For nearly a quarter of a century, Rick Wright has been a fixture in St. Louis sports medicine, helping to keep the town’s pro athletes healthy and fixing them when things broke down.
He served as a Rams team physician for all 21 seasons in St. Louis, has been a Blues team physician since 1997, and even helped out with the Cardinals’ medical staff from 1997 through 2005.
But Wright, who grew up in Sikeston and earned his undergrad and medical degrees at the University of Missouri, has moved on. He began his new job as chair of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Sept. 2.
His longtime teammate in St. Louis sports medicine, Matt Matava, takes over as head team physician of the Blues. For years, Wright and Matava were like the Batman and Robin of St. Louis sports medicine. They were omnipresent on the field and at the rink, be it game day or at practice, trying to do good deeds for injured players.
Now Batman is gone. Or is it Robin? In any event, Wright insists the Blues are in good hands with Matava and fellow Washington University physician Matt Smith.
“It’s bittersweet leaving my partners and friendships and professional relationships,” Wright said a few days before departing for Nashville. “It’s hard. I’ve got a good faculty at Vanderbilt but have a lot of close friends and partners (in St. Louis). It’s gonna be a little weird to walk into another hospital and know it’s your new home.”
But the challenge of running the orthopedic surgery department at Vandy was too good to pass up. And at age 57, if not now — when? Wright has enough time left in his career to make an impact at Vanderbilt, where he completed his internship and residency out of Mizzou med school many years ago.
“I enjoy working with teams, obviously, and for me this is a fantastic professional challenge to lead a team of orthopedic surgeons and help them each achieve success and to help the department become one of the best in the country,” Wright said.
At Vanderbilt his tasks will be more administrative in nature and less hands-on. He called it a three-pronged approach of research, education and clinical care.
“I’ll still practice — the clinic and surgery — but at a reduced commitment compared to (St. Louis),” Wright said.
From a sports medicine standpoint, Wright’s department will take care of Vanderbilt athletes, the MLS expansion club scheduled to begin play in 2020, and yes, the Nashville Predators — Blues’ rivals in the Central Division.
Not to worry, Blues fans, Wright says he’ll always hold the Blues near and dear to his heart.
“I’ll always be a Blues fan, there’s no doubt,” Wright said. “You don’t lose childhood and professional allegiances like that just ‘cause you move out of town. So I’ll always be a Blues fan, Cardinals fan.”
Over the years, Wright has performed or assisted on dozens of surgeries involving St. Louis pro athletes, including Orlando Pace, Marshall Faulk and Aeneas Williams of the Rams, Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis of the Blues, and Mark McGwire of the Cardinals.
On the night Trent Green went down with a season-ending knee injury — August 28, 1999 — opening the door for Kurt Warner 20 years ago, Wright was in Detroit administering physicals to Blues prospects getting ready to head to Traverse City, Mich., for the annual NHL Prospect Tournament.
“The professional athlete, for the most part, we’ve been blessed in St. Louis,” Wright said. “They’ve been very thankful and very considerate.
“We’ve had great coaches. You read about these things around the country where coaches get accused of trying to get doctors to cut corners and play people when they’re hurt or whatever. And we just never had a coach that asked us to do something that went against our medical ethics.
“General managers and coaches that were just really true professionals, whether it was (Dick) Vermeil or (Mike) Martz or (Joel) Quenneville. Larry Pleau was a fantastic general manager; Charley Armey was great. Just really quality people that you meet. And they were always really appreciative of what we brought to the team and our contributions.”
As for the athletes, Wright said hockey players are off-the-charts when it comes to fitness.
“They are the fittest athletes I’ve ever taken care of,” he said. “Maybe an elite soccer player at the national level would have the same kind of (conditioning). A point guard in the NBA is probably in incredible shape. But top to bottom, these hockey players, their cardiovascular (fitness), it’s unbelievable.”
As for dealing with injuries, Wright said hockey players might be more prone to playing through injuries, but nothing that would put their long-term career at risk.
“But yeah, more likely for the hockey players to say ‘I think I can go with this’ than baseball and football,” Wright said. “Although the football guys are plenty tough.”
Team physicians are basically on call throughout the season. And there’s no setting up appointments in two weeks.
“When Ray Barile calls and says, ‘Hey, I’m sending so-and-so by,’ You just go, ‘OK Ray, send him over,’ “ Wright said.
In late August it was Barile, the Blues’ head athletic trainer, who came calling with the Stanley Cup.
For three hours, the Blues medical, training staff and their families had a Cup party at Wright’s St. Louis home, which had a big enough backyard and big enough basement to host 150 people. Wright drank champagne from the Cup that day.
“It was a great way to go out with winning the Cup,” Wright said. “I mean it was unbelievable.”
The Wright home in Frontenac soon will be up for sale. He has a daughter, Megan, son-in-law and grandchild living in St. Louis, so he and wife Lana won’t be strangers here. A son, Robert, is a graduate assistant football coach at Texas A&M.
“It’s tough to leave St. Louis, you know, 25 years here,” Wright said. “A lot of history and a lot of great memories. But this will be a good challenge.”