Dr. Milt McColl Was A San Francisco 49er, Now He Treats COVID-19 Patients

Download Audio
Milt McColl (left) attended medical school while playing in the NFL. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
Milt McColl (left) attended medical school while playing in the NFL. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

Among the many healthcare professionals treating patients with COVID-19 is someone we featured on the show back in 2018: former San Francisco 49er Milt McColl.

Scroll down for a brief update from Dr. McColl.

The meeting was more than 35 years ago, but Milt McColl still remembers it well.

The year was 1981, and McColl was a rookie linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers.

He wasn’t exactly a top prospect. He’d gone undrafted, and might have only made the team because of an injury to another player.

And now 49ers head coach Bill Walsh wanted to meet with him.

"He called me up to his office, and it was about a 10-second conversation," McColl recalls. "And he said, 'Milt, I know there's other things going on in your life, and I just don't think you're concentrating on football as much as you need to. And, if you don't start concentrating harder, we're just gonna have to find somebody else.' ”

See, Milt McColl had been trying to keep a bit of a secret from his coach: in addition to his new job with the San Francisco 49ers, Milt McColl had also started medical school at Stanford.

"As far as I was concerned, it was what I did with my free time was what I did with my free time," McColl says. "I should be able to do whatever I want to do."

Coach Walsh apparently didn’t see it that way.

"That was the end of the conversation. There was no response from me. I was expected to walk out the door and focus 100 percent on football," McColl says. "So, I called my dad immediately that night, and I said, 'Dad, what do I do?' ”

And here’s where I should note that Milt McColl didn’t hatch this crazy play-pro-football-while-going-to-med-school plan all on his own. His own father had already done it.

Advice From Dad

Bill McColl was a two-time All-American end at Stanford. In 1951, he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Bill was a top NFL prospect, but he also wanted to study medicine.

After an eight-year NFL career, Bill McColl (right) became an orthopedic surgeon. (Robert Houston/AP)
After an eight-year NFL career, Bill McColl (right) became an orthopedic surgeon. (Robert Houston/AP)

The Chicago Bears were willing to accommodate him. They drafted McColl in the third round and switched their practices from afternoons to mornings so that their young tight end could attend med school classes at the University of Chicago.

"And then he was able to get through his medical school and pretty much half of his residency while he played for the Bears for eight years," Milt McColl says.

Milt McColl played linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers while attending medical school at Stanford. (George Rose/Getty Images)
Milt McColl played linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers while attending medical school at Stanford. (George Rose/Getty Images)

But the NFL was a different operation in the '80s than it had been in the '50s — most players didn’t need second jobs any more. Plus, Milt acknowledges he was never the athlete his father had been — which is all to say the 49ers definitely weren’t going to switch around their practice schedule to accommodate him.

And now head coach Bill Walsh had given Milt McColl the message that he needed to focus 100 percent on football.

Luckily for Milt, his dad had some advice.

"He said, 'Well, you have one thing to do. You have to prove to the coach that there's nothing more important in your life than football.' So, he said, 'You're gonna be last to leave practice every day. You're gonna run extra sprints,' ” McColl recalls. "And that's what I did. And it worked."

McColl fell into a routine that rookie season: he’d show up at the 49ers facilities around 7 or 8 a.m.. He’d practice, work out and study film until around 4 p.m. Then he’d head to campus.

"I never stopped going to medical school, but my goal was to keep as low key as I could the rest of my career. And that’s what I did," he says.

McColl would sometimes be late for anatomy lab, but fortunately he was paired up with a future surgeon.

"Luckily for me, he would always get a great start on the cadaver," McColl says. "And then I would go in late at night and be up in the histology lab looking at slides."

Then McColl would wake up and do it again. That’s how he planned to spend his rookie season. It was a little crazy. But it wouldn’t last too long — after all, the football season was going to end in December, which meant McColl could join his classmates in, you know, class at the start of the next quarter.

But there was a slight problem with that plan.

The 1981 San Francisco 49ers 

After an eight-year playoff drought, the 1981 San Francisco 49ers — led by 25-year-old quarterback Joe Montana — won their division.

"The next thing we knew, we were in the playoffs," McColl says. "And I was, like, 'Well, what am I going to do?' Because I’d already missed the first quarter. I kept going to classes on the side, but I was thinking, 'Gosh, I can’t just keep getting behind and behind.' And the next thing you know, we were winning playoff games.

"We were already at least four weeks into the next quarter, 'cause it was almost February. And, the next thing, we were in the Super Bowl. So, literally, we won the Super Bowl, we had the big parade in San Francisco. And the next day, I showed up in class. And I was really just gonna sneak into the back row. And, as soon as I walked in the class, the lights were down low, and they flip the lights on, and they had a big cake down below. And everybody had been cheering for me.

"Apparently I'd had about 87 of my classmates were my best fans and had been following me all through all the playoffs."

McColl certainly wasn’t a star for that 49ers team, but he played well enough to stay on the roster. He ended up playing seven seasons for the 49ers. And, as his football career progressed, McColl eventually settled into a slightly saner routine: he stopped taking classes during the season. Then, in the offseason, he’d focus on medicine.

"And, of course, at times in the hospital people would actually recognize me or were told about who I was, and so it did have some distractions at times," he says. "One of my favorite stories was, it was my first month of doing obstetrics. And I was at Stanford hospital and I was in delivering a baby and — actually, I was just assisting, to be honest with you. But, as soon as the baby was born, the father grabbed the baby and wanted a picture with me and the baby together. He forgot all about his wife and the birth.

"So he thought that was really exciting. I had to remind him, 'You know, your wife just had a baby. I think you better pay attention to her right now.' So he said, 'OK, great. We'll take a picture with all of us.' ”

Getting His 'M.D.' 

McColl won another Super Bowl with the 49ers at the end of the 1984 season. In March 1988, he received his M.D. from Stanford.

"The funny thing is I still see people today, and they all say they were in my medical school class," McColl says. "Well, that was because it took me about seven to eight years to get through medical school, so everybody ended up being in my class that had anything to do with Stanford through the 1980s."

After receiving his M.D., McColl played one final NFL season for the Los Angeles Raiders.

He planned to start his orthopedic residency — but ended up going into the medical device industry instead. After nearly 30 years in business, McColl started his residency in family medicine. Many of his peers were the same age as his children.

Dr. McColl is now practicing family medicine — treating COVID-19 patients — at the Santa Clara County Medical Center.

Earlier this week, Dr. McColl spoke with Only A Game's Karen Given:

MM: We are screening very regularly. We’ve been very fortunate, I think, because our public health system was very proactive early on.

KG: As you know, this is a sports show. But somehow this week’s episode has turned into advice to sports fans on how to stay healthy and sane. So do you have any good advice?

Milt McColl is now a doctor at the Santa Clara County Medical Center. (Courtesy Milt McColl)
Milt McColl is now a doctor at the Santa Clara County Medical Center. (Courtesy Milt McColl)

MM: So, it's ironic because my son actually was drafted by the Oakland A's this last year. He's back living at home. And so he's out in our backyard lifting and running and staying in shape. And we're trying to figure out — those of us that are sports maniacs, like all of us in our family — what you do.

So the number one thing you can do is go get your own exercise. So that's what we're doing, spending a lot of time biking and walking outside and lifting weights and doing everything we can to stay in shape.

This is going to end. We'll get a vaccine eventually. We just have to work through these next 12-18 months. We just have to be positive and know that this will have a definitive end to it.

This segment aired on April 4, 2020.

Martin Kessler Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live