October 2, 2012
By John Murphy
Former Capuchino High athlete John Xerogeanes is known as “Dr. X” at the Emory University School of Medicine, but he’s technically not a superhero.
Xerogeanes operated on former President Jimmy Carter for a torn rotator cuff, but he doesn’t brag about it.
And not only is X the Chief of Sports Medicine and Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Emory University, but he’s the team physician at Georgia Tech University — though he swears he doesn’t bleed Yellow Jackets blue and gold.
“In sports medicine you can’t be a fan,” Xerogeanes said by phone from his home in Atlanta. “You can like the kids but you have to divorce yourself from being a fan, otherwise you’ll be overzealous and make a mistake.”
In fact with Xerogeanes (a Greek name pronounced zer-oy-an), little is as simple or black and white as it seems, dating back to his days as a football and basketball player at Capuchino.
“John was a good friend of mine,” said Tim Bowler, the former Menlo-Atherton High basketball coach who was a high school teammate of X (as he is known to San Brunans). “He was a senior when I was a junior and he was big from playing football and he’d set picks to free me and Dennis Chambliss up to take shots.”
In football X was more accomplished, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound wrecking ball of a linebacker who made all-league for co-coaches John Minahan and Albie Steenvoorde. Former Serra coaching legend Jesse Freitas Sr. was the Mustangs’ offensive coordinator that season.
That was the mid-1980s and the world was different then. Hazing was more tolerated and Bowler said that on “Freshmen Fridays” at Cap, ninth grades would get the business from older students.
“When I was a freshman, X and Gerald Palmer were chasing me around campus and were going to hang me over the sophomore wall by my underwear,” Bowler said. “So I ran into this open classroom and they were having a Black Student Union meeting. It was like the scene in Animal House – I sat down and nobody said a word. X and Gerald were standing at the door drooling, waiting for me to come out, but I never did.”
Bowler, who attended three different schools with X, said he’s only mildly surprised at his former teammate’s success.
“He was sort of under the radar as far as how intelligent he was,” the Menlo-Atherton teacher said. “He took A.P. (advanced placement) classes, but I wasn’t in them. I knew he wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t know how successful he’s become.”
Added Steenvoorde: “John was an overachiever and worked hard at everything he did. I wish I had 100 Johns. He was also a winner; he didn’t like to lose. And he never gave up.”
Xerogeanes is big time these days, specializing in the care of knee and shoulder injuries. In addition to his work with Georgia Tech, he’s published research articles, written chapters of textbooks and has helped develop surgical techniques. He also travels internationally and lectures and educates other physicians.
But with X there’s always the dichotomy – the super-achiever surgeon balanced by his middle-class San Bruno roots … which probably explains his occasional use of salty language and a tendency toward self-deprecation.
“I’m the bright one who got his first paying job when he was 33,” said X, referring to his post-graduate work at Emory, his residency at Pittsburgh Medical Center and his sports medicine fellowship in Vail, Colo. “I’m 47 now and I’m finally free and clear of all my debts.”
He got the gig at Georgia Tech, partially because of his playing experience at UC Davis where he was a teammate of current Boise State coach Chris Petersen, among others.
“George O’Leary was the coach then and he wanted someone who played college football like me, not just some guy in a suit,” X said. “I think he also liked it that I knew where the Abbey Tavern in San Francisco was.”
Asked what advice he’d have for the many current prep athletes interested in medicine or athletic training, X said: “Keep your grades up, because if you get good grades and play sports, then nobody can (mess) with you. And don’t give up. With each stage of medicine, things got harder and harder, but because of my sports background, I was able to game-plan my steps and things worked out.”
X now lives comfortably with his wife of 10 years, Teri; daughter Thea (7) and son Rocco (5), whom he coaches in youth football. But this is the local-boy-makes-good story that X agrees almost didn’t happen.
When John Xerogeanes was in grade school, he was riding in a camper with his father Gus (a grade school principal), mother Jo and older brothers Dean and Jim to his grandmother’s house in Santa Rosa.
Traveling on highway 101 just past Corte Madera, the vehicle was hit by another driver, did a 360-degree spin and plowed into the center divider. John was unharmed, but middle brother Dean – a three-sport star and student body president at Parkside Junior High – died as a result of the crash.
“My parents went through an ungodly process, but I was just a little kid and didn’t understand,” X said. “What helped me was my attachment to sports. Without teams to play on, it would have been terrible.”
“(Dean) was my role model and it was hard on me when I was young, but it also focused me. I knew I couldn’t slack off because that’s not what my brother would have done.”