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Tackling Public Health Problems, Dodging Tackles

SPH prof plays semi-pro football on the side

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He’s not the typical "townie," with that ‘PhD’ after hisname, the day job immersed in dense statistical data, the ease with which heuses phrases such as "spatio-temporal syndromic surveillance" and "prognosticvariables."

But Al Ozonoff, an assistant professor of Biostatistics atthe BU School of PublicHealth, is as much a part of the CharlestownTownies Semi-Pro Football Team as the kids who grew up playing ball in town andnow reunite every May through October to smash heads with other teams in theEastern Football League.

This year, the Townies — with Ozonoff on the offensive lineas center — won the league championship for the first time in 30 years andmade it all the way to the national semi-finals. Ozonoff was selected as one ofthe league’s 2008 All Stars.

"It’s an unbelievablyviolent, terrible game for your body — and I love it," said Ozonoff, 33, whois now nursing myriad injuries in the post-season. "I’m about 50 to 60 poundstoo light for my position, so the way I make up for it is by trying to besmarter and more experienced. Even as my physical status has declined, I’veplayed better and better."

Plenty of scientists pursue other interests off campus, butOzonoff acknowledges the stark contrast between his professional life crunchingdata, and his semi-professional life among body-crushers. His love of footballpredates his proficiency with statistics; he played football in high school, thenjoined a semi-pro league while in graduate school at the Universityof California-Santa Barbara.

At times on the field, Ozonoff’s analytical bent comes inhandy, when he must survey the defense right before the play starts and makesplit-second adjustments to the offensive line to protect the quarterback oropen holes in the defense for the running backs. The team’s 100-plus-pageplaybook, with its detailed diagrams, is ingrained in his brain the same waysurveillance methodology is — maybe even more indelibly. Ozonoff said he likesplaying center because it’s "mentally challenging."

"You have to be smart about being in the right position,making sure everyone’s in the right position, and be actively engaged in whatyou’re doing," he summed up.

Ozonoff, whose graduate training was in mathematics, joinedthe BU Department of Biostatistics in 2004 and has lent his statisticalexpertise to a wide range of public health research projects. His researchspecialty is public health surveillance, especially in the areas of influenzaand respiratory diseases. Among other projects, he collaborates with theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on improving disease detectioncapabilities, in the hopes of finding ways to provide early warnings ofoutbreaks.

Ozonoff said his interest in public health dates back to thedinner table of his childhood in Cambridge,when his mother, who worked for the state Department of Public Health, and hisfather, well-known BUSPH Environmental Health researcher David Ozonoff, engagedin spirited discussions about disease surveillance. As he pursued his owncareer as a researcher, he became fascinated by the seasonal patterns ofcertain diseases, such as influenza.

"It can be tough sometimes sitting at the computer,crunching numbers," he said. "But it can also be very satisfying when theresults of your work end up actually being useful to someone else and can makea positive difference to health outcomes."

Ozonoff has taught a number of courses in Biostatistics atBU and co-teaches a class in public health surveillance at Harvard. He said herarely resorts to football analogies in the classroom; "Separate lives, Iguess," he shrugged.

As an undergraduate at BU, Ozonoff rowed varsity crew whileobsessing about football. He said he had always dreamed of playing semi-proball after college, but thought his size would be an obstacle. At 6 feet, 215pounds, he is at the lighter end of the semi-pro roster.

After four seasons with the Santa Barbara Condors, Ozonoffjoined the Townies six years ago. Many of his teammates played college footballat Division 2 or 3 schools; the Townies’ team leader, Jon ‘Bucky’ Jones, is athree-time state Superbowl champion.

What he lacks in college experience, Ozonoff has tried tomake up for through grit and perseverance. He was a team captain in the 2005and 2006 seasons.

"We’ve had some guys on our team who played for BostonCollege or other big schools," hesaid. "There are a couple of guys in the league who were in the NFL. And thenthere’s guys like me who have never been standouts but who give it our all."

Giving his "all" has brought its share of pain; Ozonoffsuffered a serious hand injury this season and is still coping with theafter-effects of a December 2006 shoulder surgery. He has other surgeries inhis future, but says he hopes to postpone as many as possible, so as not tomiss any time on the field. He said injuries are par-for-the-course in semi-proball, where most players are in their 20s and 30s. Practices are held twice aweek, with games on Friday nights or Saturdays.

"You play a game and you’re pretty much out of action forthe next 36 hours, with ice and pain medication," Ozonoff said.

Ozonoff earned high praise from Townies’ coach Jack Coneeny,who said the starting center "works hard and has unique leadership abilitieswith the younger players. He has always worked hard to make up for the ‘can’tgain weight, no matter what I eat’ approach to diet."

Coneeny, an offensive lineman who has been with the Towniesfor over 20 years as a player and coach, said Ozonoff handled more than 500shotgun snaps this season without a fumble and faced down much bigger playerswithout flinching.

"Sometimes I look out on the field and see a 300-plus-poundnose tackle lined right up on him and I think, ‘How is Al going to block THATguy?" Coneeny said. "But he does it every time. Sometimes he may ask for alittle help with the big guys by yelling over to (team owners) Tony Natola andTom McGrath, who play on either side of him: ‘I need a chip over here!’"

To win the league championship, the Townies defeated theClinton (MA) Irish Blizzard, 34-14. The team went on to defeat the Troy (NY)Fighting Irish in the Harvest Bowl Tournament before losing to the ConnecticutGiants in late-November.

The Townies have a rich history; the team sports the townflag on its helmets and draws longtime fans to home games at the local highschool. For decades, the team has supported Charlestown Pop Warner football,coaching and mentoring local kids. Some Townies’ players and coaches came upthrough the Pop Warner league.

Coneeny said the Townies come from diverse backgrounds —two are lawyers, a few are high school teachers and others are "inner-city20-somethings" and "blue-collar guys." Players rarely talk about their jobswhen they are on the field; most of Ozonoff’s teammates "would not know what hedoes," the coach said.

"Clark Kentduring the day and Superman at night" is the analogy that Coneeny used todescribe Ozonoff, who wears glasses and a ponytail. "Well, he changes in theglasses for goggles."

Hunched over the computer in his CrosstownCenter office, Ozonoff looks everybit the devoted academic, engrossed in research projects and planning a newcourse — Quantitative Methods in Public Health Surveillance — that he hopesto launch in the fall.

But looks aren’t everything.

"I spend aninordinate amount of time pondering important statistical data — but that’sprobably about 10 percent of my brain power," Ozonoff said with a mischievoussmile. "The other 90 percent, it’s spent on football."

This story originally appeared in the BUSPH Insider.

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