By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Dr. Matt Busbee's proficiency in the pool, his profession and his practice can all be traced to the same origin: a knee injury in high school.
An avid swimmer in elementary school in Mobile, Busbee switched sports in middle school, to basketball and cross country, until injuries forced a change of plans.
A dislocated knee cap in eighth grade. More knee injuries in ninth and tenth, requiring surgery and a year of rehab.
After sitting out all of tenth grade, Busbee reinjured his knee in cross country his junior year. His doctor gave Matt two options: another reconstructive surgery, or a change of sports.
"I used to swim when I was younger," Busbee recalled. "I think I'm going to get back into that. I'm not really that good at basketball and cross country, and I'm tired of getting injured."
Thus was born one of the most productive chapters in the illustrious history of Auburn's swimming and diving program.
His high school, Murphy in Mobile, had recently started a swimming program. Within months, Busbee was a state champion.
"Took off from there and was able to walk on at Auburn," he said. "Had I not injured my knee, I probably never would have gotten back into swimming because at the time I was so burned out, I was like, `I'm never doing this again.'"
Busbee's orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Stephen Cope, made an impression on his young patient.
"'Man, I like what he does,'" Busbee remembers thinking. "'He takes care of athletes. This is something I'd like to do.'"
That decision set Busbee on a course toward a career in orthopedics.
"From a bad experience through high school, it actually turned into a life-changing and good experience down the road," he said.
After redshirting his freshman year, Busbee became a key member of an Auburn swimming program in the early stages of its unparalleled success.
A 14-time All-American, Busbee swam on three 200-meter freestyle relay NCAA event champions, helping the Tigers win national titles in 1997 and 1999.
"That was a big goal of ours, and probably the biggest achievement from an athletic and team standpoint," Busbee said.
He also excelled academically, winning the Cliff Hare Award as Auburn's top male student-athlete who exhibits leadership, integrity and courage.
"I have some of my trophies and plaques in my office," Busbee said. "That was one that, especially people who are familiar with Auburn ask about a lot."
In 2000, Busbee won the Walter Byers Scholarship, given to the nation's top scholars-athlete, and was a member of the NCAA's prestigious Top VIII class, where he was seated with a fellow honoree who would go on to NFL stardom.
"Sat next to Drew Brees at that awards ceremony," Busbee said. "When they mention Drew Brees, I always say, `I sat next to him at a dinner once.'"
After Auburn, Busbee went to medical school at UAB, did a five-year orthopedics residency at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis, then a fellowship in Birmingham with Dr. James Andrews and his associates.
Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Cope, the same doctor who treated Busbee when Matt was a teenager, reached out to his former patient.
"He called me up again, and said, `Do you want to come down and work for us?'" Busbee said. "That's how I got my job down here in Mobile, through my interactions with him."
The doctors work together in surgeries and in clinic at the Orthopaedic Group, P.C.
Perhaps it never would have happened had Matt's knees not caused so much grief in high school.
"It's just funny, something like that when I was 16, 17 years old, something that can change your life forever, but also for the good," he said.
Busbee follows Auburn's swimming program online and returns each fall with his family for football games. Last season, Busbee and his teammates from Auburn's first swimming national championship team reunited for a 20th anniversary celebration.
When Busbee interviewed for medical school, he told his questioners about the two educations he received at Auburn: one in the biomedical science classroom, and the other at the James E. Martin Aquatics Center.
"One was the book knowledge," he said. "That definitely laid the foundation for biology and the medical standpoint. At the same time, you talk about the discipline, goal setting and the work ethic required to do well in medical school."
The focus Busbee developed as an Auburn swimmer helped him navigate medical school, especially the first two years of intensive classroom instruction.
"We would literally sit there and study 12 hours a day for two years," he said. "It's hard to stay focused on that but going back to some of the goals you set not only for medical school, but what I set for swimming and knowing, `Hey, this is where I want to be, this is how I need to get there.' That definitely played into it and helped me to achieve those goals."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer