A familiar face is a nice thing when you’re away from home. It becomes a great thing when you’re not just away from home, but when you’re about to go through the biggest job interview of your life. On national television.
Dr. Rusty Linton is the head orthopedic surgeon for Mississippi State’s football team, and through his connections in the world of football, he’s also represented various professional teams at the NFL Combine every year for over two decades. Last year, Linton got a text message during the Combine from an MSU player he’d worked with extensively over the last several years.
A quarterback not receiving much hype or hoopla in the time leading up to the NFL Draft, former Bulldog Dak Prescott was in Indianapolis and had begun his time at the Combine. Not long into the process, he hit an unexpected snag.
“Somebody wanted an MRI on something on Dak,” Linton explained. “It was something that, maybe three years ago, he’d had one little problem.”
“Doc,” Linton remembered Prescott asking, “why are they doing this? Nothing’s wrong.”
“I said, Dak, people are getting ready to spend a lot of money on you. Just go with the flow. If somebody wants to test you, just let them get it. A lot of times they want tests because they’re really interested in you and they just want to make sure nothing else went wrong. Different teams look at different things. Don’t let it worry you.”
Those who have continued to breathe oxygen in the year since are aware of how things turned out for Prescott. The young quarterback has done plenty well for himself, but in those moments being shuffled from room to room getting examined by a new stranger every hour, it was certainly nice to have that familiar face.
“I always love to see the Mississippi State guys come through,” Linton said.
And in the 25 years he’s been going to the Combine, following 32 such years on the sideline at MSU, Linton has seen quite a few people come through. Even outside the Bulldog family, he once had a streak in the ‘90s where he saw eight-straight Heisman Trophy winners come through.
Linton first started working the Combine in 1990 as a result of a connection he’d made early in his career. Linton did his sports medicine fellowship in Florida, where the man he worked for was the University of Florida’s team doctor and was also the assistant team doctor for the Miami Dolphins. Every NFL team sends a full group of doctors to the Combine, and in the spring of 1990, the Dolphins needed an extra doctor to complete their staff. Linton was invited, and he happily took on the opportunity.
“I thought that would be my one and only time to go,” Linton said.
Of course, he was far from correct on that assumption. While at the Combine, Linton and Miami’s head doctor Dan Kanell hit it off, and for the next five years that Kanell was in charge in Miami, Linton came as part of the team. A couple years after that run ended, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed an extra doctor, and much of the group had worked in the same examining room as Linton, so they asked him to join their crew. The next year, the Chicago Bears needed an extra doctor, and Linton went with them for several seasons. This time around, he’s going with the Steelers again.
He enjoys the experience, to be sure, but one of the primary benefits from all of it is the boost it gives him back home.
“One of the main things for me is, it has helped my medical education so much,” he said, “because you have some of the best and brightest doctors that are with these teams, and you get to spend a week with them and examine players with them. Plus, you make great connections. So, if a Mississippi State player has something that’s not that common, I’ve got tons of people to call up and somebody will know. It’s almost like the doctors are a big fraternity. It’s a brotherhood that you can call on and ask people.”
In fact, over his years at the Combine, Linton has even learned to read MRI readouts, a skill that has been particularly beneficial for his work at MSU.
“Sometimes, we get an MRI on a Mississippi State kid on Friday afternoon at 5 o’clock,” he explained. “Well, the radiologist isn’t going to see it until Monday morning, and Coach Mullen needs to know the answer before then. It’s made me a much better doctor for Mississippi State being able to go to the Combine.”
This year will be Linton’s 25th NFL Combine, and this fall, he will begin his 28th professional season at Mississippi State. It’s far from over just yet, but it’s been quite a ride so far.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I still enjoy what I do. It’s fun helping kids reach their dreams. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, and sometimes we can be the ones that help them get back on the field and be able to play to their best. That’s always a fulfilling feeling to me.”