If you think of the Apple TV show Ted Lasso when someone mentions the English Premier League, you’re not alone among Americans. Yet for Kelly Estes ’05, the international soccer organization offered a real-life experience that allowed her to raise her passion for her favorite sport to new heights this summer.
Estes, a sports medicine physician for the Cleveland Clinic, worked for 10 days as Fulham FC’s team physician after her employer, through its new London location, won the bid to provide sports medicine services to the Premier League during its East Coast tour. The Kalamazoo College alumna said she often follows the U.S. women’s national team, but this was her first true in-person exposure to world-class soccer athletes and competition.
“I basically cleared my schedule and asked which kidney I could donate to be involved because I was very excited,” she said. “I played soccer during my time at K, and I always wanted to work in the field of sports, so any way that I can combine my medical career with my soccer background is a huge win.”
As an Ohio native, Estes majored in chemistry at K before earning a master’s degree in nutrition at Columbia University and attending medical school at Wright State University. She completed an emergency medicine residency at the University of Virginia and a primary care sports medicine fellowship at the Ohio State University before becoming a sports medicine physician at Washington University in St. Louis. She moved on to the Cleveland Clinic in March 2020, leading to this summer’s unique career experience.
Estes conducted some research on the Premier League and its players before she left to meet the team and was pleasantly surprised to find that three Americans are among its athletes. That is a big deal in her opinion, as not many soccer players from the U.S. have played in Europe until recently, signaling the sport’s national growth.
Regardless, she wasn’t sure what to expect from Fulham FC’s own players until she met them in the New York area.
“I’ve had some limited experience in the U.S. with some high-level elite athletes, but the soccer team was so welcoming, and the staff was so kind,” she said. “Everyone was down to Earth, which was refreshing, because I felt we clicked like a little family. One of my favorite memories was with an initiation for the new players when they had to sing in front of everyone at a team dinner. They actually asked me to sing as well, so it was like I was initiated. It was nothing that I would’ve ever expected, and it was memorable.”
Fulham FC spent its first two days on the East Coast training at facilities belonging to the New York Red Bulls, a Major League Soccer (MLS) team, before playing its first game in Philadelphia. After a quick 24 hours there, the team spent five days in Orlando before finishing its tour in Washington, D.C.
“I get so excited about being in a stadium around all that energy with a full crowd,” Estes said. “That made my heart sing more than anything else. It’s about being around the fans and the coaches—even being in a smelly locker room. The stadiums are my happy place.”
Meet Fulham FC of the Premier League
The club began in 1879 when a school teacher and churchwarden formed a boys team at Fulham St. Andrew’s Church in London. The team shifted its name to Fulham Football Club in 1889.
The team derives its current nickname, the Cottagers, from its home field, Craven Cottage, where it has played since 1896.
Fulham FC’s first crest was produced in 1898. Variations have been used over the past 141 years with the present badge (pictured) beginning a new era for the club after its promotion to the Premier League.
Serving the team meant Estes had to watch for lower-extremity injuries such as ankle sprains and hamstring issues along with muscle strains and contusions. She also needed to be prepared to treat less common yet more serious problems such as head injuries, concussions and fractures.
“We basically travel with a small pharmacy and supplies for emergency needs,” Estes said. “We also can use local pharmacies if certain prescriptions are needed. Basically, you set up and establish your resources in advance, because this was a moving tour. In each city, you have to make sure you know where you’re going to get your emergency supplies like oxygen, which pharmacy we are going to work with, and where our local hospital and emergency departments are, so there’s a lot of planning that goes into every facet of medical care.”
Communication was a challenge, too, considering Fulham FC’s current coaching staff is from Portugal and players are from all around the world. Even medications could be difficult given that the British health system is different, and drugs could have disparate names in the U.S. than in England. Yet she said her K study abroad experience in Erlangen, Germany, was foundational to her approaches. Plus, virtually no obstacle could’ve made Estes’ Premier League experience less than extraordinarily valuable to her.
“I’ve played soccer my whole life, so essentially, it has been my sport since I was 5 or 6 years old,” she said. “I’ve loved to watch my kids play and I still play myself once a week. I’m also still in close connection with my team from K, so it’s in my blood. We would love to continue to bridge sports medicine between the U.S. and the U.K., and now that we’ve had some physical time with each other, we’re hoping to really make it a regular occurrence. They’re doing some exciting things, we’re doing some exciting things, and we’re trying to compare notes and work together.”