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Forty Years On, Physician Remains a Steady Hand at Mason

When Dr. Frank Pettrone arrived at Mason in 1976, he found a small university with athletics training facilities that were modest to say the least. Mason had a need; Pettrone was then a young physician with the right skills, willing to donate his time and services to help student-athletes.

Forty years later, Mason’s amazing trajectory is well-documented. For nearly that entire span, Pettrone—an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine—has been volunteering as the university’s head team physician. Across decades of change, Pettrone remains a constant: still treating student-athletes, but also doing much more. As one of Mason’s all-time great volunteers, advocates, and advisors, Pettrone exemplifies the heart and soul of the place. Perhaps no one else has seen as many student-athletes progress through the program as he has.

“You see them come in as freshmen and then watch them grow over four or five years,” he says. “To see the difference in these athletes over that time, and to know that you’ve been part of it, is very satisfying. I’ve had a unique part, because I’ve seen them injured. I’ve operated on them. And they come back to play and to thank you for their successes.”

In 2013, when upgrades to the fieldhouse were made, Mason was finally able to greatly improve its training facilities for intercollegiate athletics. That effort was led by a $100,000 gift made by Pettrone and his wife, Claire Pettrone, JD ’91. The new facility, which combines training, injury prevention and care, and rehabilitation, was named in their honor the Frank Pettrone Center for Sports Performance. The center now includes equipment such as a BodPod (used to measure body fat percentage), a submerged treadmill, and a fluoroscope for on-site X-ray imaging. Such top-notch equipment is expensive; some of it is there thanks to donations that Pettrone has helped attract.

The center has also become a teaching and learning environment. Pettrone mentors team trainers and young doctors who come for one-year rotations in sports medicine. The center conducts research, as well; Pettrone and his colleagues are currently studying ways to prevent shoulder injuries in baseball players.

Pettrone still works from a small office squeezed in among the expensive diagnostic machines. That puts him just where he wants to be: in the heart of the action, surrounded by the student-athletes that he treats and helps to recover from injuries.

Making Good Things Happen

For the past 15 years, the athletics department has annually presented at Senior Night an award to two of those student-athletes, one male and one female, who represent Mason at its best. It is named the Dr. Frank Pettrone Student-Athlete of the Year Award—a tribute that he clearly appreciates.

“That is very tactile satisfaction—you can feel it and see it,” he observes. “The students thank you because they’ve come so far. I get more out of it than I give, I’m sure.”

As a member of the Patriot Club Advisory Board, Pettrone is an athletics booster, but his interests and service extend far beyond. He served on the George Mason University Foundation Board of Trustees in the 1990s, when Mason’s fundraising was in its early days, and he currently sits on the university’s main research committee. In 2014 he received the Mason Medal, the university’s highest honorary award. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with three university presidents and four athletic directors—all of them great people to work with,” he adds.

A graduate of Georgetown medical school who did a tour of duty as a surgeon with the U.S. Navy, Pettrone has also been involved in fundraising for his alma mater, Brown University, as well as for Catholic Charities. Yet he is always on the lookout for new ways to advance Mason. OrthoVirginia, where he practices, is a leading sponsor at EagleBank Arena, and the official orthopedic specialists of George Mason athletics. Last year Pettrone helped facilitate a business partnership with the sports technology firm Vivature, which bills insurance companies for the services provided by the athletic trainers and by Pettrone and other doctors who donate their time. The insurance payments, which return directly to the university, should total at least $1,000,000 over a five-year period—offsetting the cost of providing these essential services for student-athletes.

Pettrone’s newest idea for supporting Mason draws on another personal interest—good wine. About 20 years ago, he joined with his brother and sister to start a small family winery in Mendocino County, California. Pettrone, board member Terri Cofer-Beirne, and others have formed a committee that is exploring how to brand and market Mason’s own wine label. Proceeds would go directly to student scholarships. It’s yet another creative way to generate support for the university.

What’s next? Perhaps his biggest dream yet: he aspires to see Mason open its own medical school. “I think that should be an essential part of the growth of the university,” he says. “To be a great research university, you need to have a medical school.” It’s a formidable challenge, but don’t bet against Frank Pettrone. The doctor has a way of making good things happen at Mason.

March 1, 2017 / RR