The USD Sanford School of Medicine’s admissions committee chose well when they admitted a member of rival South Dakota State University’s football roster who had terrorized USD on the gridiron.
Corey Wulf was a three-year starter at linebacker for the Jackrabbits, a self-described overachiever and nice guy who’d walked on at State and became an all-conference academic performer. The Lennox, South Dakota, native comes from an athletic family, and that involvement in sports was accompanied by a parade of knee injuries and surgeries. As a high schooler, Wulf excelled at baseball, football, basketball and track, earning all-state honors in football. He also suffered a knee injury that changed his junior year and played in role in changing his life.
“I’d been interested in the sciences and wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid,” recalled Wulf, now an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine doctor in Minneapolis, and a member of a team of orthopedic surgeons and sports medicine experts serving that community’s beloved professional sports teams, the Twins and the Vikings. “I saw my brother and sister experience knee issues, and I had my own knee injuries and a surgery, and because of that I developed an interest in orthopedics.”
Wulf also learned that some athletes continue to compete despite experiencing severe pain. “I played much of my junior high school football season with a torn ACL,” he explained. An awkward landing after dunking a basketball ended athletics for Wulf during that school year, and his basketball teammates at Lennox High School still wonder how strong their team might have been had they not lost their talented teammate for that season. Remembering how it felt to be sidelined influences Wulf’s empathy for the athletes and patients he treats.
At South Dakota State, he experienced the usual array of injuries endured by athletes playing high-level football and he began to think about the process of recovery from the standpoint of an athlete. “Up until an injury, a lot of athletes define themselves by their athletic identity,” Wulf explained. “After I was hurt, I became depressed. My identity had been taken away. But I learned that I was more than an athlete. That led me to understand that the mental process of recovering from injury is just as important as the physical process.
During medical school at USD, Wulf sought to learn as much as he could about different medical fields, but his plans for a career kept tilting him to his long-held interest in orthopedics. After graduation, he did a residency in orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic, followed by a sports medicine fellowship at Twin Cities Orthopedics, based in Edina, Minnesota. Wulf was intent on remaining involved in athletics, and the sports medicine fellowship upgraded his skills and credentials. “Not only do I enjoy sports,” said Wulf, “I wanted to pay back those countless hours that physicians had provided to me so I could compete.”
Wulf joined an orthopedic practice in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, not far from where he grew up. But he was drawn back to the sports medicine group in Minneapolis, Twin Cities Orthopedics, where he’d done his fellowship. That’s where he has been for the past 10 years, specializing in sports injuries to the shoulder, elbow and knee.
Wulf first started working with professional athletes when he became the team orthopedic surgeon for Minnesota United, the major league soccer franchise based in the Twin Cities. Although he no longer works in that capacity, Wulf credits United owner Dr. Bill McGuire with giving him an opportunity that launched his career. The experiences and exposure afforded to Wulf through his work with professional soccer athletes grew his reputation and skills, leading to further professional team sport opportunities.
Three years ago, Wulf was invited to join the medical staff serving the Minnesota Twins, the major league baseball team based in Minneapolis. Last year, Wulf was asked to join the medical team for the Minnesota Vikings, the Twin Cities’ NFL football team. This high-profile work for Wulf and his colleagues puts them on the sidelines and in the clubhouse alongside some of the world’s elite athletes.
“It’s more complicated providing care for people who play sports for a living, as their occupation,” Wulf explained. “The stakes are elevated. And not just from the perspective of the team and its fans. These athletes train and compete to earn a living. When they are hurt, they can’t do their jobs.”
Wulf and his orthopedic partners typically help decide for those professional teams and their athletes where an injured athlete should seek treatment and, if necessary, surgery. “Whether we are performing surgery or providing consultation,” said Wulf, “these athletes require the best effort we can give them.”
According to Wulf, the Twins baseball club has wisely created a collaborative, interdisciplinary team to provide health care to their athletes, and they call that group The Performance Team. “When you work in sports medicine,” Wulf explained, “there should be an extensive team of people doing many different aspects of care. And everyone has an important role.” With the Twins, explained Wulf, all medical care is coordinated through the team’s head athletic trainer and is communicated to management.
In the NFL, Wulf’s duties include game coverage for both home and away contests, which poses strains on his busy practice and home life. Fortunately, Wulf has three orthopedic partners who split up the duties of traveling to the eight regular season games played outside Minneapolis.
To complement its duties with the Vikings, Twin Cities Orthopedics has established a clinic adjacent to the Vikings’ impressive training facility in suburban Minneapolis. Twin Cities Orthopedics is a large enterprise, with 111 physicians, 103 physician assistants and 242 physical therapists serving patients out of 37 locations and clinics.
Which positions in baseball and football deliver the most individuals to his exam room? “Veteran baseball pitchers experience more injuries than most other baseball players due to the cumulative hours they have spent performing a high strain, repetitive activity,” explained Wulf. “In football, it’s running backs and linemen, both offensive and defensive. Running backs take a beating, of course, but more so do linemen, as they’re engaged in highly physical play down after down after down.”
Providing medical service and surgery to patients, including professional sports teams and their athletes, is exciting, interesting and rewarding, said Wulf, but it also takes him away from his family. That is, described Wulf, a part of his work responsibilities that can be a challenge. Wulf and his wife, Carin, have four children, ages 11 to 18, and Wulf enjoys watching each of them grow up, including their involvement in athletics. Corey and Carin met while he was in college recovering from an injury and she was his rehabilitation therapist. Each of their children competes in basketball, and the youngest three also play soccer. His son is playing flag football and insists he will advance to tackle football.
And while his work with professional athletes is a theme that attracts attention, Wulf remains devoted to helping every one of his patients. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it doesn’t matter what type of athlete I am working with. They can be professional, casual, high school, college, even master’s athletes. I like helping and treating patients.”
Despite his allegiance to SDSU blue and gold, Wulf remains grateful to those who trained him in medicine. “Throughout my life I have been blessed to spend time around people who are smart and impressive,” Wulf declared. “The state of South Dakota is filled with people like that, and the medical school was filled with role models who were smart, accomplished and humble people.”
“I continue to benefit from what I learned at medical school,” said Wulf, “and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity provided to me by the University of South Dakota.”