The Ultimate Buc
Joe Diaco is the Buccaneers team doctor, and has been since before the first pulled groin at One Buc Place was ever iced down, so of course he knows every skeleton in every closet and the story of how it got there. You don't become the Cal Ripken of NFL team physicians - the longest-reigning doc in the entire league, lasting 30 seasons, through two ownerships and seven head coaches, one of them Ray Perkins - and not see things that could bend your hypodermic needle.
The good, the bad and the orange. Diaco is the single man bridging all Buccaneers history, from the franchise's infamous 0-26 start to the 2002 Super Bowl championship season and more. He was around to hear John McKay's quips and still here to witness Jon Gruden's bleepin' fits. "There have been a lot of players and coaches, all who have stories of their own," Diaco said. "John McKay and Jon Gruden are the two who stand out in my mind. Leeman Bennett was a nice guy. And of all the coaches I've worked for, I'd say Ray Perkins was the most difficult."
Trust his opinion. Diaco is not an organization employee, rather an independent contractor who moonlights, supervising the Bucs' medical needs in addition to a day job at St. Joseph's Hospital, where from 1988 until retiring this month, he was either chief of staff or chief of surgery. Yet, as former Bucs quarterback and current personnel executive Doug Williams will tell you, Diaco is considered not only a full-blooded Buccaneer but the ultimate full-blooded Buccaneer. "He's bigger than a doctor," Williams said. "Joe is the team doctor, but he is also the biggest cheerleader and also the emergency coach. He would probably fly the team plane if he could or drive the bus if he had to. That's how he feels about the organization."
That means, to no great surprise, going to Diaco for untold stories long ago proved as fruitless as time spent trying to herd cats through a car wash. Well before the Las Vegas tourist commission made the idea popular, Diaco firmly believed that what takes place in the locker room stays in the locker room. "Even at the hospital, he always treated things over there like company secrets," St. Joseph Hospital physician Tony Brannan said. "And to his credit, coming into the staff lounge or hospital on Monday morning all those early years after losing every Sunday, he put up with a lot of flak. But he'd just keep on supporting them."
That part hasn't changed. Diaco continues to be the Bucs' most ardent supporter. And as always, in Diaco's opinion, public attention is usually unwarranted attention.
"My personality is that I like to stay under the radar," he said. "I just like it that way."
That helps explain why no one - at least no one who will say - even knows Diaco's age. And the divorced father of three successful Tampa sons - Daniel, a plastic surgeon, and attorneys Joe Jr. and Stephen - isn't saying. "He's funny about that," Stephen said. "It goes all the way back to my grandma. They have been lying about their age for decades. Now we have to lie about ours so as not to put age on them. But he's in his early 60s."
That means somewhere around half Diaco's life has been spent tending to the Buccaneers, and that has made him much more than a caregiver with a stethoscope.
"Yeah, not only is he 100 percent Buccaneer, he's comic relief," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It's really easy to get on him."
Diaco makes for an easy target at Bucs headquarters because he just can't help himself. As game time approaches each week, it's harder to decide if the team doctor or the Outback blimp is more pumped up. "He gets all panicky," Mike Alstott said. "A lot of players really needle him because he gets so fired up - hey Doc, just chill."
Diaco can't. "The guys are always reminding me that I can't play in the game," Diaco said. "So I tell them in that case, I'm going across the field and kick the other team doctor's [butt]."
The most enduring story of Diaco's uncontrolled passion for game day took place in the final regular-season contest of the 1981 season when the Bucs, under McKay, were at Detroit needing a victory to edge out the Lions for the division title and playoff berth. In his accustomed spot on the sideline in front of the Bucs' bench, Diaco became so entranced as seconds ticked toward intermission that he called for a timeout. "Thank God the referee did not hear me," Diaco grimaced.
McKay, however, did.
"He didn't know who it was," Diaco said, "but turned around and screamed, 'Who's the … calling timeout? I'm going to kill him.' At halftime nobody says anything to me and we come back and win the game and the division. Everybody is happy but I'm figuring I'm going to get fired."
And about then is when an equipment man came by to say McKay wanted to talk. "I walk in there and Coach is chomping on a cigar," Diaco recalled. "So I said, 'Coach, I did wrong. I'm sorry. I'll resign. "He says, 'Resign? You're not going to resign. You're my man. But don't ever call timeout again. You let me do the coaching, you do the doctoring.' "
A few weeks later, a special messenger showed up at Diaco's home at Christmas Eve with a delivery from McKay. Inside was a whistle and baseball cap with "Time Out Coach" stitched across the front.
Most of Diaco's sideline moments are not nearly as entertaining. "It's almost like a M*A*S*H unit out there," he said. "You have got to prioritize. You have to make instant decisions and take the team and the individual into consideration, particularly the individual because this is the only thing he does and plans to do for at least five to 10 years."
To answer the stereotypical question that eventually comes to every fan's mind, Diaco insists he never has been pressured by a coach to prematurely push an injured player back into action.
"In fact, it has been the other way. Sometimes I've said he could play, but if he wasn't 100 percent, the coach has not sent him in. McKay was famous for that. Gruden is the same. Gruden is very sympathetic to his players' careers. He errs on the side of conservatism. Some of the other coaches may have been a little more aggressive, but no one has ever asked me to send any player in I thought could not play."
The big problems, however, come when the severity of an injury cannot be questioned. Randy Crowder, a defensive end for the 1978-80 Bucs, suffered a dislocated knee that interfered with his blood supply, and he was in danger of losing his leg. The late Dave Logan, a defensive tackle from 1979 to 1986, dislocated his elbow at Chicago, and Diaco was solo on the visitor's sideline. "It takes two people to handle a dislocated elbow and you have a very short time," Diaco said. "I got the orthopedist from Chicago's sideline to help me."
Among a smorgasbord of other memorable maladies that stick in Diaco's mind are a player brought to the sideline with a fractured neck; another who had been knocked unconscious with his tongue knocked back into this throat, leaving him unable to breathe; and an assistant coach having a gallbladder attack while returning home on the team plane. "You are thrown into the fire," he said. "You are triaging like a war. You don't have all the diagnostic tools. Particularly in the early days, half the teams didn't even have X-rays on the sideline. You had to wait until you got back to your hometown or go to the hospital in that city. Yeah, there have been a lot of situations that have changed me as a doctor. It has made me a lot more confident in what I do. I think I'm known as a pretty damn good diagnostician and a lot of that has to do with the Buccaneers. You have to make a decision, you have to make it quick and you have to make it accurate."
The thing about being a physician in the NFL is that you know exactly what the human body is not designed to endure and then watch most of those things take place before the game's first whistle. Flesh and bone belonging to men the size of small buildings are not designed to collide from opposite directions while moving at the speed of sprinters. It has been said that every game played is like surviving a car wreck, except in the NFL you are expected to go crash into a wall again the next week.
"First of all, you learn that it's a different mind-set for taking care of football players from the everyday population," Diaco said. "Football players are finely tuned athletes and what a football player can play with, the average person couldn't even go into work. You have to treat [players] for what they can do, not what the average person does."
Even at this level, there are some who distinguish themselves as tougher than tough. Diaco's all-time Bucs tough-guy team? "Over the years there were some prima donnas, but I can't remember too many wusses," he said. "But I can truly say guys like Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Brad Johnson really stand out. I also have to mention Paul Gruber. Those were tough guys."
Other players who must remain nameless will forever be remembered by Diaco for less admirable reasons. This one took place during the team's early days, maybe 1977 or '78. A player came to Diaco complaining of chronic headaches. The pounding would not go away. "So I sent him over to the hospital for a CT scan," Diaco remembered. "Well, he comes back and I say, 'OK, how did it go?' He said, 'Fine. It cured me, Doc. No more headaches.' "
More recently there was a player suffering from a cold who arrived in the training room and asked, "Where's the cold tablets?" "Where do you think we would keep the cold tablets?" Diaco had replied. "The player goes, 'Oh, yeah,' and walks over to the refrigerator."
You might think Diaco's sole responsibility is to take care of the players once they become members of the franchise. The truth is, over the years, his opinion has counted big when deciding what players would become Buccaneers. Before each college draft, physicians representing every NFL team gather at the February combine to examine 360 players who have been invited to perform before scouts and their stopwatches. The doctors grade each player with a physical health grade between A and F. Those grades weigh heavily in the minds of front-office personnel and coaches on draft day.
So Diaco has no trouble remembering the 1990 draft when Perkins, the former Alabama coach, questioned the grade given to Crimson Tide linebacker Keith McCants' physical well-being.
"He wanted to know why I gave him a D," Diaco said. "I said, 'Because, well, he has a bad knee.' "Perkins goes, 'Well, how long can he play in this league?' "I said, 'Maybe four, five years.' " 'That's good enough. We need him now. We won't have a job in four or five years if we don't win now."
McCants - selected with the Bucs' first pick and in front of Junior Seau and Desmond Howard - lasted three years, playing in 47 games and making 35 starts. A few years later he was indicted on charges of stealing a vehicle from a Mobile, Ala., car dealership. Perkins, meanwhile, was fired midway through his fourth season.
Maybe that's why Gruden flatly states that he considers Diaco's word as law. "He is one of the all-time greats," Gruden said. "He'll tell you just like it is in layman terms, where an idiot like me can understand it: 'The guy is out; he can't play. This guy can go; we'll get him ready.' "He's dead-on with his diagnosis. And he cares about the players. He cares about the coaches. Sincerely cares."
Diaco, whose identical twin brother, Nick, is chief of cardiology at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., grew up in Philadelphia, attended Villanova University and served in the U.S. Air Force, rising to lieutenant colonel before retiring and moving to Tampa in 1974 to start a practice. He has since distinguished himself as one of the country's foremost experts at treating sports hernias, developing a laparoscopic procedure that is less evasive and has dramatically reduced recovery time. He has been published in numerous medical journals.
"He's a brilliant man," St. Joseph's Brannan said. "He has a photographic memory. He can read something and knows it. That's a good trait for a doctor. And he's very good in the operating room. He has a lot of success stories making sick people well."
Yet, by personal assessment, Diaco most enjoys being identified with the Bucs, being an NFL team physician.
"I love the camaraderie and closeness," he said. "I mean, there are only 32 of us in the league that do this. The physicians in the NFL have become much more competent treating injuries. Used to be in the old days it could be somebody's friend or somebody with an in to the team. Now they demand excellence because we are dealing with multimillion-dollar ballplayers. Make a mistake and it costs a team a lot of money and a player his career. "I'd say when I first came into the league, 50 percent of the physicians were truly competent. Now it's about 98 percent."
And Diaco is the dean. "He's family here," Gruden said. "I trust him with everything and he's a football guy, too. I mean, this guy has seen it all. He's a great library of information for me. A guy who has been with a franchise this long, he can compare this player with that player: 'This guy here, he's going to be all right. He's just a little wacko, kind of like this guy was or that guy was.' "He helps me with a lot of things. He gives support. There are a lot of guys in front offices and organizations that are, 'Well, Coach should have punted it, or should have kicked the field goal.' This guy is right there with us. Loyal, got a lot of gut and he cares. Helluva guy."
Mick Elliott, The Tampa Tribune 28 December 2005