On a shelf in his Nashville, Tennessee, office, Dr. Allen Sills has a small framed photo depicting a defining moment in his life.
Slightly faded with age, the image shows him as a 21-year-old, biological engineering major at Mississippi State University wearing a sterile gown, gloves, mask and cap. He stands hunched over a surgical table working intently on an incision in his patient as a harsh spotlight illuminates the area.
“Being in the operating room was a thrilling experience to me and I loved every aspect of the surgery,” Sills recalled. “It was the first operation I ever did and I still have that photo on my shelf because I like to think of it as the day my career as a surgeon was born.”
That first surgery was part of Sills’ senior design project, for which he developed a sensor that could gather physiological data about livestock. Working with a surgeon from the College of Veterinary Medicine, he implanted the prototype into his first patient—a sheep. Now, 31 years later, his patients include Seahawks, Dolphins and Lions as he serves as the first chief medical officer of the NFL.
League commissioner Roger Goodell made the announcement in March after a seven month, international search to fill the newly created post.
“We sought a highly credentialed physician and leader with experience as a clinician and researcher, and Dr. Sills’ extensive experience caring for athletes makes him the right choice for this important position,” Goodell said in a press statement.
Dr. Sills in front of the Nissan Stadium.
Sills’ first experience in an operating room came in the spring of 1986 when, as a senior biological engineering major, he implanted a sensor into a sheep with the help of a surgeon from the College of Veterinary Medicine. He developed the sensor as part of a senior design class
In this role, Sills will oversee every aspect of the health and safety of the more than 2,000 active NFL athletes. This includes treatment protocols, safety equipment, training techniques and even nutritional supplements. He will also oversee the league’s medical research program.
“They wanted someone who was a researcher but also someone who had experience taking care of teams,” Sills explained. “I’ve actually been on the sidelines taking care of athletes during games and providing service to teams as they moved through their seasons.”
A neurosurgeon with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, Sills didn’t initially specialize in sports-related brain and spinal injuries. However, while on staff at the University of Tennessee, Memphis’ medical center, he developed a relationship with the University of Memphis athletic training staff while treating a Tiger football player for a brain tumor. He soon became their go-to neurosurgery consultant.
“I mentioned that I would be happy to help if they ever had any neurosurgical issues. Then a few months later one of their players actually broke his neck in the game and I ended up taking care of him,” Sills recalled. “That story has a happy ending. He not only resumed a normal life, but went on to play professionally, and after treating him, I was much more closely involved with college athletics in the Memphis area and later with professional basketball when the Grizzlies moved to town.”
Sills made the same offer to his alma mater and has been the consulting team neurosurgeon for all Mississippi State athletics for the past 18 years.
“It’s great to have someone in that role who is not only experienced but also very invested in Mississippi State with a genuine interest in our student athletes, the university and our sports programs,” explained Mary McLendon, senior associate athletic director for sports medicine and performance. “A lot of schools have access to someone like him, but not everyone has the relationship we have with him where he’s just a phone call or text away.”
After developing a practice treating college athletes, Sills branched into professional hockey and football, as well as Olympic equestrian sports, eventually becoming involved with the International Equestrian Federation. He continued to build these relationships when he moved to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville where he is now a professor and co-founder of the Vanderbilt Sports Concussion Center.
The concussion center provides care for all high school teams in the Nashville metro area. Between those and other high school, college and professional athletes in the Midsouth, the concussion center has approximately 10,000 athletes in its care any given year.
“For every player who takes the field on Sunday, there are thousands of youth out there participating in organized sports, and we want to help make those sports as safe as possible so kids will choose to remain active.” ~ Dr. Allen Sills“It has allowed us to not only be very busy clinically but also very active in research,” Sills said. “We’ve really focused our research on finding new ways to identify concussions and develop new treatment methods.”
The science of detecting and treating concussions continually evolves as researchers learn more and more about the brain and how these traumatic brain injuries affect the tissue.
Caused by forceful impacts or jarring to the head, a concussion occurs when the brain crashes into the skull. Though usually self-correcting over time, repeated concussion—if not detected and treated properly—can lead to permanent damage.
Dr. Allen Sills said there are four main tools for the prevention of concussive injuries in sports:
• Equipment – Make sure all safety gear is properly fitted and worn at all times.
• Environment – Ensure playing surfaces and the surrounding environment are properly maintained.
• Rules – Know the rules and universally apply them.
• Technique – Teach athletes safe ways of play, like proper hitting and blocking in football.
While prevention is the first line of defense, Sills said injury can’t always be avoided—not only in sports but in everyday accidents such as falls and collisions. He explained not all people exhibit the same symptoms of a concussion, but knowing the general warning signs is important:
• Loss of consciousness
• Nausea or vomiting
• Confusion or fogginess
• Dizziness or unsteadiness
• Sensitivity to light or sound
• Extreme or unusual emotional responses
Mary McLendon, Mississippi State’s senior associate athletic director for sports medicine and performance, said it is important to protect those who exhibit any of these symptoms from further injury. For athletes that means sitting out.
She said though some athletes might be tempted to downplay symptoms to return to play more quickly, it’s important for them to understand that in the long run, they’ll have less downtime if the injury is addressed quickly and before further play has potentially made it worse.
Sills said concussions typically resolve themselves with rest and time, and that athletic personnel on site should be able to determine if further tests or treatment are needed. For people at home, he advises a trip to their local healthcare provider if the symptoms persist or are severe.
Sills said that on game days he will either be at a stadium or the league command center at its headquarters in New York City. He will essentially be on-call to assist the teams with any medical issues that might arise. He said he also plans to continue his relationships with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Mississippi State athletics.
“The NFL recognizes that it will make me more effective in my role as a medical officer if I am able to remain a practicing physician,” Sills said. “They’ve been supportive of me continuing my work with Mississippi State and continuing to see clinical patients and perform surgery. It will just be on a more part-time basis.”
Sills said it is also important to him to continue improving the health and safety of athletes at all levels of play. Through his work with the Vanderbilt concussion center, he has been active in educating parents and youth coaches and leaders in the latest methods of concussion recognition and treatment. And through his new role with the NFL, he wants to help translate the league’s discoveries not only to other levels of football but to other sports as well.
“For every player who takes the field on Sunday, there are thousands of youth out there participating in organized sports, and we want to help make those sports as safe as possible so kids will choose to remain active,” Sills said.
He continued, “We are actively involved in creating new knowledge and want to make sure we use that knowledge not only to benefit our players in the NFL but for all athletes, because the injuries we deal with aren’t just football injuries—they’re athletic injuries.”
Sills said the ever-evolving body of knowledge in medicine is part of what keeps the work engaging. In fact, the complexities of the human brain are part of what inspired him to pursue the field of neurosurgery.
“I really fell in love with the brain in medical school,” Sills recalled. “I thought it was something I could study and learn about for the rest of my life and never get bored. Neurosurgery was the natural combination of my passions for surgery and the brain.”
Though he admits to growing up with little knowledge of medicine beyond his experiences with his family’s physician Dr. John Longest—namesake of Mississippi State’s student health center—Sills said his engineering degree prepared him for the rigors of medical school and everything his career has thrown at him.
“It can’t be said strongly enough that I feel my time at MSU prepared me for all of these challenges and unexpected turns in my career,” Sills said. “I certainly had no idea when I was a student there that I would have a full-time job with the NFL someday. But I think even my basic engineering training and the encouragement of the faculty pushed me to pursue my dreams.”
A native of Starkville, Sills is the son of Nora and the late Kent Sills, longtime director of the Famous Maroon Band. He said his experiences growing up in the university community and then serving that community as a Roadrunner and president of the Student Association, provided valuable experiences and a firm foundation that continues to serve him well.
“Mississippi State is my home and always will be home,” he said. “I hope that through this new role I will continue to bring credit to my degree and the institution because my family and I will always be Bulldogs at heart.”
No longer content as “the best-kept secret in the South,” Mississippi State University and its researchers aren’t just conducting groundbreaking research. They’re making sure people see it.
That was the impetus for a spring meeting between Mississippi State’s Mark F. Horstemeyer, a professor and endowed chair of mechanical engineering, and the University of Virginia’s Jeff Crandall, who heads the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Engineering Subcommittee.
“He was shocked at what was going on here, to be quite frank,” Horstemeyer explained. “But our work and the results we’ve been showing are something they are very interested in.”
Horstemeyer leads a team of researchers from the James Worth Bagley College of Engineering who are using high-performance computing to apply the principles of multi-scale modeling, a process that typically shows how man-made materials behave under stress, to the human body.
The researchers are specifically looking at how the soft tissue of the brain interacts with the hard, interior structures of the skull in the event of a traumatic brain injury like a concussion. This work stems from the doctoral work of Mississippi State alumnus Raj Prabhu, who is now an assistant professor of biomedical engineering.
“We presented our findings to the NFL group and caused them to rethink how brain injuries occur,” Horstemeyer said.
He explained that the capabilities of Mississippi State’s High Performance Computing Collaboratory are what enable the Bagley group to create such intricate models of the human brain. That computing power is not widely available to the biomedical engineering community, making MSU a unique research partner for the NFL group.
“They didn’t understand the computing capabilities available at Mississippi State,” Horstemeyer said. “Our research and access to powerful computing tools have opened the door for future collaboration with Jeff and the NFL.”
Horstemeyer explained that by first understanding the mechanics of concussions, his group can generate “bio-inspired designs” for helmets and facemasks that better protect athletes from long-term brain damage.