'Chaos': Ohio State football team physician Jim Borchers looks back at success amid COVID

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Team physician James Borchers marvels at the accomplishments of coach Ryan Day and the Ohio State football team while dealing with COVID-19 last season. “I don't think anybody will ever know how difficult it was to be as successful as they were last year with all the curveballs that got thrown to them,” Borchers said.

Dr. Jim Borchers is looking forward to a vacation. It will be well-earned.

“Yeah, I'm worn out,” the Ohio State athletic department’s head physician said with a laugh. “I'd like to take some time off this summer.”

Unlike a year ago, he believes he’ll be able to do that. The man who was as responsible as anyone for the Big Ten having a football season last year can take that break because he’s confident the upcoming season won’t be anything like last year’s.

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“I think it'll be a normal season,” Borchers said.

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He cautioned that everything is fluid with COVID-19. The virus has been unpredictable. Much depends on how well society safeguards against it.

At the top of the list is vaccinations. According to a recent Sports Illustrated story, Ohio State’s football players are doing their part. SI reported that at least 90% of them are vaccinated.

Borchers and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith questioned that number.

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“Not sure where that came from,” Smith said in a text message.

Borchers said almost the same thing.

But COVID does seem to be getting closer to being in the rear-view mirror.

“I can't remember the last case we've had in the football program,” Borchers said.

Dr. James Borchers, here on the left as Dontre Wilson is assisted off the field during a game at Maryland in 2016, called last season the most difficult year he has endured professionally.

From 'chaos' to success

It’s a stark contrast from a year ago. By last May, it was clear the football season was in jeopardy.

“Chaos,” Borchers recalled. “You had no idea. You're trying to plan and you're trying to do all the things that you can to get ready for it. Every day was something different.”

In August, the Big Ten canceled the season and days later doubled down by saying it would not revisit the decision. But Ohio State, along with Iowa and Nebraska, refused to go down quietly.

Protests and pleas by players and coaches got attention. Borchers got results.

As co-chair of the medical subcommittee of the Big Ten’s Return to Competition task force, he spearheaded a push to show that a season could be played with manageable risks. When improved testing regimens became available soon after, the Big Ten reversed course.

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Conference commissioner Kevin Warren said Borchers was “incredibly valuable” in the process of re-examining whether to play.

“Dr. Borchers sacrificed on a daily basis to keep our student-athletes’ health and welfare at the center of all decision-making,” Warren said.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day said he believes Borchers’ background as a Buckeyes long-snapper in the early 1990s was invaluable.

“I think the great thing about Jim is that he has the perspective of the player because he played football at Ohio State,” Day said. “He understood how important playing the season was, but with his perspective from being a physician that we had to be able to do it safely. Having both of those things allowed him to really step up and take on a leadership role, which ultimately led to us being able to play the season and play it safely.”

Dr. James Borchers, here tending to injured Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett  while Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner talks to Barrett during a game in 2014,  spearheaded a push to show that the 2020 season could be played with manageable risks.

'They didn't really miss a beat'

Still, the season was a bumpy one. Ohio State’s players sacrificed any semblance of an outside social life to play, and even that didn’t stave off the virus. Three games were canceled — one, at Illinois, because of an OSU outbreak.

The Buckeyes were short-handed in several games, including the postseason. Despite that, Ohio State was undefeated until losing to Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game, a 52-24 rout.

“I don't think anybody will ever know how difficult it was to be as successful as they were last year with all the curveballs that got thrown to them,” Borchers said. “They may not have won the national championship, but it was one of the most incredible feats that's ever been pulled off, and not every team was able to do it.

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“Give the coaching staff and everybody else a ton of credit. They didn't really miss a beat. I'm very appreciative that we had as much support and cooperation, knowing that it seemed like every day curveballs were getting thrown. It was a real testament to that team and really to all the athletes. Look at our basketball teams. They did a great job.”

Every day, Borchers received test results, starting at 4:30 a.m. and continuing until close to midnight. Players and coaches faced constant anxiety about whether they’d test positive. It often fell on Borchers to give bad news.

In normal times, one would think the most stressful hours of a team doctor’s week would be during his team’s games, worrying about injuries and tending to them. For Borchers, the only respite came during games because that was only time he didn’t have to deal with testing.

Borcher: COVID-19 vaccinations the 'light at the end of the tunnel'

Borchers believes that as COVID cases decline and vaccinations continue, such rigorous testing can ease.

“I've been saying all along that vaccination for COVID, it's the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It's the light at the end of the tunnel for us as a society, but it's also the light at the end of the tunnel for athletics. I’ve told athletes that vaccination protects them, it protects their friends and family, it helps to protect their communities, their teammates, their coaches, and it helps to protect their opponents.”

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Though Ohio State doesn’t mandate that its athletes get the vaccine, Borchers has explained to them that those who get it will not have to follow the strict protocols that non-vaccinated athletes probably will.

“With COVID, everything is changing every week,” he said. “We’re in a very fluid situation right now. My personal opinion is that I don't believe that if you're vaccinated and asymptomatic you need to be tested. That’s really where most organizations, most public health departments, most universities are going to go, and I think the burden of testing is going to be decreased significantly for those that are vaccinated.”

Dr. Jim Borchers, fourth from left, attends to injured Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett on Nov. 29, 2014.

'He never got rattled. He stayed the course. And that was special to see.'

That will be a welcomed change. Day said he and Borchers commiserated throughout last season.

“All the time,” he said. “But as exhausted as he was and all the hours he was putting in, he never flinched. He never got rattled. He stayed the course. And that was special to see.”

Borchers, who has been the head physician at OSU since, 2016, called it the most difficult year he has endured professionally.

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“Nobody wants to live through and go through what they had to go through last year, that's for sure,” he said.

More and more, it looks like he won’t have to.

Brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

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