From Tackle to Transplant Surgeon

by John Sudsbury (an edited version of this story appears in the summer issue of Cal Sports Quarterly).

Pappy's Boys are renowned for their success on the football field, and many of those legendary Golden Bear football players have gone on to even greater success after their days in Berkeley. One of those 'Boys,' Dr. John Najarian achieved one of his life goals by helping Cal to the 1949 Rose Bowl, and he achieved another by becoming a doctor and developing into a world-famous transplant surgeon.

An Oakland product who lost his father at 12 years old, finances limited Najarian's college options. However, Cal was his first choice and he had no hesitations staying local and lettering for the football team while pursuing his hopes of a medical career. After earning his undergraduate degree in three years, he had to beat the odds to continue medical school at Cal [the medical school is University of California, San Francisco]. With an influx of GI Bill applicants as well as other talented students from around the world, Najarian found himself up against 6,000 other applicants for just 72 slots in the class.

'Cal was he only medical school I applied to, I couldn't afford to go to other schools for interviews,' Najarian said. 'I was very fortunate that I had my football experience to give me that extra chip along with good grades.'

Because he had graduated in three years, Najarian had the opportunity to continue with his football career while attending medical school, for which the first year was on the Berkeley campus. The 1948 team rolled to a perfect 10-0 regular season record and Najarian found himself with an interesting dilemma.

'The two weeks leading up to the Rose Bowl were when my med school classmates spent their time studying for finals, which were very important and very difficult in the first year,' he said. 'So I went to the Rose Bowl with a suitcase full of books, which I never opened, needless to say.'

Despite the lack of preparation for that first round of finals, his success in the classroom continued. After earning his M.D. in 1952, Najarian soon became a leader in the field of transplant surgeries and formed one of the world's largest transplant programs at the University of Minnesota. The program has performed more than 6,500 kidney transplants, more than 1,900 pancreas transplants; and hundreds of heart, liver, lung, islet, bowel and combined transplants.He has been recognized internationally as an Honorary Fellow to the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1987 - a rare distinction shared by only a handful of surgeons throughout the world. He has also served as President and Vice President of the International Transplantation Society. In 2004, he was honored with the Medawar Prize, which is widely seen as the most prestigious award for outstanding achievement in organ transplantation).'We've accomplished a lot in surgery and transplants,' Najarian said. 'Being one of the pioneers in transplantation, most things I did turned out to be a first - the first liver transplant in a child under the age of one, who is still alive now at age 25 and just graduated from grad school in Boston. The one thing I am most proud of is the over 200 surgeons I have trained over the years. I have trained over 80 transplant surgeons throughout the world. Anywhere I go, there's somebody I trained there, Cyprus, Greece, England, wherever.'

Through all of the success in his nearly 60 years after Berkeley, Najarian continues to be a big fan of the Golden Bears, following the new generation of stars. He attends one or two Cal games every year with the rest of Pappy's Boys, reliving the great years of the past and enjoying the new-found success under Jeff Tedford.

'I bleed blue and gold,' he said. 'Tedford has been a breath of fresh air. When Tedford arrived, all of a sudden things changed. In 1946, we had Frank Wickhorst as our coach; he tried to treat us like we were in the service and we ended up 2-7. With almost the same team the next year, Pappy Waldorf ended up 9-1. It's similar to what Tedford has done. He's taken it to the top.'

Like the rest of Cal fans and alums, Najarian would love to see the Golden Bears make a return to the Rose Bowl. To this day, on the wall of his office is an article saved from the Los Angeles Times following the 1949 Rose Bowl. The headline is 'How To Win a Game Without the Football' with a photo of Northwestern's Art Murakowski.

'It shows us hitting him on the one-yard line and the ball is out of his hands and the goal line can be clearly seen,' Najarian said. 'He doesn't have the ball! But the referee gave the touchdown to them.'

That touchdown proved key as Northwestern held off the Golden Bears, 20-14.

As a man who has been a key part of lifting medicine to levels never thought possible, it is fitting he is also a fan of another bit of modern technology.

'We sure could have used instant replay back in that Rose Bowl,' he said.

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