A football on a field

In 2007, Carola van Eck, MD, PhD, FAAOS, was a medical resident at UPMC Sports Medicine, working for Freddie H. Fu, MD, chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC, and the director of the orthopaedic surgery residency program.

“I was taking some measurements on a patient who was having anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction and asked her how she’d been injured,” says Dr. van Eck. “The patient said, ‘I play football.’ I said, ‘You mean soccer?’ and she said, ‘No, tackle football.’ She was a bigger woman, and I could relate, as a 6-foot-tall woman myself. I just found it fascinating, and that was my introduction to women’s football in Pittsburgh.”

Dr. van Eck, who was fairly new to the country, having come here from the Netherlands, became a Steelers fan right away. “I had followed American-style football as a fan of the Amsterdam Admirals,” she says. “I loved how seriously Pittsburgh women supported the Steelers. Pittsburgh girls really know their sports!”

In 2008, Dr. van Eck tried out for the former Pittsburgh Force, another professional women’s football team, and made the squad. She played left offensive tackle there for three seasons. She found playing football to be fun and unlike any sport she’d ever played before. “It was a great way for me to meet friends and have the bonding experience that comes with belonging to a team,” she says. “Plus, I loved the physicality of it. It’s so different from what we’re taught as girls. It’s really good for girls to feel that physical part.”

Honoring a Legacy

Fast forward to 2015, when the Pittsburgh Passion lost its longtime team physician, Tanya Hagen, MD, who passed away unexpectedly at age 45. Dr. Hagen, a sports medicine specialist at UPMC and the first female primary care physician hired by UPMC Sports Medicine, had served many Pittsburgh professional, college and high school teams and was a vocal proponent of gender equality in sports. Dr. van Eck was a natural fit to take over as team physician to succeed Dr. Hagen.

As team physician for the Passion, Dr. van Eck sees a lot of ACL injuries, which is the same as what she would expect to see from the male football players she treats, but there are more emotional aspects to the injuries of female professional athletes, she says.

“As a physician, it requires me to use more empathy in dealing with their injuries because most of them hold daytime jobs and have families in addition to their positions on the team,” she says. “You also have to consider hormonal changes that potentially put female players at higher risk of injuries and other issues like dehydration.”

Dr. van Eck says that she sees the same injuries between male and female professional athletes, but that the mechanisms of the injuries are different. “For men, we usually see contact injuries—some sort of acute trauma from contact. For women, who are likely to be older, there is more of a degenerative component on top of the injury.”

As team physician, Dr. van Eck attends local practices, scrimmages and games—traveling to away games at her own expense—to give the team a consistent medical presence and perspective on all on-field player injury decisions. “I’m passionate about the job and the patients,” she says. “I’m trying to honor Dr. Hagen’s legacy.”

Elevating the Stature of the Team and League

This level of attention to the female athletes’ health by a major sports medicine program was rarely seen at any of the other 67 teams in the early years of the Women’s Football Alliance, the league in which the Pittsburgh Passion competes, according to Teresa Conn, owner, head coach and a former player for the Passion. Legendary Steelers great Franco Harris is a team co-owner.

“Really, UPMC Sports Medicine has been here for the Passion since day one—our exhibition year in 2002 and our first season in 2003,” says Teresa. “The fact that we had an athletic trainer from UPMC for all our practices and games really separated us from the pack from the perspective of player safety. We were ahead of the curve and it set the bar for the entire league. Now, they all have a relationship with a medical program and that has elevated the stature of the league. The players really appreciate the level of attention we’ve been given.”

Especially since practices and scrimmages are often at held at off-hours due to field availability. “We might have late night practices that start at 11 p.m. and run to 1 a.m.,” Teresa says. “The athletic trainers and physicians are out there with us in the cold in January and in the heat in July.”

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A Melting Pot of Players

“It’s been intriguing to work with the Passion because there’s such a range of ages, sizes, body types, ethnicities, and day jobs among the players,” says Maddison Miller, the graduate student athletic trainer for the Passion, who is working on her master’s in sports medicine at Pitt. She had worked as an athletic trainer for a division III college football team and a women’s rugby team in the past. “The experience has solidified what I want to do for my career.”

“This is a completely unique atmosphere and it’s helping me grow as a clinician,” she adds. “We focus on the whole athlete—the psychological and mental aspects—in addition to the physical injuries, and we have to take their day jobs into consideration when we’re making our rehabilitation plans. I can really relate to these players because they’re doing it on the side as a second job—just like me.”

“The team really is a melting pot,” says Teresa. “We’ve got young, old, black, white, gay, straight, early career, nearing retirement, college and high school sports standouts, and some who’ve never competed. We’ve got state troopers and firefighters, teachers and lawyers, bartenders and health care workers—and we’re all working toward a common goal. It’s built on respect of self, respect for others, competition, friendship, and fun.”

Having Freddie Fu on the Team

“The players are just so grateful to Dr. Fu for always being so supportive,” Teresa adds. “When our players see him and know he’s their doctor, it does something for our whole team’s perspective. When we text him with an issue, he responds immediately. He gets our players in for appointments quickly. It’s just unbelievable really.”

Some players even become close to Dr. Fu and his staff because they see them so often at practices, games, and at UPMC Sports Medicine offices while rehabilitating an injury. Lisa Horton, a quarterback who retired after 17 years in the game and now coaches for the Passion, had that experience. In her day job, she is vice president of operations, membership, and healthy living for the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Dr. Fu did my ACL surgery in July 2008; I rehabbed at UPMC for over six months. They had me ready to play again the following spring,” Lisa says. “It’s a huge deal for us to have the UPMC docs and athletic training staff travel with us. It’s a great comfort and gives us peace of mind having them there.”

For his part, Dr. Fu says he’s always had a passion for the Passion. “It was incredible to be a part of their first championship and to support them,” says Dr. Fu. “They are the most diverse team in Pittsburgh sports and they’re so welcoming and encouraging for other women to take part. I feel privileged to be taking care of them.”

The 2021 Season

The Passion were in conditioning sessions for the 2020 season last spring when the pandemic hit, closing down, then suspending their entire season. The league is gearing up for a full—although modified—2021 season, with teams in the south resuming outdoor practices early in the year and teams like the Passion and others in the north being delayed until spring. Details on the season are still coming together, but UPMC Sports Medicine plans to be there for all of it. Visit the Pittsburgh Passion website to learn more about the team, the players, and their upcoming season.

About Sports Medicine

Sports and physical activity bring with them a potential for injury. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury – or improve athletic performance – UPMC Sports Medicine and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program can help. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our experts partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and about 100 other high school, college, and regional teams and events throughout Pennsylvania – working daily to build better athletes.