Park, IL 60477; 708-686-1100; email: email@example.com.
- Disclosure: Primus has no relevant financial disclosures.