BUFFALO, NY - When a wide receiver with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers severely fractured his tibia during a play against the Chicago Bears, he not only suffered excruciating pain but agonized over how the injury might impact his NFL career. Then, he saw team physician John E. Zvijac ’82, MD, at his side.
“Don’t worry, I can fix this,” Zvijac calmly told the player. “Just don’t look at it. You’re going to be okay.” The player relaxed and immediately put his trust in Zvijac, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine.
“Dr. Zvijac is a master communicator,” says Todd Toriscelli, director of sports medicine and performance and head athletic trainer for the Buccaneers. “In today’s NFL, the players don’t just need the best doctor available but someone who can speak their language.”
Zvijac’s unruffled demeanor and expansive clinical skills put him in high demand. At the UHZ Sports Medicine Institute, which Zvijac founded in Coral Gables, FL, he treats professional and Olympic athletes from the U.S., the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as recreational athletes. Outside the ‘office,’ Zvijac is an assistant team physician for the NHL’s Florida Panthers, the sports team physician for Florida International University and medical director for the Miami-Dade County Public School District.
“If I add it all up, including office hours, supervising residents, attending educational conferences, operating on patients and staffing sporting events, I probably put in between 80-100 hours a week,” says Zvijac.
But he’s not counting.
“I consider what I do to be my lifetime hobby and I guess it happens to be my work,” adds Zvijac, who credits much of his unbridled enthusiasm to his former Canisius professors.
“They had a real passion for what they did,” recalls Zvijac, a biochemistry major. “Teaching wasn’t just a job for them. As a result, they piqued my interest in research and were instrumental in my development.”
Joseph F. Bieron, PhD, professor emeritus of chemistry, taught Zvijac. “The best gift a professor can give to his students is an excitement for the discipline. I’m pleased that an outstanding, hard-working student like John took that to heart.”
A native of Buffalo’s East Side, Zvijac and his brother, David ’72 (a chemistry major) attended Canisius High School and Canisius College. An interest in science, originally led the younger Zvijac to study biochemisty, where he says he felt like part of a Canisius family.
“During the week, our professors taught classes and led research in the lab,” recalls Zvijac. “On the weekends, they joined us for racquetball or basketball games down at ‘The Aud.’”
A part-time job at a local pharmacy convinced Zvijac he wanted to pursue an advanced degree in medicine. He attended the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine and then moved to Miami, with his new wife, Gail ’82 (also a biochemistry major from Canisius), to complete his residency training. Zvijac focused on orthopedics because he “wanted to fix patients” and specialized in sports medicine because “it marries his two interests.”
Now hundreds of athletes put their trust in Zvijac to repair their most challenging injuries, from dislocated knees to torn rotator cuffs and ACLs, so they can heal properly and get back in the game.
“Dr. Zvijac not only cares for our players but has operated on more than 40 players from other NFL teams, including retired Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis, retired Buffalo Bill Shawn Merriman and New Orleans Saint Jonathan Vilma,” says Toriscelli. “The agents know who the best doctors are and they seek them out.”
To stay on top of his game, Zvijac conducts cutting-edge research in the fields of orthopedic medicine and surgery. At UHZ Sports Medicine Institute, he and his partners have developed new surgical techniques to reconstruct damaged ankles and knees, and to repair injured elbows and shoulders.
“Right now, the use of biogenetic (or biologic) type tissues instead of metal and plastic for surgeries, such as a total knee replacement, is a burgeoning field,” explains Zvijac, who also works to educate the next generation of sports medicine professionals.
He is a professor at Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
“I am not surprised at all that John is successful as an educator and a practitioner,” says Edward C. Kisailus, PhD, professor of biology. “He was among my first group of students as a Canisius professor and helped build the foundation for my current research. I still reference the background work he did more than 30 years ago.”
And although Zvijac shares many of those same fundamentals with his own students, the greatest lesson he hopes to impart is more personal, rather than practical.
“Students who study sports medicine should know if they think of the profession as a job, it will be a difficult life,” says Zvijac. “Canisius professors like Drs. Kisailus and Bieron showed me that education, teaching and research are all joyful – something to look forward to every day. I try to bring that concept to life in my teaching and in my practice.”